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My piece written for Wildlife Film-making: Looking to the Future p192-198.
From general assistant and radio, to executive producer for global television, in the BBC Natural History Unit for 35 years. The best bits? “Life on Earth” and “The Living Planet” because of their impact and their reach. The worst? Realising that what was happening to the natural world was not being transmitted to the television audience. How could the biggest broadcasting organisation on the planet continue to effectively lie about our impact on our only home? Not only was it a continuing lie, getting more serious as the deceit hid the problems, but if anybody had the strength to tell the truth (and maybe lose some viewers?) it was the BBC. It simply didn’t have the guts. So misleading, glossy programmes appeared on jungles on BBC1 and four million viewers got no perspective on their situation anywhere. Those programmes that told the truth about such matters went to BBC4 with its four viewers, who already knew what was happening. Famously, the “Blue Planet” series was shown on BBC1, except for the last programme called “Deep Trouble” which was transmitted on BBC2, so millions were misled on BBC1 and the relatively few, who knew, got the truth on 2. On Discovery, in the US, they didn’t even show the last programme and at a big fund-raising event, a potential donor was approached. He said he’d seen the “Blue Planet” series and thought there were no problems to be paid for. A disservice. Then, certainly bigger, came “Planet Earth”. But was it better? Some thought not, like respected TV critic of the Sunday Times (circ. 1.2m) A.A. Gill:
“The BBC has become so practised at these vast, soft-centred uber-nature films that there’s a sort of vain swagger to them. The beautiful images come on with the flourish of Italian opera, confident and patronising in their ability to astonish. After 10 minutes of all this wonder and skill and sublime bloody panoramic beauty, I simply couldn’t take any more. I’d come to the end of the godlike, hyper-real, grand-production nature series. I’ve had the box set, the tea-tray books, the repeats. That’s it. The genre has collapsed under its own self-regard and become a parody of itself. Let me just tell you a few of the things that choked me last Sunday. First it was poor old David Attenborough, who’s become the Laurence Olivier of voice-overs, the stand-in voice of God. You could hear the resignation, the swallowed disgust at the copious streams of fruity, clichéd, sentimental bilge he had to intone like Christmas-card greetings over the film. The factual content is now virtually nil, just scene-setting and needless telling you what you’re seeing. There was barely any attempt to differentiate between North and South Poles. Who cared? And the observation becomes ever more disengaged from a human-sized reality. The camera angles get higher and wider, giving an omnipotent view, and the sentimentally grandiose music is beyond bearing, like the overblown accompaniment to a silent movie or Tchaikovsky orchestrating cartoons. The wildlife itself is sentimentalised, anthropomorphised and edited into a cute narrative in a way I thought we’d all grown out of with Disney in the 1950s. But mostly what I mind is the hidden hand of American culture and scientific social censorship. Like most big BBC nature series, this was a co-production with the Discovery channel, which has a long and weird set of requirements for its products: very little violence, no blood, hardly any sex and very, very hazy, noncommittal science, especially where it may contentiously upset fundamental Christians. Essentially what it wants is pretty, unnatural nature for 10- year-old, conservative Midwestern creationists. Now, I understand that this sort of programme is eye-wateringly expensive, and getting other broadcasters to share the expense makes bottom-line sense. But the BBC is not a commercial company: your licence fee is being used to subsidise American commercial television, and it’s being made to their specifications. The BBC is the world’s biggest broadcaster. Only it has the experience and the ability to make programmes of this stature. And it can sell them around the world after they’re made. It shouldn’t sell them before. This is our television, not a bespoke nature tailor for America. The interference, both overt and unstated, in the BBC’s programming should be a central question in the renewal of the licence fee. It is one of the most damaging interventions in our culture. British television is in danger of going the way of British film: becoming a source of highly skilled technicians hired out to make someone else’s culture.”
Of course great blue-chip television gets interest, perhaps concern and every programme doesn’t have to have a strident sermon attached to it. Today, eventually, these issues are up front, often cleverly presented , but is it in time? For the future, television has had its chance. Perhaps my past frustration will lead to new worlds of communication, vital to life on Earth.
I left the BBC Natural History Unit in July 1995 with many happy memories of times from bat caves with a film crew and David Attenborough to seeing some of the most extraordinary frogs anyone could imagine doing the most impossible things. I’m not sure that today those caves or frogs are as they were. What I do know is that they need all the help they can get in a world where endless material growth seems as desirable as it is unattainable. To turn that round is a massive challenge - look at Brazil, India and China, where population growth and consumerism are a deadly combination. But with this so- called progress are, indeed, some benefits which might just get results in time. As television becomes less and less of a player in this reach for eyes, ears and minds. It might even reach politicians!
In the meantime, it seems to me, wildlife television plods on. How much snuff and fang TV can we take? Can Discovery and National Geographic go on producing snuff stuff like “Killer Elephants”, “Killed by Coyotes”, where young viewers see endless "fearsome predators", yet more “murderous”, “deadly”, “ruthless”, sharks, bears, tigers, when the real threats to us are CO2 and HIV. No wonder they may grow up to regard wildlife as aggressive, dangerous and to be got rid of. Cue yet more clones of wrangling heroes. How depressing. In time, I believe these audience-hungry, worn-out themes will look even more dated than they do now. The expensive blue-chips, sons of Planet Earth & Co., will themselves become an endangered species. Yet, I suppose there are new viewers who have not seen the Serengeti migration with those fearsome predators, the crocodiles, or bears fishing for salmon. Now, the real question is the proposed road across the Serengeti, or climate change in Alaska and why it’s really China’s fault burning all that coal. To me these true wonders of nature are more interesting, certainly more important because of the perspective we can now put on them.
David Attenborough and “State of the Planet” eventually told us the truth in a big way. Festivals have seemed to have been ahead of the broadcasters. Top world awards went to Hugh Miles and his team for “People of the Sea”, revealing the mismanagement of Canadian fisheries, with superb wildlife footage and an intriguing story. They went where “Blue Planet” feared to tread, although the legendary Jaques Cousteau had been warning us about the threat to the oceans with his french-poetic philosophies. “Green”, from Patrick Rouxel, also from France, won the Golden Panda at Wildscreen 2010 with a wordless tragedy leading to the death of a female orang utan, caused by our demand for shampoo and much else, via palm oil. And Bernard Walton, one of my previous team-mates at the BBC, won well with his film about the restoration of the Iraq marshes, without a fearsome predator in sight - Unless you include a rare reed warbler - eats insects. Just, from the past, Saddam Hussein, an extreme version of the dangerous human animal we are.
Meanwhile I had made over 40 films with Living Planet Productions distributed to 40 countries. They were all conservation stories and I like to think they made a difference - and maybe still do? We are now listing films and film-makers that have really made a difference to encourage others and show the way. It’s not easy to prove, but today, if a big issue has been aired and the situation improved then surely global television (and more) must have been partly responsible? For BBC1 we made a film about the last female wolf in Sweden, killed in that civilised country. People complained to the Swedish embassy and boycotted Volvo cars. Today Sweden makes room for some 100 wolves, Norway hardly any. But wolves are now doing well all over Europe, not seen these days so much as fearsome predators despite Little Red Riding Hood and National Geographic. Today television has less impact. But Discovery’s “Whale Wars” is exciting drama on the high seas which, eventually, may help stop whaling. “Lost Land of the Tiger” claimed to be pioneering, but wasn’t, and by identifying locations provided a super sat-nav for Chinese poachers in Bhutan. They gave copies of the films to the government but what is really needed is specific short versions for local use, from top to bottom of society, of all ages in whatever language and style is appropriate. Compared with the series budget for helicopters, for example, this would cost peanuts, could use trainee film-makers and really help the tigers of Bhutan. At present, five million viewers on their sofas in Britain can make very little difference to the reality in the Himalayas.
The Brock Initiative has evolved a formula to reach out and make a difference. We write three lists:
1. Who do you need to reach?/Who’sbinvolved with the issue? “The Stakeholders”? from
president to young child.
This formula has been used worldwide, more recently in Kenya to save that rare antelope, the Mountain Bongo. To see so many schools around the endangered forests with “Bongo Clubs” with so much enthusiasm is so encouraging compared with the remote indifference of a typical British television audience. To me there is no question where the job is better done. And much cheaper too. The children will pass the message on. Many have a mobile phone in their mud hut. The schools have the internet and it’s from these newer sources that differences will surely be made.
And there’s more. Two major changes are involved. In the last ten years, public interest in and concern for the environment has increased to reach every country and most people. Supermarkets have become “green in tooth and claw”. Climate change is everywhere. How nigh in fact is the end of the world? At the same time the explosion of communication has spread everywhere too, the latest fashion being Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and hundreds of other networks and surely it’s just the beginning. Some is bound to be rubbish but some is bound, I say, to save bongos, bluefin tuna, turtles and a lake in Kenya. Now, with what I call “Filming with Attitude”, using modest equipment, low profile and accurate reporting, the world has the chance to show itself what’s going wrong and suggest solutions.
Waitrose has lied about importing so-called “sustainable” (not) flowers from Lake Naivasha. Then they had the chance to put that right by funding a scientifically-researched plan and advertise the fact in competition with the other big supermarkets. Despite the huge profits they shout about, they continue to harm a beautiful lake of rare freshwater in Kenya, claiming “Whatever we touch we aim to make better”. For Valentine’s and Mother’s days our press release that went worldwide was “Please your Mother, Kill a Lake”. That’s the real price of a rose and now lots of people know.
Mitsubishi is a Japanese industrial giant, cars and chemicals. Not fish. But it decided to buy up as much bluefin tuna as it could before stocks ran out. Like gold, the rarer it gets, the richer Mitsubishi gets, until the immensely valuable resource for the world’s people is extinct. How greedy and selfish is that? Expensive restaurants refuse to ban it. Celebrities are embroiled. Lots of publicity, mostly bad for Mitsubishi, featured in the movie “End of the Line”. So they gave some money to the Wildfowl and Wetland Trust (WWT) to save the worlds’ rarest duck, the Madagascar Pochard. Not a fish, a duck. Is that greenwash? Now WWT is taking money from massive Cargill, accused of destroying the Amazon for beef, soya and sugar. “We are eating the Amazon” a leading rainforest scientist says in my film.
Mitsubishi has a new electric car, the i-MiEV. So has Nissan, and most of the others. Soon the internet will suggest you don’t buy Mitsubishi’s as they are knowingly and single- mindedly causing the extinction of a magnificent ocean creature, known because of its speed and value as the “Porsche of the Sea”, the bluefin tuna. In Turkey, sea turtles are in trouble. Despite using one as its logo, Hilton Hotels is not helping, TUI, the huge German tour company, denies guilt and First Choice may become an internet-users last choice when it comes to choosing a holiday on one of their beaches. Illegal building, water sports, lights and music at night have reduced the breeding population of turtles, where unsuspecting tourists had no idea of the damage being done. They do now. And they and others may choose differently next time - if there is one. Footage of this bad behaviour, based on careful studies, has gone round the world and to the European legal process. The Turkish government is under pressure. More filming will follow to check on any change, good and bad, and expose it. That footage will be seen by web followers, some of the very customers those hotels and that country depend on for income. There will be nowhere to hide. For example, in 2011, as reported by Claire Beale in The Independent:
“VW is the latest blue-chip brand to be targeted by Greenpeace, and the result is a brilliant pastiche of a VW campaign launched at this years Super Bowl” “... went on to score well over 40 million views on YouTube.” “Greenpeace urges us to sign up to the rebellion against VW’s record on carbon dioxide emissions. The spoof has been an instant success, generating millions of pounds’ worth of publicity and creating an internet firestorm that has left Volkswagen reeling.” “Last year Greenpeace turned its fire on Nestlé, with an ad that showed an office worker crunching on an Orang-utan's finger as if it was a Kit Kat. The campaign attacked Nestlé’s relationship with the Indonesian palm oil producer Sinar Mas, which Greenpeace has accused of illegal deforestation. The beauty of Greenpeace’s approach is that it uses all the familiarity and brand awareness that its victims have spent millions of advertising pounds to build, and turns that against the brands themselves. It could teach plenty of bigger-budgeted companies a thing or two about communications.”
This is really power to the (conservation) people. Large companies are not used to being leaned on like this. They talk a lot about Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). Now the proof is on the internet everywhere for everyone, and it can come from anyone who cares, gets their facts right and can pick up a camera, a mobile phone or one of the many clever gadgets that can take pictures and deliver them. If this spreads, as it is, old style TV, new style HD and 3D and Disney Nature in the cinemas will be merely add-ons. Not only will they be about dinosaurs, they will become dinosaurs. Yet the content, be it a tiny wren or a giant pterodactyl, will continue to intrigue and excite. Whether it’s shot on super 4D IMAX with knobs on, or cardboard, won’t matter if it reaches people and affects them. Compared with the old days of five-man wildlife film crews, 30 pieces of luggage, a fixture in the BBC schedules of national importance, we now have almost the opposite... One amateur person, one gadget, and, say, YouTube. If that continues, as I believe it could, the natural world must surely become a better place. I certainly hope so.
Read more from others in Wildlife Film-making: Looking to the Future by Piers Warren, Wildeye