Over the years television has informed, educated and entertained in equal measure, but the education has been the cornerstone as it has transported us to the four corners of the world with experts as our guides. The natural world been in full effect since the dawn of the
television age, but the 1950's is where the first real programming to do with natural history started and one name like today at the beginning was David Attenborough, brother to Lord Richard Attenborough and also younger brother John. His formative years shaped his future direction, with his love of collecting specimens would continue through childhood and when one of his adoptive sisters gave him a piece of amber filled with creature from the prehistoric age, this charged his interest even more, even using it come back to in a later programme nearly fifty years later.
After being educated in Leicester and after winning a scholarship to Clare College, Cambridge where he got a degree in natural sciences plus also studying zoology and geology as well. In 1947 he got called up for national serve with the Royal Navy based North Wales and the Firth of Forth over a two year period. But after leaving the navy Attenborough took on a job editing scientific textbooks for children. Though 1950 was to have change in career for him when he applied for a job becoming a radio talks producer. But it was his CV which caught the eye of Mary Adams, the head of the talks department dealing with factual programming. Though even though Attenborough did not even own a television set, he accepted a place on a three month training course and in 1952, he joined the BBC full time.
His first natural history programme for the BBC, The Pattern of Animals combined the dual roles of producer but more importantly presenter. The programme itself was studio bound, but with animals from London Zoo coming into the studio, the naturalist Julian Huxley discussed topics such as camouflage, aposematism and also the art of natural courtship between animals. Although this programme may not be remembered as much to the wider general public, it did have an effect as through the programme Attenborough met the zoo's
curator of the reptile house Jack Lester and they decided to make a series about an animal collection expedition. From the idea came Zoo Quest, first broadcast in 1954, the original idea was for Lester to present the programme but owing to ill health him step in at the last minute. The success of the series saw the public notice Attenborough for the first time, but later in 1957 the BBC set up the Natural History Unit in Bristol responsible for some of the most dramatic, breathtaking television, surprising David Attenborough was not a part of its initial set up, he declined as he did not move his young family from London, but instead he set up his own Travel and Exploration Unit which produced Zoo Quest, as well as the Travellers' Tales and Adventure series.
Just as the BBC were starting to corner the market in Natural History documentaries and films, in another corner of the UK at the start of the 1960's, ITV and Anglia Television in particular developed the Survival series of wildlife films. The originator was Aubrey Buxton, later Baron Buxton of Alsa, himself a founding director of Anglia Television. Though the origins of Survival came from Buxton's own regional nature programme Countryman in the summer of 1960, but he saw this as an opportunity to develop what he had been doing with Countryman as a natural history strand for ITV. The first programme in the Survival series was broadcast in February, 1961 called The London Scene saw Buxton visiting St James' Park, a derelict bomb site and other London locations as well. This first programme was made with the support of Associated Rediffusion who provided facilities for the filming and the editing as well.
A second film was more closer to home in East Anglia looking one of the rarest British birds, the avocet. Closely associated with these films was Sir Peter Scott, who became the series' scientific adviser as well as introducing and narrating some of the early films. Scott, the only child of the Arctic explorer Robert Falcon Scott and the sculptor Kathleen Bruce. When his father died in March 1912, Peter Scott was only two and in Robert Scott's last letter to his wife he wrote “make the boy interested in natural history if you can; it is better then games.” So it was almost fate, that he went into this field. Along with David Attenborough, he is credited in being one of the pioneers of natural history on television. Such was his influence, he was one of the founders of the World Wide Fund for Nature.
As Survival went from strength to strength during the 1960's, there were a regular appearance of the half hour films in the schedules. During 1963, a film, The New Ark which was narrated by Prince Philip had won a golden Nymph at the Monte Carlo Television Festival, which lead to himself presenting a film about the Galapagos Islands entitled The Encharted Isles in 1967 and in itself was one of the first hour long specials which became a key component in the series. By the colourization of ITV in 1969, Survival was a key programme to show of the new technology as many of the films had already been filmed in colour and were readily available to all the network companies.
But colour television itself was to help the BBC in their coverage of nature documentaries as well, with colour starting on BBC Two in 1967 and one of its advocates being David Attenborough, who at this time was controller of the channel itself. Though with being controller of BBC Two, he did have a clause in his contract to be able to make programmes on an occasional basis. In 1965, he filmed elephants in Tanzania and 1969 saw him making a three part series on the cultural history of the island of Bali. During 1971, he joined the first western expedition to remote highland valley to seek out a lost tribe. Though at this time he had thought the story of evolution for a natural subject for a landmark series, sharing his idea with Chris Parsons, a wildlife film maker based at the Bristol based Natural History Unit. As Parsons though about the idea, he came up with Life
on Earth. Though Attenborough himself would want to present the series himself, but he could not whilst in a senior BBC management role. So the idea went on the back burner for now.
The early seventies, saw ITV's Survival series break into the American market, through the new Prime Time Access Rule which had come into affect for major network stations affiliates, by how much network programming they could take. Thus allowing the free time to be taken up by imported programming, usually cultural and documentary material and with Survival being a beneficiary of this policy. But with the rules on ownership and sponsorship of programming being different in the United States market, lead to one of the first Survival specials to be broadcast over the Atlantic about the beaver to be sponsorsed by the Quaker Oats company and the deal of this sponsorship lead to the advertising agency of JWT to take more of an interest in the films itself, necessitating a new company to be formed by JWT and Anglia Television called Survival Anglia for the documentaries and footage to be sold to which ever stations wanted them and thus becoming the first UK television series to form their own company in America.
Though around this time David Attenborough had resigned from his management role at the BBC, after rising so quickly up the ranks to a senior management position, when his name was suggested for the position of Director General. But he had no appetite for the top job wanting to get back to his natural history roots, when he did resign his position, Attenborough became a freelance broadcaster and started work on his next project which was to be a pre-arranged trip to Indonesia with a film crew from the Natural History Unit which became Eastwards with Attenborough, looking at the wildlife of that area but in different to his earlier Zoo Quest series, this time animal collecting element was not included in the programmes as sensibilities had changed since the 1950's on those issues.
On his return, the scripts for the Life on Earth series were starting to be written, though because of the scale of such a grand scale of the project that the BBC had to partner on the project with an American network to gain sufficient finances to fund the project. In the meanwhile he proceeded with a number of other projects for television including 1975's The Tribal Eye looking at tribal art, The Explorers about the voyages of discovery and Fabulous Animals which was a series for children looking at cryptozoology featuring mythical creatures such as the Griffin. Finally, finance for the Life on Earth series was sealed with Ted Turner's Turner Broadcasting in the United States and during 1976, the series went into production.
At the same time, Survival on ITV was getting bigger and bigger audiences for their specials and overseas sales were helping Anglia to put more money back into its funds, so thus being able to make bigger and better wildlife documentaries. Survival Anglia based in New York won a Queen's Award to Industry in 1974, showing how much the productions were rated in not only their quality but also the way they were helping the economy as well. Though output rose more then twenty five per cent for the half hour shows being distributed to the major networks and the production unit was expanded to reflect this. The half hour shows were packaged to the American market as The World of Survival, voiced by actor John Forsythe from 1971 to 1982 and later on the hour specials were shown by PBS in their Nature strand.
But it was during 1974 and 1975, that the programme was to have two of its most notable films. The Year of the Wildebeest and Safari by Balloon, filmed by Kenya based film maker Alan Root who worked along his then wife Joan as well, showed that wildlife film making could be on an epic scale as well as well as using the narrative style as well. Their 1974 The Year of the Wildebeest showed the story of the migration of the herds across the African plains and also the river of the Serengeti as well. Using a hot air balloon to film the migration, gave rise to another idea for another film in 1975's Safari by Balloon looking at the animals of the plains and mountains in East Africa, which also featured the first-ever hot air balloon flight over Mount Kilimanjaro as part of the film itself. Though the Roots were to feature heavily in some of the most notable films in Survival's history, the 1967 film The Enchanted Isles which featured Prince Philip was filmed by the Roots and was brought by the NBC network in the United States for $430,000 and it became the first-ever natural history film to shown on American television, leading the way for others.
By the late 1978, the domination of both the Attenborough and also Survival films were to be broken by a man new to television, but one not easy to forget. In 1978 Dr David Bellamy of the University of Durham made his first-ever television series for Thames television looking at botany from a new perspective. His seeming down to earth manner appealed to viewers, as well as his easy presentation style in conveying facts and also unique speech patterns as well. Through out the next decade, Bellamy was to be a regular face on television presenting programmes from all over the world with one of his finest being Bellamy at the Top of the World, focussing on the nature and wonder of the great white north in 1987. Though this proved that other ITV companies could make natural history programmes themselves and add to the already burgeoning reputation of Survival.
1979, was to see after three years in the making, the first broadcast episode of the epic Life on Earth series. The style of the film-making would influence both future documentaries and also their film-makers as well, though every subject was treated seriously and this gained the scientific community's seal of approval and let Attenborough and his film crew have access to many places unseen by film-makers before and also experience their work first hand. One such scientist, Dian Fossey and her research group allowed the Life on Earth crew to film the mountain gorillas, making for one of the most iconic scenes ever seen on television as David Attenborough got up close and personal with the Gorillas themselves, with them accepting as one of their own. If it wasn't for this series and its techniques which set the industry standard and also Survival the world would have not been seen in the same way again. Through the next eleven years over two more series, The Living Planet and The Trials of Life brought the whole Life trilogy to a close. Life in the Freeze in 1993 focussed on Antarctica, the first-ever television series to focus on that region's own natural history. The Trials of Life, looked at the behaviour of animal throughout their lives, though this was not without out complaints from viewers on scenes of what they saw violent and gory, although this was natural behaviour in the animal kingdom.
As the new millennium approached, the Survival series was struggling. For many years, the flagship since 1989, the Survival unit had moved back to Norwich from its previous London base and with Anglia brought by MAI who owned Meridian Television, the emphasis changed to presenter led wildlife documentaries with new to television experts Steve Irwin and Nigel Marvin being two of them, the specials kept on being made and shown but they were shifting around the schedules pretty much like quicksand and the programme was seemingly losing its footing. When in 1995, a series called Predators presented by Gaby Roslin was commissioned, it gained to good viewing figures in a early Sunday evening slot though a second series was not commissioned at all. Over at the BBC, David Attenborough had a new series looking at The Private Life of Plants and with time lapse photography, he was able to show the plants in their true form, growing and also procreating as well.
So natural history have been a key part of the schedules for sixty years now on the BBC, ITV even revived the Survival brand with Ray Mears as a presenter, but it has been the new technology which has come in to show our world like never before, such as in High Definition television and also 3D to bring the world closer to us. The world seemingly has got smaller, but with the likes of David Attenborough to guides though the undiscovered parts, there is still much to learn.