David Attenborough: Bristol and Wildlife TV - more than an accident of History.

From: Made in the UK online essays at the BBC
(Image from Aerial online)

THE NATURAL history unit in Bristol is a rare constant in an evolving broadcast world. Whereas other specialist centres of excellence have come and gone, the NHU has always been there, or so it seems. What happy combination of circumstances and talents made Bristol the ideal habitat for the unit, enabling it to grow into the most enduringly successful out-of- London production department in the history of the BBC?
You might argue that there has always been a strong interest in natural history in the West Country, and a long tradition there of self-educated, amateur naturalists. But the truth is that the NHU would not exist in Bristol, had it not been for the enthusiasm and passion of one man, and his belief in the public service ideals of the BBC. Desmond Hawkins was not himself a trained naturalist, nor a West Countryman. He moved as a radio producer to the BBC in Bristol after WW2 and started natural history production in Bristol with radio programmes such as The Naturalist and Birds In Britain, long before the arrival of television in the area. As a boy, I listened to those programmes, and I dare say my own passion was stoked by them.
Desmond Hawkins interviewing Sir Peter Scott
(Image from WildFilmHistory)
Global reputation In 1952 I began my career with the BBC in London, at the tv talks department in Alexandra Palace. I worked on anything from political broadcasts to archaeological quizzes. But before long I launched Zoo Quest, a series which took me all over the world and helped to determine the future course of my life. Meanwhile, in Bristol, Desmond Hawkins had decided that as soon as it was physically possible to make television programmes in the West Country, his team of natural history specialists would show these upstarts in London how it was really done. Hardly was Zoo Quest on the air in 1954 than Desmond had decided to launch his own series Look, with Peter Scott, whose bird sanctuary at Slimbridge was only 20 miles away. The fact that there was still no actual tv studio in the city, or for that matter any transmitter or tv sets in the region, did not deter him. He brought in an outside broadcast unit, ran cables and cameras into the large radio studio and piped the programme by landline up to London. So natural history tv programmes were being made in Bristol even before anyone in the region could watch them. Enthusiasm is infectious, and Desmond gathered about him a core of people whose passion for natural history equalled his own, so that by 1957 it was officially recognised as a production specialism in Bristol, and he set up the NHU proper there.
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

1 comment:

  1. Isaac McCardle10:34 AM

    Well said David! I'm a 22 year old student with an ambition to become a wildlife film maker and am very fortunate to live and study in Bristol. I love it, I just hope that the NHU stays here for years to come.