The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s hallmark natural history/science/technology series The Nature of Things with David Suzuki is entering into a particularly memorable season for 2010-2011. It will be the program’s 50th season, which is enough of a landmark. But it’ll also mark 31 years with the affable Suzuki, who turns 75 this year, as host.
The natural history, science and technology series stemmed out of a science program featuring two Toronto-based professors, Donald Ivey and Patterson Hume, called Two for Physics. The team behind that program then launched The Nature of Things as a half-hour CBC science series in 1960, hosted by Ivey and various other presenters. In 1979 the Canadian pubcaster fused the show with another of its series, Science Magazine, which was hosted by the young geneticist. Suzuki was brought on board in the same role for the new one-hour series.
The series has seen four executive producers – David Walker, John Livingston, Jim Murray and current EP Michael Allder – thus far during its 50-season run. A fifth, Bob Culbert, has just been announced.
‘I remember The Nature of Things as a little boy,’ says CBC executive director of documentary programming Mark Starowicz. ‘I was raised with it. It was the window into adventure and exotic journeys up strange rivers, planetary exploration and exotic undersea journeys. It was a source of wonder.’
Suzuki says his early days with The Nature of Things were strong on natural history programming, giving him great opportunities to visit amazing places and meet staggeringly intelligent people, such as anthropologist Richard Leakey in Africa.
Suzuki says that when EP Murray retired 14 years ago, the series became somewhat stuck in what he says ‘The Brits call the ‘ooh, aah, uh-oh syndrome.’ You show beautiful shots of nature and then here come the human beings who screwed it all up. I realized then that you can’t show that we’re in a crisis and then leave it as if there’s nothing you can do. You have to find that there are solutions.’
Allder, who had worked at the National Film Board of Canada and was EP for the past 14 years, brought a new perspective to the series, says Suzuki. He also brought a flair for special event programming, beginning with 2002′s Race for the Future. Since then, there have been multi-part series such as four-parter Science of Emotion, Science of the Senses, Geologic Journey and One Ocean. Geologic Journey is now seen in 45% of Canadian high schools and has become part of the national school curriculum, Allder reports. Having aired on the Science Channel in the U.S., The Nature of Things is now working on a sequel, to air on the CBC in mid-October. Another major upcoming programming event for the series is The Nano Revolution, made with NHK and ARTE in France.
‘[A] big change has been a move away from a straight single-hour anthology series to us doing one, or quite often, two miniseries within the year that are built around a big theme,’ says Allder, noting that all of the big miniseries are coproductions. Allder will continue to exec produce the event programming spawned from the series.
ARTE France’s director of specialist factual, Helene Coldefy, has collaborated on projects with The Nature of Things for approximately the past six years, including Mystery of the Giant Sloths and Mini Monsters of Amazonia.
‘[What's] great is that they can make science really understandable and attractive for people,’ she says.
The series is both the longest-running series on the CBC and the longest-running documentary series on Canadian television.’I don’t think there’s been any question that The Nature of Things has been a very, very important medium of communication,’ says Suzuki.
While many peg the doc An Inconvenient Truth as a watershed moment in the global awareness of climate change, both Suzuki and The Nature of Things have been sounding the alarm about the issue for decades.
‘We’ve been a very big player – although we’re losing the battle – on climate change,’ says the host. ‘We did our first special on climate change in 1989 and we’ve done literally dozens of programs showing the impact of it.’
While Suzuki wishes its programming was having a bigger impact on the climate change issue, The Nature of Things has sparked action for other causes. Suzuki says that 1982′s ‘Windy Bay’ program about the dispute over logging on Haida Gwaii (formerly Queen Charlotte Islands) in British Columbia, ‘was absolutely critical to a national park becoming Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve, and I think the Haiida will agree that the show was very important in raising consciousness.’ The series focused on similar concerns for Canada’s Stein Valley and Khutzeymateen Valley, which are both now provincial parks.
Raising awareness about evolution is also something close to Suzuki’s heart. ‘When we show a program in the U.S. and we mention ‘evolution’ we get dozens of phone calls and emails protesting the use of the word,’ he marvels. ‘When we run that in Canada, we get nothing and I’d like to think that The Nature of Things and other shows have made that difference,’ he says.
For Allder, high points include ‘Windy Bay,’ as well as the continuing attention the series has paid to climate change. Additionally, he is proud of the three films on Stephen Lewis, UN Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa, that spanned Lewis’ five and a half year term in the position. The program made an impact with powerful people – then-Prime Minister Paul Martin called Lewis to tell him that he’d been watching The Nature of Things and he’d try to help him as best he could.
‘AT THE CORE OF THE SERIES’
Of course, part of what makes The Nature of Things’ intelligent approach to its subject matter so captivating is its host. ‘Two generations have grown up with David Suzuki as its host so I think he’s very integral,’ says Starowicz. ‘He also believes there should be other voices and faces [as] contributors and presenters. However, I think he’s at the core of the series.’
‘David is hugely popular in the country and, I’m sure, is a big draw with the audiences,’ says Allder. ‘People want to know what David has to say.’
However, at 75, Suzuki admits he’s ‘no spring chicken.’
‘When you’re 75, you know that’s the last part of your life,’ he muses. ‘It’s not macabre to talk about it; you have to face reality. I keep saying you have to worry about succession. I’ve been saying it at the [David Suzuki] Foundation and it’s the same with The Nature of Things – ‘You can’t depend on me to be around. You can’t just keep running it as if I’m going to be here forever.”
‘He’s never going to stop doing the show,’ jokes Starowicz, with more than a hint of wishful thinking. ‘We figure by then science will have allowed us to keep him forever. That’ll never be a problem.’
‘I hope that David continues with the series for many years yet,’ offers Allder. ‘He has brought passion, courage and intellect to our medium. If and when he does leave The Nature of Things, I’m sure he would be the first to battle for its survival and to defend its relevance, past, present and future.’
Suzuki agrees with Allder’s sentiment. ‘I’ve wanted to retire from The Nature of Things for over 10 years now and they keep saying, ‘If you retire, the show is so tightly tied to you that we’ll have to cancel the series.’ I think it’s far too important a show to cancel.’
The awareness of the program itself will definitely be heightened in this 50th anniversary season with Force of Nature: The David Suzuki Movie (see accompanying story) released in the spring, a 50th anniversary special in March, and a program tied to Suzuki’s 75th birthday. And of course, there will be 23 episodes that will provide ample reason to stay tuned.
As an educator, host of the CBC’s long-running natural history and science program, The Nature of Things with David Suzuki, and co-founder of the David Suzuki Foundation, an organization aimed at environmental conservation, 74-year-old Suzuki has been an enviro-icon for over three decades.
His passion for science, natural history, the environment, and the various issues impacting and surrounding all of these topics is practically unrivalled. And with the release of the documentary Force of Nature: The David Suzuki Movie, directed by Sturla Gunnarsson (Air India 182, Gerrie & Louise) longtime fans will learn more about why he’s devoted his life to these concerns.
The Entertainment One production, a copro with the National Film Board of Canada in association with the CBC, began when eOne Television president Laszlo Barna approached Suzuki about making a feature film. Originally, the geneticist and environmental activist wrote up a very long proposal that envisioned an Avatar-esque film about the origin of the universe. ‘When I think about it, it was a multi-million dollar proposal,’ says Suzuki now.
Instead, Barna, his then-SVP of factual programming Steven Silver and Gunnarsson were attending Suzuki lectures and determined that the scientist should be the central figure, something that Suzuki himself was uncomfortable with.
‘I never set out to be a celebrity and I find it a very difficult role to play,’ he admits. ‘I always thought I was just a messenger, transmitting information to the public.’
But the production team and director had other ideas for Suzuki. ‘I felt that David was at a particular moment in his life where he’s looking back on things and trying to get a handle on what it’s all about – his legacy, his mortality,’ says Gunnarsson. ‘And that struck me as a very powerful idea for a film.’
The documentary weaves key moments of Suzuki’s life together with his Legacy lecture that he delivered at the University of British Columbia. ‘It’s a biography of the ideas more so than a biography,’ says the director. ‘We do pilgrimages to places of importance and turning points that resulted in the building blocks of the body of thought that is Suzuki.’
Those locations include the camps where Suzuki, his parents and siblings were interned during the war; Japan on the anniversary of the bomb and Haida Gwaii in B.C. Suzuki also talks about a swamp he visited in his youth that was ‘magical’ but unfortunately is now a giant parking lot.
‘Sturla wanted to use it as a way of showing that during my life, a number of key things happened directly to me that were relevant to the world: WWII, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, what happened to the Japanese-Canadians, the Civil Rights movement I was involved in and genetics,’ says Suzuki.
The film screened at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) on September 11 and 12. Having TIFF as the launch pad for the film was an added bonus for the Toronto-based Gunnarsson.
‘It’s nice to be able to sleep in my own bed and ride my bike to the premiere,’ he says.