Partridge Films: Charting 25 Years

Nineteen seventy four was a significant year for many reasons. Some may remember it as the year the U.S. witnessed the resignation of President Richard Nixon, while others might remember it as the year jazz great Duke Ellington died. For Michael...
August 1, 1999

Nineteen seventy four was a significant year for many reasons. Some may remember it as the year the U.S. witnessed the resignation of President Richard Nixon, while others might remember it as the year jazz great Duke Ellington died. For Michael Rosenberg, founder and director of programs at Bristol-based Partridge Films, 1974 denotes something far more personal. It was the year that Partridge officially came into existence – after a series of previous incarnations – on a small street in London aptly named Peartree Court. What started out 25 years ago as the dream of one man with a passion for wildlife has, by all accounts, become one of the world’s most prolific and respected natural history producers.


For a man at the head of an established natural history production company such as Partridge Films, Michael Rosenberg’s early curriculum vitae should have guaranteed a successful career in anything but natural history. University schooling in chemical engineering and photographic technology were early attempts to try and get what most people would deem a ‘proper job.’ But that wasn’t what Rosenberg had in mind. ‘I had decided that the one thing that I wasn’t going to do was get `a job,” he says. ‘I should have been a doctor or lawyer and worked from 9-5 and been a respectable citizen, which to me was a sort of living death. I wanted to find something that I was interested in that I could do, learn about what I know about, and earn some money in order to keep on going.’

A passion for wildlife instilled in Rosenberg from an early age by parents who owned a farm near South Africa’s Kruger National Park meant that Rosenberg’s choice of profession was a natural one, even if not the most apparent. ‘I had watched my late father battling away…doing things he didn’t like, with people he didn’t like, so that he could rush off at the weekend and take a shot at the things he loved. And I thought `That’s the wrong way around and I’m going to be just the other way round. I’m going to find the people I like – people who are specialists in zoology, biology or whatever and are passionate about their subject.” He adds, ‘I still don’t know whether it works or not but here I am, 30 years later.’

It is this passion for the work that has led Partridge to the enviable position of being among the top natural history producers worldwide. With over 30 hours of new programming produced annually, a library that boasts over 3,500 hours, and the recent bestowal of the prestigious Queens Award for Export Achievement (see Sidebar), Partridge’s place in the competitive and growing world of natural history is stronger than ever.


Despite current achievements, the road to success has not been an easy one for the company. Partridge got off to an admittedly bumpy start in its early days, something that Rosenberg blames on his inability to successfully mix the creative and financial sides of the business. ‘I was always much more determined to make good films than to make money, and as a result I nearly wiped us out,’ he readily admits. Those early films include blue-chips such as Seasons of the Sea, a one-hour examining the life cycles of California’s underwater kelp forests, and Amate – The Great Fig Tree, a one-hour look at the Belizean tree and the many creatures living within it, for which Partridge garnered awards such as the 1991 Golden Panda and the 1982 Scientific Award, both at Wildscreen. It was largely due to the strength of such films that Partridge continued to earn awards and critical praise, despite its financial difficulties.

Enter Mark Broughton, managing director at Partridge and United Wildlife, and the man whom Rosenberg largely credits for turning the company around. ‘He came along [in 1992] and was determined that we should succeed and so we started a really good team, where we didn’t get in each other’s way at all – he didn’t teach me how to make films and I didn’t teach him how to run the finances.’

Broughton agrees that 1992 was the beginning of ‘not only a close working relationship, but a very close friendship,’ and credits the HTV Group (a subsidiary of media conglomerate United News & Media), which took over a majority stake in the company the same year despite suffering from financial difficulties of their own, as another factor instrumental in turning Partridge around. ‘From 1994, when [HTV] had solved their problems, they provided two things [to Partridge]: one was that they put financing into Partridge to enable us to take bigger stakes in our own programs…. And secondly, and particularly as Harvest [Entertainment, the rights division of HTV] emerged, they provided a very positive and constructive environment, which is very important for a production business.’

Partridge’s luck improved once again in 1997, when the company was taken over by United New & Media, a US$5 billion group that, in the same year, was listed in Variety as number 22 out of the top 50 media corporations worldwide. United Broadcasting & Entertainment, a division of UNM, owns (among other entities), three regional ITV broadcasters and a 29% stake in Channel 5. As part of UNM, Partridge now falls directly under the banner of United Wildlife with sister natural history producer, Survival, which was already owned by UNM at the time of the merger. (See organizational Sidebar for more information). The two entities have their own creative heads and separate production units, allowing them to operate independently under the United Wildlife umbrella. This link has proven invaluable to Partridge, as Mark Strickson, head of presenter-led programs at Partridge explains: ‘An important thing that has happened to Partridge is that we are now part of United and therefore we have the opportunity to produce a greater volume of programming because we have a market which we never did. We’re directly linked now to TV stations within the U.K. We’ve never had a direct link to a broadcaster before.’


Successful alliances and a knack for hiring the right people were far from the only tools Partridge employed in order to flourish. Both Rosenberg and Broughton realized in the early to mid ’90s that in order to become profitable the company would have to expand beyond what had been its forte up to that point: traditional, blue-chip, one-hour natural history programs (with budget ranges at between £400,000 to £500,000 an hour). The company now counts presenter-led programs, children’s series and magazine-style shows among its repertoire of natural history.

Strickson explains that the genre expansion stemmed partly from a need to grow the company, but also from a desire to give audiences what they wanted. ‘What we tried to do is listen to what people wanted and look at what was happening in other genres of television,’ he says. ‘When a show like Changing Rooms [a BBC show about home renovation] is getting ten million viewers and a natural history film is getting six million viewers, perhaps there’s something else we could do to reach the primetime audience. And that’s what we did. We sat down and said, `What is working? What is getting big audiences?’ We didn’t do this because we just wanted a big audience, we did it because we wanted to communicate with people important ideas about the environment and we felt that we weren’t achieving that as well as we could do.’

On Partridge’s agenda for the future is expansion into United’s different divisions – ones which include children’s, wildlife and light entertainment. Or, as Lekes puts it: ‘What we are now keen to do is look at how we can work within our parent company…and find cross-over genres.’ Potentials include wildlife drama series and docu-soap formats.

Also of help to Partridge – a company that went from producing seven or eight one-hour blue-chips in the early ’90s to over 30 hours in 1998 – was a key resource overlooked in earlier years: their footage library. Housing shots of everything from lemurs to lizards, the library has become one of Partridge’s most important assets, according to Broughton. ‘The focus of the company in 1992 and 1993 had been making the one-hour specials and accumulating the footage library, which at that stage was about 2,500 hours. And people were using it very little. Clearly this was an important asset and more than anything it was a function of time – we didn’t have time to focus on it and didn’t really know how and where to exploit it. From 1993 to early 1994 we did focus on it and made a concerted effort to develop it.’

All of the company’s new formats have benefited from the use of the library, including Partridge’s most well-known children’s series, Amazing Animals. The series, a copro between Partridge and international publishing company Dorling Kindersley, is 13 half-hours starring a 3-D animated lizard named Henry. Airing on the Disney Channel in the U.S. and 60 other territories worldwide, Amazing Animals was nominated for a Best Pre-School series Emmy in 1998 and has garnered a score of other awards. According to head of children’s series Michael Lekes, Amazing Animals ‘is our flagship children’s series. It’s been the most successful series both in terms of ratings and award nominations. And also in terms of the response that we’ve had from the market.’

Amazing Animals educates children about animals by combining computer-generated graphics, studio footage and library footage – the final key ingredient. But for Partridge, the library – with its treasure trove of natural history from around the world – has been successful not only because of its sheer size but also because of how the footage itself is used. Explains Andrew Buchanan, head of development at Partridge and UW: ‘We haven’t invented the Holy Grail or are doing anything particularly new. Anybody who has a wildlife archive of a reasonable size, as far as I’m aware, is using it in similar ways to the way we are. We believe by doing a broad range of productions and by involving 3-D computer generated lizards, we’re providing originality within our library. And that’s really what it is. It’s about using the library but using it in an original way.’

As most natural history producers know, success also means nurturing lasting relationships with international broadcasters and coproduction partners – something Broughton readily admits was another key to Partridge’s long-term growth. ‘What we did [starting in 1992] and continued doing was expand the portfolio of programs produced, as well as work with a range of different partners – that includes not just the traditional broadcast partners of PBS, Nat Geo, Discovery and, here in the U.K., the BBC and ITV – but we started working with video partners as well, so we did business with Reader’s Digest, Time Life, etc.’

Although Partridge’s ‘preferred’ distributor is ITEL, they also work with Gloucestershire-based Adams Wooding, Washington’s Devillier Donegan and London’s Explore International, among others. The strength of those relationships and Partridge’s well-earned reputation are evident when talking to copro partners such as Devillier Donegan, who along with distributing Partridge’s Hidden World series – 4 x 60-minutes which explores remote locations around the world – are also copro partners on the project. Says Greg Diefenbach, VP of program development at DDE: ‘The reality is that Partridge Films are such veterans and Michael Rosenberg has such a reputation, that when you come into the marketplace and you say, `Partridge is making a film,’ the buyers sit up and pay close attention.’

It is this reputation that stood Partridge in good stead when recent alliances, which teamed the BBC’s Natural History Unit with Discovery and Nat Geo with News Corp and Carlton, were announced – moves that Broughton admits evoked ‘concern in the independent sector…when they first emerged.’ According to Rosenberg, however, the alliances had little effect on the output Partridge already produced for the broadcasters involved. ‘Partridge has long ago got its reputation for being able to make shows that other people couldn’t make,’ he explains. ‘If you look at the volume that Discovery puts out, the kind of volume that Partridge produces is not even a drop in the ocean, so they will still take shows from us if they feel they are interesting or good.’


Partridge’s achievements ultimately stem from the quality of their programming, their quest for scientific accuracy and their willingness to not only adapt to the changing marketplace but give broadcasters and audiences what they want. Rosenberg’s ongoing collaborations with acclaimed natural history cameramen such as Hugo Van Lawick, Phil Agland, Howard Hall and Tim Liversedge, as well as his skill at bringing new talent into the company, hasn’t hurt either. Neither have smart business moves, such as retaining rights to more than 80% of their programs. Moving away from `work for hire’ into a position which enables Partridge to deficit finance means, as Broughton puts it, ‘we’re usually able to negotiate good rights positions. And that’s what we’ve been successful doing, and of course that feeds the catalog business. Both Partridge and Survival have very large programming catalogs which we are constantly licensing.’

For his part, Rosenberg is known to be a stickler for accuracy, even going so far as to view rushes of films that are still being shot and sending detailed notes to the crew in the field on how to do it better. ‘I have been known to send people telegrams saying `We’ve seen your rushes and it’s a shame you lost your white stick. What about the dog?’ – to be very seriously sarcastic and rude,’ laughs Rosenberg, whose favorite location is Botswana’s Okavango Delta. ‘I have a unique office for an executive producer in that I have a Beta player on my desk and a widescreen television, so I view most of everything that we get. And in my original background I did a lot of studying for what was called photographic technology, so I can’t be bamboozled by the science. I know an out-of-focus, crap shot when I see one.’

It’s this commitment to quality that keeps the broadcasters coming back for more. Fred Kaufman, executive producer at pbs’ long running WNET strand Nature has been working with Partridge since the program debuted in 1982. He agrees that it’s Rosenberg’s personal attention to the work that has made their relationship so fruitful. ‘The wonderful quality about Michael Rosenberg is he takes all of this very personally,’ explains Kaufman. ‘He views all of his films as very much a part of him and, therefore, he goes to extraordinary lengths to ensure that you’re pleased with it and it’s the highest quality show he can possibly make for you.’

‘The editorial enthusiasm of Michael and his team has been something which has always been a source of admiration from those who have worked with them,’ says Keenan Smart, head of Nat Geo’s Natural History Unit, who cites an upcoming project called Yellowstone Wolves (w/t) which Nat Geo is executive producing with Partridge as one recent example of their work together.

‘Michael is absolutely accessible,’ adds Maureen Lemire, executive producer, Discovery Channel primetime production. ‘He loves discussing possible ideas with us and seeing what our needs and interests are at any particular time, and how he can work with us on making programs that are perfectly suited to our broadcast.’ Partridge has, according to Lemire, provided Discovery with some of its most popular and highest rated programs, including Crocs Down Under and The Ten Deadliest Snakes, both with presenter Steve Irwin.

It is Partridge’s presenter-led series, hosted by Irwin and Jules Sylvester, among others, that are prime examples of the commitment to accuracy Partridge brings to all its programs. ‘If you look at the Steve Irwin one-hours we did for Discovery,’ describes Buchanan, ‘you’ll find that there’s actually some extremely detailed reptile behavior in those. It’s just that instead of having a hour of unadulterated reptile behavior, you’ve got Steve Irwin explaining it to you…. Now, it’s explained in Steve’s inimitable style, but in there is all the science you’d get, and just as accurate, from a blue-chip BBC Natural World program on snakes.’

Another example comes with the children’s series, Animal Alphabet, a 26 x 2.5-minute series broadcast on Channel 4 and Discovery Latin America, among others, which teaches pre-school children the letters of the alphabet while educating them about animals. Not only were versions of the series made in six different languages, including German, Spanish and Portuguese, but producers went to great lengths to apply, in the words of Buchanan, ‘the correct scientific definition of an insect, [for example], written in verse in words that a two-and-a-half-year-old can understand…’ He adds, ‘In many ways, because we were determined to apply the same standard of scientific accuracy to the new formats as Michael and Partridge had always done with the blue-chips, it reassured people.’ Buchanan estimates that at any given time Partridge has approximately 50 projects in various stages of development.


When asked what a good natural history program should be able to communicate to the viewer, Rosenberg is at once confident and concerned: ‘A sense of wonder about what’s there and really no more than that,’ he says. ‘You should be involved emotionally and care about what’s happening. A documentary will appeal to your intellect, while a proper movie will appeal to your feelings. Everybody already knows what we ought to be doing to save this planet and stop it from being poisoned and polluted, but we know it with our brains and not with our hearts, and so we don’t do anything about it.’

This need to communicate a conservation message to viewers and to do something about the continued extinction of many of the world’s species is what makes Rosenberg and Partridge stand out in a field more often concerned with the quantity of output and not the quality of programming.

One such example is a 1976 project in which Rosenberg teamed up with Richard Foster, an ex-cameraman who was anxious to get back into the field. Rosenberg saw his potential and brought him in to film a series of Partridge projects based in Belize – projects, including Path of the Rain God, which ultimately resulted in the establishment of a national park there. Explains Rosenberg, ‘One of the things about all of Central and South America is that most of the mammal life, if it stops long enough for you to film it, somebody will shoot it, so we had to do a certain amount of this under controlled conditions and then we ended up with a collection of animals. We were very reluctant to go wandering around saying, `Thank you very much for your role in our film’ and then bang in the ear, so we kept them.’

The films were eventually shown to local residents and government and at one point were required viewing for anyone who wanted to become a Cabinet minister in Belize. A similar situation occurred in Cameroon in Africa while Partridge was filming Korup – An African Rainforest. Thanks to Korup cameraman Phil Agland and the help of Rosenberg, a major rainforest national park now exists in the region.

It is this desire to educate viewers about the world in which they live that permeates the Partridge mentality. ‘Why do we make kids’ programs?’ asks Buchanan. ‘We make children’s programs because we all believe it’s important that children are aware, particularly with the increasing urbanization of kids, of the wonders of the natural world. Personally, why do I do it? Because I hope that one day some child in Iran or in Idaho grows up to be minister for the environment in their own country and can make a difference and that part of their education and interest in the natural world has been supported or fueled or informed by the programs that we make.’ Adds Strickson, ‘At the end of the day we need to reach the people who – by the very act of buying things on supermarket shelves, consuming and spending money – make decisions about how the world is run.’

And by all accounts viewers are paying attention. The most touching and unusual feedback that Partridge has received so far came from a viewer in the U.S. who was an avid fan of Amazing Animals. Recounts Lekes: ‘We got a letter from a man in California who’s a music teacher. He wrote to the composer of our music and said he was nearly moved to tears and he felt compelled to write. This letter took three months to find its way to us…but that’s the most rewarding feedback we could get.’


THE ORGANIZATION: How it all fits together

Partridge Films and Survival fall under the banner of United Wildlife (UW), a division of United Film & Television Productions (UFTP). UFTP is the production division of United Broadcasting & Entertainment (UBE), which is a division of parent media corporation, United News & Media. ITEL, Partridge’s ‘preferred’ distributor, is a joint venture between United and HBO. Meanwhile, Partridge’s affiliation with ITV comes as a result of ITV also being a division of UBE, while Channel 5 and ITN are listed as two of the many UBE ‘associates.’ HTV gets added to the equation because they are a division of ITV.


The Queens Award for Export Achievement is awarded by the British government’s Department of Trade on the basis of growth in exports over a five year period. Partridge Films received the Queens Award in 1992 and again in 1999 in ‘recognition of the number and successes of the wildlife documentary films Partridge has exported around the world, and particularly to the U.S.’

With overseas exports for the company amounting to roughly 75% of their overall sales, Mark Broughton admits that Partridge was pleasantly surprised by the recognition. ‘Within the U.K. the Queens Award is a very prestigious award…. It did have a positive effect but it’s in terms of a general glow and feeling of warmth around the place.’ He adds, ‘It’s also a good peg on which to hang thank you’s to quite a lot of people.’


(select list)


1 x 60-minute

Broadcaster: Discovery Channel

Delivery: October 1999

This film returns to Badhavagarh National Park to continue the story of a family of wild tigers. Charger is the dominant male, while Sita is the dominant tigress. She has spent two years bringing up her three cubs and teaching them the ways of the jungle, but now it’s time for the family to go their separate ways. Survival is not easy and competition for territory and for food is tough.


Co-producer: Adams Wooding TV

13 x 30-minutes and 3 x 60-minutes

Broadcaster: Animal Planet, ZDF, ORF

Delivery: end of 2000

Imagine a future world without humans, one where other species are able to become dominant in their new environment. Future is Wild takes the viewer on 13 different journeys, millions of years into the future, where a dramatically changed Earth has bred new creatures, both predators and prey. These programs show viewers these worlds and what their inhabitants could look like.


1 x 60-minute

Broadcaster: Discovery Channel

Delivery: March 2000

What makes a crocodile attack a human? Hollywood animal handler and reptile expert Jules Sylvester seeks the answer as he travels The Great Croc Trail. His quest takes him from the swamps of Australia to a nuclear power plant in America, from murky rivers in India and Africa to the crystal-clear springs of Florida.


Co-producer: DDE

1 x 60-minute

Broadcaster: PBS

Delivery: September 1999

Israel’s importance, for more than two millennia, as a bridge for communication, trade, and religious understanding, is related to its treasures of climate and geography. The dramatic landscape hides an array of wild animals, from hyraxes to ibex, while the path of the ancient Jordan River is a flyway for great flocks of pelicans and birds of prey.


1 x 60-minute

Broadcaster: BBC’s The Natural World

Delivery: November 1999

For over 20 years, one of the world’s best-known underwater cameramen, Howard Hall, has ventured under the waves to film the intimate lives of an incredible range of marine creatures. Set on the coast of California, the Sea of Cortez and the Caribbean, this film features many of Hall’s friends including manta rays, gray whales, hammerhead sharks and dolphins.


4 x 60-minutes

Broadcaster: WNET

Delivery: December 1999 – April 2000

Their blood is cold, warmed only by the air

and the sun; their skin is thick and unyielding; their ancestors ruled the planet in a myriad of monstrous forms for over 100 million years; only four main groups still survive on Earth today – they are the reptiles. This series explores the complex relationship between reptiles and people all over the world.


26 x 25-minutes

Broadcaster: To be confirmed

Delivery: October 1999 – March 2000

A magazine-style showcase for the wildlife of our planet revealing nature’s best kept secrets. Each program uses wildlife film, graphics and animal facts to tell stories for television audiences around the world.


3 x 60-minutes

Broadcaster: To be confirmed

Delivery: December 1999

This series on the oceans that surround us draws on footage from underwater cameraman, Howard Hall. The programs explore the ways different animals have adapted to life in the sea, whether at the surface, on the seabed, or in the beautiful three-dimensional space between the two. Featured animals include the great whales, the manta ray, the sea lion and the basking shark.


(select list)

Korup – An African Rainforest (Scientific Award, Wildscreen, 1982)

Siarau – A Tidal Forest (Golden Panda Award, Wildscreen, 1984)

Okavango – Jewel of the Kalahari (Golden Panda, Wildscreen, 1988)

Cheetahs – The Blood Brothers (Award for Outstanding Achievement, Pacific Festival of Int’l Nature Films, 1990)

Seasons of the Sea (Festival Choice Award, Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival, 1991)

People of the Forest (George Foster Peabody Award, University of Georgia College, 1992)

Shadows in the Desert Sea (WWF Prize for Conservation, Stambecco D’Oro International Nature Film Festival, 1993)

Tiger: Lord of the Wild (Best Investigative Film, Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival, 1997)

Dance of the Sifaka (M.A. Partha Sarathy Award for Excellence, Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival, 1997)

About The Author
Jonathan Paul is a Toronto-based writer into creativity, content, advertising, tech, comics, video games, film, TV, time and space travel.