This blog is dedicated to some of my boyhood heroes, as seen on television, mostly those who have produced programmes about natural history, in no particular order. I have augmented my memories with some biographical notes from Wikipedia.
Armand and Michaela Denis
You may remember the film, King Solomon’s Mines, made in 1950, starring Deborah Kerr and Stewart Granger, based (loosely) on the book by Rider Haggard. It has been shown often enough since then on television.
Armand Denis had been a cameraman and film director and he travelled to Africa in 1950 with his second wife, Michaela, to work on the filming of King Solomon’s Mines, in which Michaela acted as Deborah Kerr’s double. A few years later the couple started the first of several series of wildlife programmes for the BBC, Filming Wild Animals.
Their early series were based on the couple travelling alone in a Land Rover with technical equipment. Armand, with his strong Belgian accent always narrated the programmes. Michaela added her enthusiasm for wildlife (and probably some glamour for the adult viewers). In later series, it became clear that they used a larger team of cameramen. Through the late fifties and early sixties they revolutionised wildlife documentaries on television. They made several series for both BBC and ITV, including Filming In Africa (1955), Armand and Michaela Denis (1955–58), On Safari (1957–59), and Safari to Asia (1959–61), which were repeated until well into the 1960s. In January 1963, Armand Denis was the first editor of Animals magazine, which later became BBC Wildlife.
My memories were of many programmes that always seemed to come from the Ngorongoro Crater in the Serengeti National Park with its thousands of zebra and wildebeest; the annual migration of huge herds of animals; and the rush of wildebeest in their attempts to cross the road before the approaching Land Rover. It was probably a major influence in my love of wildlife programmes.
Hans and Lotte Hass
There was an obvious similarity between Armand and Michaela, and Hans and Lotte. Hans was Austrian and in the fifties he made over a hundred wildlife films with his second wife, Lotte. Hans was a diver and most of his filming was underwater.
Much of their work in East Africa and South Asia was shown on British television in the fifties and sixties. They made underwater wildlife as interesting as the African big game parks.
Jacques Cousteau was one of the co-inventors of the aqua-lung used in underwater diving. After leaving the French navy he spent many years on his ship, ‘Calypso’, researching and filming. His television programmes started with ‘The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau’ in the late sixties and continued through the seventies.
They were not all Belgian or Austrian or French and I haven’t forgotten David. But first I have to say something about zoos.
You will remember that attitudes were different then. This was true of many attitudes. We have seen different attitudes to religion, to authority, to women and families, and we have to add attitudes to animals. Some people had pets; most people were carnivorous; some people hunted foxes; some people were vegetarian and many were broadly sympathetic to the wellbeing of animals.
But there were no ideas of conservation and virtually no awareness of endangered species. Animals in both zoos and circuses were considered perfectly normal and acceptable. (We were not aware of how such animals were treated and, as you might guess by now, generally we didn’t ask.) Zoos always included the larger mammals – elephants, lions, rhinoceros, hippopotamus, giraffes, zebras and many more. (We were not usually so common or colloquial as to use words like rhino or hippo.)
Zoo Quest was a series of multi-part nature documentaries broadcast on BBC television between 1954 and 1963. In each series, a young man called David Attenborough travelled with staff from London Zoo to a tropical country to capture an animal for the zoo’s collection. The programme also showed film of other wildlife in the area and of the local people and their customs. Attenborough introduced each programme from the studio and then narrated the film his team had shot on location.
I remember, particularly, the search for the Komodo Dragon and its subsequent capture, but I was also impressed by the views of native culture with David in the longhouses of what is now Indonesia and New Guinea.
David moved to become controller of BBC Two in 1965 but after a few years there he returned to produce and present many more brilliant series of natural history programmes.
You will be seeing a theme developing. I cannot deny a fondness for films and television about nature.
Sir Peter Markham Scott was well known as an ornithologist and conservationist, but he was many other things including a painter and an Olympic sportsman. He was knighted for his contributions to the conservation of wild animals, which including being a founder of the WWF and the WWT.
He was the only child of Robert Falcon Scott, the famous explorer of the Antarctic. When he was two years old, his father in his last letter to his wife, advised her to “make the boy interested in natural history if you can; it is better than games.”
Like his mother (a sculptress), he displayed a strong artistic talent and he became known as a painter of wildlife, particularly birds. He followed his interests in art, wildlife and many sports, including sailing and ice-skating. He represented Great Britain and Northern Ireland at sailing, winning a bronze medal in the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games.
In 1946, he founded the organisation with which he is now closely associated – originally the Severn Wildfowl Trust with its headquarters at Slimbridge in Gloucestershire, now the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust. (It will not surprise you to know that I am a frequent visitor to Slimbridge.) In the following years, he led many ornithological expeditions and became a television personality, popularising the study of wildfowl and wetlands.
His BBC natural history series, Look, ran from 1955 to 1981 and made him a household name. It included the first BBC natural history film to be shown in colour, The Private Life of the Kingfisher in 1968, which he narrated.
I remember his television appearances where he showed his peculiar enthusiasm for ducks. He made water colour paintings of them and talked of how many of the World’s duck species he had seen and how many he had still to see. (This was all fifty years before I took up birdwatching.)
(I can’t do a whole blog post without a diversion.) With films and television (and in the flesh), I find that some people are attractive because of their voices. We have already met Armand Denis and David Attenborough, two such people – I could listen to them just for the sake of their voices. Others who spring to mind are Anne Mallalieu (now Baroness Hilton of Eggardon), who I admired from my days at the Cambridge Union; Professor Charlotte Uhlenbroek (another BBC wildlife presenter); Keira Knightley; Oliver Postgate (voice of both Noggin the Nog and Bagpuss) and my last hero for today …
(That’s what Wikipedia calls him. I always remember him as Doctor Bronowski.)
Jacob Bronowski was born in Łódź, now part of Poland. (I put that in because, after a brief holiday in Poland I am fascinated by any country where the word ‘Lodz’ is pronounced something like ‘Woodge.’) His family moved to England in 1920 and he became a brilliant mathematician after studying at the University of Cambridge.
He taught Mathematics and during the Second World War, he worked for the UK’s Ministry of Home Security, where he developed mathematical approaches to bombing strategy for RAF Bomber Command. At the end of the war, Bronowski was part of a British team that visited Japan to document the effects of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He turned to research in biology, became Director of Research for the National Coal Board in the UK, and developed an interest in the biology of human intellectual traits.
He first became familiar to the British public through appearances on the television version of The Brains Trust (a panel show, somewhat like Any Questions, where the topics of questions were often moral or scientific,) in the late 1950s. His had an impressive ability to answer questions on many varied subjects. He is remembered for his thirteen part documentary series The Ascent of Man, in the seventies, about the history of human beings through scientific endeavour.
I remember his ability to explain scientific and mathematical topics in layman’s terms. In one of series of programmes he presented on live television, he started with an encoded quotation given to him to illustrate the linguistics involved. His assistants counted the letters and built up a histogram. (This was done manually. There were no computers to help him.) He started to suggest that we just had to decode by taking the most common as ‘E,’ and so on. But as the piles of letters were formed, he noticed an anomalous pattern in the letter frequencies. His method would not work.
He spotted straightaway that the producers had tried to make things difficult by using a foreign language (and he knew what the frequencies should be in other languages!) The quotation, which he found immediately, started ‘Sein oder nicht sein …’ It was the familiar soliloquy of Hamlet, in German, a language where the frequency of letters is very different.