Nature focus: What a wonderful ‘World’

Producers and execs from the past and present weigh in on the importance of the BBC's 'Natural World' which, 30 years after its launch, has become the longest-running strand of its kind in Britain. (Pictured: Giant Otters of the Amazon)
October 18, 2013

(Pictured: Giant Otters of the Amazon)

Producers and execs from the past and present weigh in on the importance of the BBC’s ‘Natural World’ which, 30 years after its launch, has become the longest-running strand of its kind in Britain.

The seeds of the ‘Natural World’ were planted on BBC2 by then-controller David Attenborough in 1967, with the documentary series ‘The World About Us,’ which launched that year.

‘The World About Us’ highlighted natural history, but included travel, exploration and anthropology films as well.

“What we knew by about 1982 was that there were more stories out there than we could tell and we wanted more slots,” says Peter Jones, who was the first ‘Natural World’ series editor, from 1983 to 1987. “We also knew there were audiences on Sunday night who were pretty hungry for natural history… and they weren’t really enjoying the other more generalized shows as much.”

The natural history version of the strand broke out from ‘The World About Us’ in 1983, an event which Jones describes as a “takeover in the nicest possible way,” and was titled ‘The Natural World.’ Save the Panda was the launch episode, airing on October 30 of that year and kicking off three decades of blue-chip programming, boundary pushing storytelling, and technologically advanced filmmaking.

Though at first notable for its length-defying 50-minute episodes, the strand has kept its mandate clear over its 30 years, to invest heavily – both in time and money – in natural history stories that keep audiences tuned in year after year.

Jones recalls that first year as blissfully well-funded, thanks to a working relationship with PBS station WNET in New York and its ‘Nature,’ and the ability to benefit from the work of the in-house BBC Natural History Unit in Bristol.

“‘Nature’ directed a lot of coproduction money to ‘Natural World’ in Bristol,” he says. “I might have had a financial problem otherwise, but quite honestly, in 1983 and for a number of years, the funding was very good because of the close relationship between the BBC and PBS.”

Fred Kaufman, the current executive producer of PBS ‘Nature,’ was witness to the beginning of ‘Nature’ and its early collaboration with the UK strand, and says: “When ‘Nature’ began we relied heavily on BBC product. It allowed us to use those shows and that style as the foundation of what ‘Nature’ became. They were very much a part of helping to create the series and contributing to its success.”

‘Natural World’ also benefited from a relationship with BBC Enterprises, later known as BBC Worldwide, which put extra funding into productions so that the strand could make specials.

In addition, Jones says the strand was lucky because “it was a bonanza time for scientific research.” Theoretical work about animal behavior sent young researchers into the field in the 1970s, and their findings were published in the 1980s.

“I was very keen for us to use those new stories as a basis for our program making,” he says, adding that “since then, there have been other revolutions, [and] more of a technical revolution.”

The early days of ‘Natural World’ were also shaped by Jones’s aversion to a house style, as he opted to select whatever style best suited the subject of the documentary. This led to a variety of approaches, including an Edward Lear doc featuring drama reconstructions, and Through Animal Eyes, which used then-new technology to present the world as animals see it.

In the early years, the strand grew quickly, from 10 slots to 20 slots by 1985. ‘Natural World’ then began to delve into specials and natural history mixed with geology.

“The idea was to give the audience a surprise each week,” says Jones. “It was as far from the contemporary concept of formatted television as you could get.”

Once Jones had left his stamp on the strand, he passed the torch on to a number of other series editors, including Mike Gunton, who headed up ‘Natural World’ from 2001 to 2004.

“Peter Jones said he thought ‘Natural World’ was an occasion to push boundaries and try things that other commissioners wouldn’t necessarily risk,” says Gunton. “A lot of the [films we made] weren’t about new places or animals, but I wanted to try new approaches.”

In addition to featuring films in black and white, such as Cats Under the Serengeti Stars, and a documentary told from the point-of-view of a single grain of sand in Dune, Gunton moved the films away from the first-person narration, “voice of God”-style, to being told from a more personal perspective.

Because of this new approach to wildlife filmmaking, which introduced humans into the equation, Gunton said it was difficult to acquire films, which were all still in the mold of the previous style.

Luckily, he was able to work with the NHU to develop that approach, and he also had the benefit of time, markets and money on his side. With about 17 to 20 slots to fill, and getting more out of the dollar back then, Gunton says he was able to expand filming periods, including an extra year on Swamp Cats to give the filmmakers more time to get the material they needed.

Under Gunton’s watch, ‘Natural World’ also delivered its highest-rated episode ever, Highgrove – A Prince’s Legacy. Made by Sarah Pitt, the doc focused on Prince Charles’ estate, which incorporates organic farming and gardens in a harmonious way, and was the result of a year’s worth of access.

In addition to ‘Natural World’ getting Royal approval, the episode also earned 4.8 million viewers back in 2003.

The current series editor, Roger Webb, and executive producer Chris Cole, have Sir David Attenborough’s conservation documentary, Attenborough’s Ark, to thank for the strand’s highest-rated film this year, which boasted a 3.2 million audience.

“It’s probably the highest-rated film we’ve had in eight years, which is a really great sign we’re in good health,” says Cole.

The current custodians of the strand commission up to nine films a year, and take a 10th as an acquisition. They’re at work on the next season, and are looking for the USP, which they describe as “the Metro photo” – the free subway paper’s third page photo of a captivating natural history moment.

“It’s a very striking image and implicit within that image is a story,” explains Cole. “You look at that image and go, ‘What’s going on?’ Our films are about what’s going on.”

As for budgets, Cole says they’re not up there with mega-landmark specials such as Planet Earth or Life, but are determined on a case-by-case basis. The money factor depends on what kind of film it is, how heavily it relies upon archive, and how many days in the field the filmmakers need. He adds that they can probably afford to cover somewhere between 60 to a maximum of 100 days of filming.

“Within each run, we’re always looking for something that might spawn another future series, or a format of its own, [or] it just might move us in different directions,” he adds.

Webb adds that there aren’t any hard and fast rules about how much the strand’s team must work in-house with the NHU, and says on average he finds they wind up commissioning a 50-50 split between in-house and outside producers.

The Producers

AGB Films director Andrew Graham Brown has made a number of films for ‘Natural World’ over the years, beginning with 2004′s Mississippi: Tales of the Last River Rat. The most recent work he’s done is Kangaroo Dundee, a two-part special which gained a lot of press for the strand, and will be spawning its own six-part series.

“With ‘Natural World’ you have 12 months, sometimes 18 months from beginning to end [to film], so you have a lot of time to consider the exact structure of your film,” says Brown. “I’ve always gone for characters, so you have a longer period of time to work with that person and bring out the best of them.”

While kangaroos are a tough subject, Humble Bee Films’ head Stephen Dunleavy wanted to make a film about walruses for ‘Natural World,’ which became Walrus: Two Tonne Tusker.

“‘Natural World’ was very encouraging, helping Humble Bee Films to develop a story around an animal that wouldn’t top everyone’s favorite animal list,” he says. “Walrus: Two Tonne Tusker is not necessarily the sort of film that would have appeared on ‘Natural World’ 30 years ago, but reflects the modern nature of the strand.”

Meanwhile, Flycatcher Films’ Rob Sullivan, who made Meet the Monkeys for ‘Natural World,’ vouches that working for the strand is unlike working for anyone else. “You get fantastic support, and at the same time a huge amount of autonomy and freedom to get on and make your film.”

The Future

Gunton believes that ‘Natural World”s current iteration is a migration from its beginnings with Jones. “Peter brought in blue-chip but it had quite some unusual elements to it – he did a show about compost [The Wonderful World of Dung], which was done in a slightly blue-chip way,” he says.

“That’s the beauty of ‘Natural World.’ You can’t pigeon-hole it. It’s neither this nor that. It’s an organic, ever-changing animal.”

Jones, meanwhile, believes that the strand should continue for another 30 years. “Its future depends to a certain extent on developing a brand in a particular slot, to cultivate an audience as well as producing the great stories, filmmaking, and the marvelous photography that we associate with ‘Natural World.’”

As for the current exec producer, Cole looks to a future without him and Webb.

“In a funny kind of way with ‘Natural World,’ you don’t own it as much as you feel ownership of a series as an exec,” he says. “You feel much more like a custodian of it, like looking after a precious family heirloom to take care of it, polish it up, make sure it’s still bright and shiny, before handing it off to the next incumbent in due course.”

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