When I became controller of BBC Two in 1965, I naturally wanted to indulge my own passion for natural history. When BBC launched colour tv in Britain, I could think of no subject better suited to showing off the new technology. I commissioned from the NHU The World About Us, initially a series of 26x50 minute programmes that turned into a long-running strand, and helped to establish a global reputation for the unit. Bristol also produced Life, a magazine programme that covered natural history news stories. Productions like these, building on the foundation of its existing BBC One output, secured the future of the unit and bound natural history production ever more closely with its Bristol roots.
David Attenborough outside a cave entrance during filming of Life on Earth
(Image from WildFilmHistory)
At BBC Two, I also launched a style of documentary which would now be described as the ‘landmark’ series, taking a big subject and devoting 13 onehour programmes to it. The first of these was Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation, followed by Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man. An obvious contender for the same treatment had to be the history of all life on earth, but that was a subject I hankered after tackling myself. As soon as I resigned from my management job, I suggested the idea to one of the most experienced producers at the NHU, Chris Parsons, who would later himself head the unit. This was without doubt at the time the most ambitious series to be produced in Bristol. We started work on it in the mid-1970s, and the ground-breaking Life on Earth was transmitted in 1979 to huge audiences, selling around the globe so that eventually it was estimated that 500m people watched it. There is a great deal of trial and error in producing natural history programmes, and the people who make them have built up extraordinary levels of knowledge and expertise. Waiting patiently week after week in freezing temperatures for a snow leopard to creep across a mountainside, or understanding precisely when and how to film the annual hatch of turtles on a starlit beach, requires special skills. So too does the post- production of natural history series, and once a commissioning momentum was established, over the years the NHU in Bristol attracted many satellite businesses and freelancers. The city has accumulated a unique set of trades and talents.
Cultural identity At the same time the cultural life of Bristol has benefited from the existence of the NHU. The world’s first wildlife film festival, Wildscreen, was held in the city, attracting visitors from all over the world. The University of Bristol would probably tell you that its zoology department gains greatly from the fact that the best natural history television unit in the world is within walking distance, and a close and symbiotic relationship has sprung up between the two. Producers and academics drink in the same pubs and exchange ideas, and many a promising young graduate has found employment at BBC Bristol. It may have been historical accident that the NHU was founded in Bristol, rather than London, but instinct tells me that when Desmond Hawkins produced the first natural history radio programmes there in 1946, he already saw far further than the wildlife that was on his West Country doorstep. Natural history programme making has become as much a part of Bristol’s cultural identity as seafaring or the wine trade. The skills it takes to make such programmes are now woven into the fabric of the city, and long may it remain so.
Read David Attenborough’s full article and the other Made in the UK online essays at the BBC