Wednesday, 26 March 2008

Jacques Cousteau in a box

The pioneering work of undersea explorer and environmentalist Jacques Cousteau, newly available on DVD, is as fascinating as ever to modern viewers, says Simon Reeve

Jacques Cousteau was the towering figure of marine exploration, a man whose adventures - circling the globe at least 15 times - make my own trips, most recently travelling around the Tropic of Capricorn and the Equator, feel positively mundane by comparison.

Jacques Cousteau
Jacques of all trades: Cousteau

More than anyone else in history, he introduced us to the beautiful and mysterious world beneath the surface of our oceans, co-inventing the Aqualung during the Second World War and then making award-winning films and scores of underwater documentaries for American and global television.

During his long career Cousteau, who died in 1997, was rightly recognised as a pioneer. After his friend and patron Thomas Loel Guinness gave him a former Royal Navy minesweeper in 1951, Cousteau spent nearly five decades sailing the oceans, making Calypso the most famous small boat in the world.

Cousteau turned Calypso into a floating laboratory, complete with a film-editing suite, and aboard it made the first full-length underwater film, the 1956 Oscar-winning epic The Silent World. He published more than 40 books, including a 20-volume encyclopaedia called The Ocean World of Jacques Cousteau, and became one of the first global environmental stars, warning that humans were poisoning the planet.

So it is a fascinating treat, and a professional education, to watch the great man's later adventures on a new DVD box set featuring his documentaries on New Zealand, Tahiti, Haiti, Cuba and Cape Horn. He easily holds his own among the best television travellers, but even against the modern brilliance of Planet Earth the films stand up well.

Inevitably there are wobbly shots and dodgy angles. Cousteau had to make do without the full enhancing and grading capabilities of modern editing suites, and as a result much of the underwater footage appears visually dull and lacking in colour. Nevertheless, many of the images are still breathtaking, and rank alongside the finest modern natural history camerawork. The films feel real, genuine, like polished vinyl next to the CD-quality of recent wildlife films.

It is hard to imagine a major US network commissioning these programmes today - and more's the pity. The films have only the briefest of nods to dramatic tension, ponderous scripts, and a small, stooped Frenchman with bad teeth as the central presenter. Cousteau is also old and wise, both traits considered unattractive in our youth-obsessed world.

But Cousteau understood his medium and recognised the need for gimmickry. He used all manner of gadgets in his films, kept a red woollen hat on his head at a jaunty angle, and forced his crew to wear eye-catching silvery diving outfits underwater. They look like a cross between Flash Gordon and Woody Allen in Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex.

Since Cousteau's death in 1997, his legacy has taken a few knocks. Allegations of anti-Semitism and mistreatment of wildlife during his early films have dented his reputation. But claims by bitter relatives that he was overly ambitious and arrogant, repeated in endless press profiles, cannot obscure the man's extraordinary achievements or the value of his timeless films.

As a documentary-maker, I particularly admire the fact that Cousteau does not commit the grave sin of focusing exclusively on glossy wildlife footage without giving the surrounding context.

For decades, even the finest natural history filmmakers have made wonderful films about concentrated groups of creatures living in small patches of wilderness, while ignoring surrounding deforestation and framing their shots to exclude the tourist coach party on safari. So we have watched in awe, but without learning of threats to the creature or the reality of their sanctuary.

Cousteau was approaching the end of his career when he made the films featured in this box set, and his formula had evolved. Less than half of the episode about Haiti is set underwater; the rest of the programme is an exploration of Haiti and an explanation of how precious land and marine resources have been systematically devastated.

In Cuba, Cousteau chats with Fidel Castro in various locations, and the footage is woven through the film. The US base at Guantanamo Bay even makes an appearance, with Cousteau questioning the base commander about whether a US presence on the island "whoo-milliates Cuba".

Viewers young and old who would never normally watch anything on Caribbean politics are gently introduced to issues that still resonate today, more than 20 years later.

In some small way, this is what the BBC and I have tried to do with our series Tropic of Capricorn. My latest adventure, following the southern border of the tropics, is an attempt to introduce television viewers to the delights and tragedies of obscure parts of the world.

Cousteau remains the master of the craft. His enthusiasm is contagious. I have long been happy on the ocean surface, sinking no further than the limitations of snorkelling allow. But after several hours watching Cousteau and his crew exploring the great blue depths, I will now be swapping my snorkel for a scuba tank, and learning how to dive.

  • Simon Reeve presents Tropic of Capricorn on BBC2, Sunday nights at 8pm, repeated on Thursday nights at 11.20pm. His accompanying book, Tropic of Capricorn, is published by BBC Books. Jacques Cousteau: New Zealand, Tahiti, Cuba & Cape Horn, the DVD box set, is released on March 10

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