Having enjoyed the Wild Isles series on TV recently, and inspired by an Instagram post by Shona Louise, I decided to go and see the BBC Earth Experience last week, as it sounded pretty cool and very accessible. So I bought a ticket and went along one afternoon, and I really liked it, because the visuals are incredible and the audio description was really helpful. So here’s my little review of it.
The attraction, just a short walk from Earl’s Court and West Brompton stations, primarily consists of a large room with gigantic floor-to-ceiling screens filling the walls, and a few tall screens in the centre as well, plus corridors leading off to other smaller rooms.
The big screens show stunning footage of wildlife from all of the different continents, taken from the programme Seven Worlds, One Planet. So there’s a lot of variety, shown in high definition with vivid colours, all accompanied by narration from David Attenborough (as if it could be anyone else). I didn’t record its duration but, judging by the timestamps of the photos I took throughout, the whole thing lasts around 45 minutes before it loops around again. And I was so absorbed that I watched the whole lot.
The lighting in the room also changes to reflect the environments in the footage (e.g. in a forest or underwater), so it feels very immersive. I couldn’t fully appreciate that aspect given my imperfect eyesight, but I was somewhat aware of it. And I didn’t notice the round bench in there at all at first, as it’s the same dark colour as the floor. So while the photos I took on my iPhone suggest the lighting is reasonable, and it probably is for people with full vision, my eyes never perfectly adjusted to it.
That said, however, there was still sufficient illumination, from the screens and the lights on the high ceiling, for me to get around safely. So I was able to see where people were seated on the floor as I entered, and thus found a free space on the carpet amongst them, which was comfortable enough. I did notice the bench later on, during moments of bright footage that lit up the room more clearly, but I didn’t feel any need to move by that point, I was happy where I was. And when walking around the room, I wasn’t worried about tripping over anyone, as I could see them well enough, even if not in detail.
At the back of the room there’s also a staircase leading to a large screen showing vistas of different landscapes. So if you stand close enough (as close as the railing will let you anyway) it can feel a bit like you’re flying slowly over those environments. And if you turn left from there, you can go to a balcony overlooking the main floor, which gives a nice alternative perspective of the big screens. It is also possible to get up there using a lift, which is off the side of the Water Life corridor shown later in this post.
Back on the ground floor, and there are corridors either side of the stairs leading to a couple of smaller rooms. And those corridors have coloured strip lighting along the bottom edges of the walls to make them easy to spot.
One room has a few screens showing images of underwater creatures, while the other has screens all over the walls and suspended from the ceiling with images of bugs and insects. And that latter room also has a second corridor leading to a darker space where you can press a big button, if you dare, to see spiders and other scary creepy crawlies on a big screen. I did it and was fine with it, but I can see why they’ve tucked it away and put a big “Enter if you dare” warning on the wall so that people don’t stumble upon it by accident.
Finally, at the opposite end of the room (on the other side of the screen to where you came in), there’s an exit corridor that takes you past a few photos of David Attenborough and BBC Earth film crews, and into a small dark room, where you see the Earth rotating in a starry sky above you. Here David’s closing narration reminds us of the importance of looking after the planet, for the benefit of all, before you leave through the exit to the gift shop.
So it all looks amazing, and I found the audio description really came in useful throughout the experience as well. When you ask for the audio described guide at reception, you’re given a map of the experience, in which each area is colour-coded, and a headset, which has a large coloured symbol lit up on each earpiece. So you tap a button below one of the earpieces to switch between the different tracks, until the colour on the earpiece matches the colour for the area you’re in on the map.
The audio is automatically synced to the screens you’re watching, and the lady describes the visuals very nicely. She can’t describe absolutely everything, as there’s a lot going on and the various screens around you are showing slightly different things, but she tells you about all the important stuff. There are a couple of occasions where she talks over what David is saying, but that wasn’t a major issue, as her descriptions were helpful anyway.
The earpieces are padded, which means they’re very comfortable, but they also dampen the sound around you a bit as well. So I angled the headset to keep one ear uncovered, and just used the other ear to listen to the audio description, which actually worked very well. And occasionally I took the headset off altogether for a few moments, to immerse myself in the full soundscape around me, because that’s just as impressive as the visuals.
Beyond audio description, there are various other ways they’re trying to make the experience accessible and welcoming as well, including relaxed performances, sensory backpacks, a chill out space, digital transcripts, an audio enhancement system, step-free access, lifts, free personal assistance tickets, and of course assistance dogs are welcome. Check out their access page for all the info.
The staff member I spoke to about the audio description guide was certainly very friendly and helpful, so I felt very welcome. And the signage was generally pretty clear, although it wasn’t obvious to me which toilets were for the gents, unless I missed something obvious, so I had to be careful to be sure I was entering the right ones!
All in all, therefore, I really enjoyed my visit. The website suggests the experience will take you about an hour to go through, and that’s pretty accurate really, if you watch the main feature for up to 45 minutes and then spend roughly 15 minutes in the smaller rooms. And I took my time, so I was in there for about an hour and a half altogether.
So it’s not very long in the grand scheme of things, and I appreciate the £19 ticket price may put some people off (though there are some concessions, including the free PA ticket for disabled people). But I personally felt it was worth it. It’s very cool to be able to see nature up close on massive screens like that, especially when you’re visually impaired and need things enlarged anyway, and the audio description ensured that I understood what I was looking at and got the most out of it. So I can recommend checking it out.