Tribute to BBC Natural History Unit: Bristol’s Natural Wonder

It all started with an 18-minute black-and-white film. Woodpeckers, made in 1955 by German director Heinz Sielmann, caused a sensation - audiences jammed the BBC switchboard to express their delight. Today it sounds run-of-the-mill, but 43 years ago, viewers were astonished...
January 1, 1998

It all started with an 18-minute black-and-white film. Woodpeckers, made in 1955 by German director Heinz Sielmann, caused a sensation – audiences jammed the BBC switchboard to express their delight. Today it sounds run-of-the-mill, but 43 years ago, viewers were astonished to see close-ups of birds inside their own nests.

The BBC’s Natural History Unit is now the world’s premier producer of wildlife programming, its material a crucial ingredient in tv schedules everywhere. From polar bears to pandas, whales to wildebeests, kangaroos to cockatoos, the unit’s audacious and ingenious filmmakers have brought nature’s most private and secret moments into people’s homes across the globe. In doing so, they have revolutionized the documentary maker’s art.

Nowadays the sprawling, hilly dockyard city of Bristol, home to the nhu since its formation in 1957, is as famous for exporting tv documentaries as it was in previous centuries for trading in wine, tobacco and slaves. NHU projects generate in excess of US$20 million annually in licensing and coproduction deals, making it the BBC’s most profitable overseas seller.

Two hours west of London, this green Hollywood employs 200 people, with more than 120 actively involved in program production. Last year, the NHU made 70 hours of tv and 100 hours of radio.

The centre’s roots can be traced back to 1946 and a trailblazing radio program, The Naturalist. The creator, features producer Desmond Hawkins, was the founding father of the nhu. Encouraged by Woodpeckers’ success, Hawkins was determined to move into wildlife television.

Five years after the nhu formed, Hawkins spelt out the ethos behind his fledgling outfit in a memo to the BBC board of management. ‘The spirit of scientific inquiry must have pride of place,’ he wrote. ‘In handling this subject, we expose ourselves to the critical scrutiny of scientists, and their approval is an important endorsement.

‘Moreover, it is their work that throws up the ideas and instances and controversies from which programs are made. We look to them as contributors, as source material, as consultants and as elite opinion on our efforts. In short, we need their goodwill.’

More than three decades later, these ideals remain at the heart of the unit’s purpose, according to Chris Parsons, one of the elder statesmen of the nhu. ‘Programs must have scientific credibility. They may be wonderful popular shows, but they must be able to be shown in a university zoology department and not be sniggered at,’ he says. ‘We depend on those people to get us into the cutting edge of natural history research.’

THE 1950s

‘Woodpeckers was 20 years ahead of its time,’ Parsons notes. ‘Sielmann was the first person to use infrared photography and conditioned lighting to get inside the nest of the nesting bird.’

The film’s success helped to inspire British tv’s first wildlife series, Look, in 1955. The very first program gave viewers a glimpse of the nocturnal world of the fox. Presented by naturalist Peter Scott, the series firmly established the BBC’s filmmakers as innovators of wildlife tv. Eventually axed in 1969, Look’s observational style helped lay the foundations for ‘blue-chip’ natural history films, of which the unit’s recent six Wildlife Specials, commissioned to celebrate the NHU’s 40th anniversary, are the latest in a long line of acclaimed programming.

Another style of wildlife filmmaking pioneered in Bristol, and still very much in evidence today, was the presenter-led series: On Safari fronted by husband-and-wife team Armand and Michaela Denis. Launched by the BBC in 1957, On Safari ran until the mid-60s, helped no doubt by Michaela’s obvious glamour.

The second half of the 50s also established the Denis’ aquatic counterparts, German naturalists and divers Hans and Lotte Hass. Their intrepid underwater films, most notably The Underwater World Of Adventure, added to Bristol’s growing reputation. The couple’s films were dubbed for English and German audiences, but they proved more popular in Britain. ‘It appealed to the British sense of adventure,’ Hans once said.

‘We were leading the way, although we were influenced by people like Hans Hass, Armand Denis and Jacques Cousteau,’ recalls Parsons. ‘Other people were doing similar things. There was mgm’s documentary section and Jim Murray’s unit in Toronto at cbc, but I think it’s true to say that we were the pioneers in forming a specialist unit within a broadcaster environment. When Australia’s abc set up their own wildlife unit they based it on Bristol.’

THE 1960s

Natural history was a well-established part of tv schedules in the U.K. and North America by the 60s. But two factors during this decade of huge social change helped ensure the bbc would remain at the forefront of wildlife documentary making.

One was the launch of Britain’s first color service on the Corporation’s experimental channel, BBC2, in July 1967. The other was the related decision by the network’s then controller, David Attenborough, to commission The World About Us to fully exploit the new medium which he had fought so strenuously to introduce.

‘There was a heck of a lot of color films that hadn’t been seen in color,’ Attenborough remembers. ‘The press was skeptical, but from the beginning the standard of our color service was high. Having color was a real breakthrough for natural history programs.

‘I remember the very first edition of The World About Us was about volcanoes. For the first time viewers were able to see the color of volcano lava.

‘The World About Us was also a departure because, at that time, 50-minute documentaries were virtually unheard of. Nobody thought audiences would sit down and watch anything longer than 30 minutes, but of course they did.’

The NHU’s The Private Life of the Kingfisher, made by Ron Eastman and shown in 1966, had shown the potential of color photography when applied to wildlife subjects; The World About Us, which ran for nearly 20 years, operated on an infinitely broader canvas.

In keeping with Hawkins’ conviction that the NHU’s films must win approval from wildlife buffs, The World About Us initially used film from amateur sources. However, budget increases enabled the series to undertake ambitious geographical explorations using professional documentary makers. One high spot was a 2,000 mile trip by hovercraft up the Amazon and Orinoco for The Last Great Journey On Earth.

THE 1970s

The arrival of color at the Corporation’s flagship network, BBC1, in 1969, paved the way for the launch of Wildlife On One eight years later. Despite initial reservations from the bbc hierarchy, the series proved a big success with viewers and is still thriving 20 years later.

Yet, at the turn of the decade, Bristol had still not fully emerged from the shadow of the BBC’s main documentary-making centre in London. ‘The NHU was rather a poor cousin when I went down there in the early 70s,’ remembers Mick Rhodes, who ran the nhu during this crucial period in its development. ‘The budgets were small and the technology was pretty rough. They were still using wind-up Bolex cameras.’

Rhodes helped revolutionize NHU output. He invented Wildlife On One and was also behind Badgerwatch, the first of the live ‘watches’. ‘I remember the BBC1 controller said, ‘Let’s put it right at the end of the evening because it doesn’t matter if no one watches it,” Rhodes recalls.

In fact Badgerwatch, shown nightly before closedown, was a huge hit. Using infrared cameras, developed from military technology, the series beamed live pictures of badgers into millions of homes.

Two years later, the nhu upped the ante still further with the first of its internationally acclaimed blockbusters, the 13-part Life On Earth, written and narrated by David Attenborough. It was the most ambitious project yet undertaken by the department, and so successful that it led to two sequels, The Living Planet (1984) and The Trials Of Life (1990). Unlike the situation at the beginning of the decade, the unit was now using the most technologically sophisticated techniques available.

These included microphotography, time-lapse photography and photography at 3,000 frames a second. The days when hot-water bottles had to be wrapped round a temperamental camera to make it work were long gone.

THE 1980s

More advances were in the pipeline – most notably the techniques used for Supersense (1988), which gave audiences the illusion they were flying with birds and eavesdropping on the hidden sensory world of animals.

Filmmaker John Downer had first used the technique of ‘imprinting’ young birds to follow camera platforms on trucks and parachutes in an award-winning Wildlife On One program, In-Flight Movie (1987). This approach was refined for the six-part Supersense, which won one of the highest-ever audiences for a documentary in the U.K. and the fourth biggest-selling NHU series ever.

‘A lot of different techniques we pioneered on Supersense have now become part of the armory of wildlife filmmaking,’ Downer explains. ‘I reared a duck for the series. It literally went everywhere with me, in the car, to the office.

‘Yet when it came to filming it 200 feet up in the mountains of Wales, I had no idea what would happen when I released it from my parachute. But it flew alongside me, 18 inches away from my face. It was an amazing experience. I did 20 flights like that.’

THE 1990s

The 90s have been possibly the nhu’s most successful decade to date. Fears that the growing global demand for wildlife films, sparked by new delivery systems, would lead to a diminution in quality have so far proved unfounded. If anything, the range of subject matter the unit is prepared to tackle has grown, thanks to increased investment (now around US$32 million a year) from the BBC prompted by the Corp.’s growing commercial awareness. The Private Life Of Plants, another Attenborough tour de force, proved observing these apparently inanimate organisms through time-lapse cameras can be as enthralling as watching a lion hunt.

A new willingness to experiment with fresh formats, including the documentary soap in such series as Big Cat Diary, was also evident as the millennium approached.

Life In The Freezer (1993), made by the unit’s present head Alastair Fothergill, braved the freezing wastes of Antarctica, Earth’s last great wilderness. In order to secure pictures of emperor penguins, cameraman Stephen Devere spent ten months coping with sub-zero temperatures in the Antarctic winter.

‘Once you’re there, there is no way out until the temperature starts to rise,’ says Fothergill. ‘We thought we’d given Stephen everything he needed to do the job, including every single spare. But the drive belt of his camera froze. He solved the problem by removing the belt from a computer printer and remaking it. That way he got the camera working again.’

In this Report:
-Bristol’s Natural Wonder
-BBC NHU’s Bestsellers Overseas

About The Author
Managing editor with realscreen publication, an international print and online magazine that covers the non-fiction film and television industries. Darah is an award-winning journalist who has spent over two decades covering a wide range of issues from real estate and urban development to immigration, politics and human rights, primarily with The Vancouver Sun. Prior to joining realscreen, she was editor of Stream Daily, realscreen's sister publication covering the dynamic global digital video industry. She also served a stint as a war reporter in Afghanistan for television and print, and was a national business blogger with Yahoo Canada.