In the 1927 film The General, comedic legend Buster Keaton is running beside a train that’s going at full speed. He tries to grab hold as it speeds past and barely manages to hang on to the caboose.
These days, Andrew Jackson says he feels an affinity with Keaton. This feeling stems out of his recent transition from managing director of wildlife specialist prodco Tigress Productions, to head of the BBC’s Natural History Unit (NHU). A BBC veteran who began his life in TV in the Corporation’s News and Current Affairs department, he’s been away for 20 years and is now coming to grips with today’s Beeb, and NHU. ‘I think I wrongly assumed I would arrive and it would be like everybody would be sitting there and saying, ‘Okay, what do we do now?” says Jackson. ‘But actually, they’re not. They’ve all got their own jobs and they’re getting on with them brilliantly, and I’m standing there asking, ‘Okay, now what do I do?”
In talking to Jackson, it’s clear that the train he’s grabbed hold of is in no danger of derailing. He says he has a very clear idea of his role at the BBC and where he wants to take the NHU.
After all, his interest in wildlife was instilled at an early age. When he was close to six weeks old, his family left the UK to move to Libya where they stayed until he was three, at which point they moved to Malaysia and then Bahrain. Jackson says he remembers playing with snakes and having pets like flying squirrels, spiders and scorpions during his youth in Malaysia, as well as having his home invaded by monkeys. To add to that, one of his favorite uncles was a horse vet, so animals were always part of his life. ‘All of that inspired me to understand and think about the natural world,’ says Jackson. ‘And I just grew up with that aspiration and that thought.’
Once he returned to the UK permanently as a 16-year-old, Jackson’s love for the natural world became paired with a passion for television-making. He was what he calls a ‘radical student’ at the University of Aberdeen, where he helped to launch the television studio on campus while fighting for conservation issues such as keeping oil refineries out of birding lands.
From campus television, he entered the hallowed halls at the BBC back in 1978 and quickly moved into the News and Current Affairs division. He left that area in 1986 to join the NHU and work on Nature, a half-hour magazine show for BBC Two. Jackson remembers Nature as a real departure for the NHU, as it had mainly focused on more long-form documentaries and children’s programs up to that time. ‘That prompted my move,’ remembers Jackson, referring to his move from London to Bristol, where the NHU is headquartered. ‘I was at the right sort of age to think, ‘This isn’t a bad place to live,’ and at the same time somebody [at the BBC] had said to me, ‘The NHU is growing up a little and we’re beginning to offer [positions to] people who haven’t got a PhD in some incredible animal that you’ve never heard of.”
In 1990, Jackson left the BBC but returned a short while later to direct the odd program. At the end of 1991, Jackson joined forces with the then-fledgling Tigress Productions. Today, without hesitation he calls the years he spent at the Bristol-based natural history producer the best of his life. He joined Tigress at a time when there were only a few core staff members creating two hours of programming a year. He helped build it up to a company that produces 70 hours a year, growing the business’ turnover from less than a million dollars a year to $20 million per annum. Tigress now has bases in London, Bristol and New York, produces for broadcasters around the world and was purchased by Endemol last year, from previous parent IMG Media.
He cites pioneering programs that pair celebrities with animals, such as the In the Wild series which included Orangutans with Julia Roberts (Jackson’s favorite), Lions with Anthony Hopkins and Asian Elephants with Goldie Hawn, as among his proudest achievements for Tigress. ‘It was at a time when the Natural History Unit wouldn’t have touched [having] people in their programs with a barge pole,’ he says.
As for the decision to leave the prodco to return to the Beeb, ‘There comes a point where you look at yourself and say, ‘Well, I could continue to do this or is there something else?” The opportunity to head the BBC’s NHU, following the departure of Neil Nightingale, answered that question.
When the announcement about Jackson’s hiring was made last summer, Jana Bennett, director of BBC Vision, said she was confident Jackson would support the unit in delivering more ambitious projects. Though he had watched the NHU evolve from afar with groundbreaking programs such as Blue Planet and Planet Earth, he now wants to drive the NHU into every area the animal genre can occupy. When describing his own approach to natural history programming, he says he’s always looking for the hook that makes a story relevant to him. ‘I remember when David Attenborough did Life on Earth, he brought a narrative style and a way of telling you that story that brought it home and you suddenly realized why it was important to you.’ He wants to see the Unit make more programs that bring the natural world home, showing audiences how animals and nature relate to them on both a large and small scale. He points to Snow Watch, a recent program the NHU created for BBC Two, as an example. The show was turned around in five days to coincide with Britain’s struggles this past year with an uncharacteristically snowy winter. It showed how the snow affected the UK’s native animals, while also providing tips on how to help the animals in one’s own backyard, such as leaving apples out for birds instead of nuts.
Still, there are larger scale programs on tap as well, and Jackson is specifically excited by the upcoming Human Planet series, profiled in realscreen’s September/October ’09 issue. ‘I couldn’t possibly be coming into the unit at a more poignant moment,’ he says. ‘We’ve spent years ignoring the one animal on the planet which is probably the most successful. We’re into every environment in the world. [Humans] are on the edge of every contact with the natural world and yet we haven’t looked at us.’