50 years of the BBC Natural History Unit

2007 was the 50th anniversary of the BBC Natural History Unit and the centenary of the first British nature film. To celebrate, we found 50 fascinating facts about the history of wildlife film-making.

50 years of wildlife TV article spread

2007 saw the 50th anniversary of the BBC’s Natural History Unit and the centenary of the first British nature film. To celebrate, BBC Wildlife looked at the history of wildlife film-making in 50 fascinating facts.


1. The first wildlife film

In Birdland with Oliver Pike, originally broadcast in 1907, is thought to be the first British wildlife film screened to a paying audience. 100 copies were made, but their whereabouts are unknown.


2. Bouldercam and dungcam

Film-maker John Downer found a novel way to get closer to lions and elephants – he hid cameras in fake, remote-control rocks (Bouldercam) and animal droppings (Dungcam).


3. Pelican-cam

In 1970, German film-maker Dieter Plage used a model pelican to film birds on Lake Shala, Ethiopia. He floated the dummy on an inner tube and put his head and the camera inside. It was so effective that young pelicans pecked at him, hoping to be fed. Though Dieter wore a wetsuit, the soda in the lake burnt large areas of his skin.


4. Colour underwater

National Geographic staff photographer Charles Martin and scientist WH Longley took the first natural colour underwater pictures in 1926. In the 1950s, German film-maker Hans Hass filmed wildlife under water for the first time for British TV.


5. Birds carrying cameras

In In-Flight Movie, broadcast in 1987, John Downer stripped down a super-8 camera until it weighed just 200g, then attached it to the back of a golden eagle to get a bird’s perspective of flight. He also used mini helicopters to film birds in the air.


6. Wildlife for kids

The Really Wild Show ran for 20 years from 1986. First presented by Terry Nutkins, it helped to launch the careers of Nick Baker, Chris Packham, Michaela Strachan and Steve Backshall.


7. Air travel

David Attenborough maintains that Life on Earth was only possible because new computerised airline timetables enabled producers to plan world trips.


8. Attenborough’s first appearance

Sir David Attenborough made his first tv appearance as a presenter on Zoo Quest in 1954.


9. Sharper, brighter, better

Short for Image Maximum, IMAX is a film format that displays images of far greater size and resolution than conventional cinema screens. The film stock is 70mm, which is run sideways through the camera. To expose it at a standard speed of 24 frames per second, three times as much film needs to move through the camera each second.

Mountain Gorilla, directed by Adrian Warren in 1992, was the first wildlife film made on IMAX.


10. A brush with death

Kenyan film-maker Alan Root was nearly killed in the 60s when the Maasai speared his parked Cessna (a light aircraft) to see what it was made of. The spears missed a fuel tank but partially severed a cable. He only discovered the damage after landing in Wilson airport, Nairobi. 


11. Deep Blue

Deep Blue (2003), which the BBC’s NHU created from the best footage from the Blue Planet series (2001), was the most successful documentary feature film ever produced in Britain. Memorable scenes include mating humpback whales, never-before-seen images of deep-sea life in the Marianas Trench, orcas attacking a grey whale calf and polar bears hunting beluga whales.


12. Plant drama

In Private Life of Plants (1995), Sir David Attenborough explored the unknown world of plants, such as South Africa’s giant aloe. New time-lapse filming revealed plants as they had never been seen before – capable of behaving as dramatically as animals. 


13. Sir David Attenborough’s landmark series

Sir David Attenborough’s Life on Earth (1979) was watched by over 500 million viewers worldwide. The series took three years to make and involved 1.5 million miles of travel for the whole film crew.

David’s subsequent landmark series include Living Planet (1984), Trials of Life (1990), Private Life of Plants (1995), Life of Birds (1998), Life of Mammals (2002) and Life in the Undergrowth (2005).


14. Living dinosaurs

Broadcast in 1999, Walking with Dinosaurs set out to create the most accurate portrayal of prehistoric animals ever seen on screen. The series combined fact with informed speculation and used cutting-edge computer graphics and animatronic effects. Walking with Dinosaurs took two years to make.


15. The diary format

Big Cat Diary (1997) follows individual animals through the seasons, giving each story a soap-opera feel. Still hugely popular 10 years on, it has spawned a number of other animal diaries.


16. Classic quote: Andrew Jackson (film-maker and head of BBC NHU)

“Why do we like Titchmarsh? Why do we like Attenborough? We like them because they offer a layer of authority and gentlemanly fatherliness, which gives us a layer of comfort.”


17. Classic quote:  Bill Oddie (natural history presenter)

“If you are equating natural history presenters with men’s magazines, David Attenborough would be Playboy and I would be Readers’ Wives.”


18. SOS TV 

Film-makers for Conservation (FFC) was launched in 1999. It’s a global conservation organisation for the film and television industry that aims to take programmes back to the places where they were made, so that audiences there can gain a better understanding of their own wildlife and the difficulties it faces.


19. Live broadcasts

The BBC’s Natural History Unit used outside broadcast units for the first time to show badgers live in Badgerwatch in 1977. This was followed by Reefwatch (1988), Africawatch (1989), Abyss Live (2002 and 2003), Wild in Your Garden (2003) and Springwatch (2005 onwards).


20. Frankencam

In 2005, Martin Dohrn developed an extraordinary camera to film invertebrates as never before. It allowed him to use a very small, wide-angle lens to follow insects without disturbing them. One of his recent discoveries is that woodlice have square poo.


22. Longest-running wildlife series

The Natural World is the Natural History Unit’s longest-running wildlife strand (1967 to present day). It was originally called The World About Us and was given its current name in 1983. Programmes are narrated by many different people and deal with diverse subjects.


23. Classic quote:  Brian Leith (BBC natural history executive producer)

“If you’d said 10 years ago that Bill Oddie would be the next big name in wildlife, people would have laughed. He loves natural history and is not afraid of expressing his opinions. God bless him.”


24. Watch life begin

In the Womb (Channel 4, 2006) used scanners and graphics to chart the development of a foetal dolphin, elephant and dog.


25. Into Africa

The National Geographic Society sponsored Mike Fey’s megatransect in 2001. Mike’s 3,200km trek across Africa led to the creation of 13 national parks in Gabon, and the Natural World film Gabon: Forests of the future.


26. Wildlife feature film

March of the Penguins was the second-highest grossing feature documentary film ever released. First shown in 2005, it was about emperor penguins in Antarctica and was narrated by actor Morgan Freeman.


27. Shark Shooters

The great white sharks leaping out of the water in Planet Earth were filmed at an incredible 1,000 frames per second on high definition.


28. Classic quote: Sir David Attenborough

“There is more meaning and mutual understanding in exchanging a glance with a gorilla than any other animal I know.” Sir David as he lay among crushed wild celery alongside a 100kg female gorilla in Rwanda in 1978, being filmed for Life on Earth.


29. Soap opera

Meerkat Manor was a surprise hit for Animal Planet and was later shown on the BBC. It features a family of meerkats in the Kalahari, filmed by Oxford Scientific Films. The series has been watched by more than 22 million people in the US alone.


30. Local heroes

By 2007, more than a million people had taken part in the BBC’s Springwatch Breathing Places campaign, launched to help create new local wildlife habitats.


31. Climate change experiment

In 2006, an experiment was launched by Paul Rose with support from David Attenborough to ask the viewing public to use their own home computers to help predict climate change. More than a quarter of a million people participated.

Scientists from Oxford University were then able to use the data to predict climate change up to 2080 – a rise of 4°C in the UK. To read more, visit www.bbc.co.uk/sn/hottopics/climate change


32. Animal magic

The award-winning children’s TV series Animal Magic, in which animals appeared to speak, courtesy of Johnny Morris, began in 1962 and ran for 24 years. Johnny died in 1999 aged 82.


33. The internet

The internet has opened up a new way of viewing wildlife, using cameras to broadcast live images via the web. For instance, a webcam set up in 1999 to view peregrine falcons nesting on a 54-storey building in Wall St, New York, has attracted thousands of viewers worldwide.


34. Heligimbal

This revolutionary device comprises a high-definition camera on a long lens, mounted on a specially stabilised plate attached to a helicopter. It allows cameramen to zoom in on animals from hundreds of metres away. This means they can film entire sequences without spooking the animals, such as the complete wild dog hunt seen in Planet Earth in 2006.


35. Intimate life of birds revealed

In Sir Peter Scott’s Look series (1955), cinematographer Heinz Sielmann hid a camera in a nest for the first time and filmed woodpecker chicks.


36. Survival

Anglia TV launched its Survival strand in 1961. The series ran to almost 2,000 films. 


37. Classic quote: Keith Scholey (ex-head of the Natural History Unit)

“David Attenborough can sit behind his desk in a room, look you in the eye and give you a message about climate change that rivets you or reduces you to tears. He has enormous power and charisma as a presenter.”


38. High Definition TV

High definition (HD) is a digital format with more information and a greater number of pixels than standard video cameras. The images it produces are incredibly high quality and make filming under difficult conditions, such as in low light or high contrast, much easier. The images can also be shown in the cinema without loss of quality.

High definition was pioneered in natural history film-making in Planet Earth.


39. Sound in natural history

Chris Watson is at the forefront of sound recording in natural history film. He uses highly miniaturised and top quality microphones on location. These enabled him to record the sound of a marine iguana snorting salt from its nostrils in the Galápagos.


40. The next steps

2008 saw the broadcast of David Attenborough’s next landmark series, Life in Cold Blood, about reptiles and amphibians.

Wild China, the first comprehensive natural history series on the country, Earth’s Great Events, featuring our planet’s great gatherings of wildlife, Life, an exploration of the world’s animal groups followed.

Human Planet, which explores the diversity of human life, is coming to our screens soon.


10 key figures in natural history film-making

41. Jacques Cousteau

Born in 1910, Cousteau was a French naval officer, explorer, diver and film-maker. He co-developed the aqua-lung and pioneered marine conservation projects. His documentary series The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau began in 1968. He died in 1997.


42. Hans Hass

A pioneer not only of underwater photography and filming, but also of diving itself, Hans took his first underwater photographs in 1938, using a home-made watertight housing. He made numerous programmes for the BBC, including Men Among Sharks, from 1956 to 1961.


43. Alan Root

Kenyan-born film-maker Alan Root effectively created the modern natural history documentary with classics such as The Serengeti Shall Not Die (1958), Baobab: Portrait of a tree (1973) and Castles of Clay (1978), a film about termites (Root’s favourite).


44. Dieter Plage

Dieter was a German cameraman who made films for ITV’s Survival for over 20 years between 1969 and 1993. His first was First Catch Your Unicorn (1969) and his last Drawn to the Wild (1993). He died aged 57 after falling out of an airship in Sumatra while filming.


45. David Bellamy

David worked as an environmental consultant and was propelled to fame in 1967 by his outspoken stance on the Torrey Canyon disaster. He has written and presented nearly 400 natural history programmes.


46. Sir David Attenborough

Sir David began his career as a presenter aged 24, but later found a note saying that he shouldn’t be on screen as his teeth were too big. After working as a producer, he became Controller of BBC2 before returning to presenting in his 40s.

Read BBC Wildlife's most recent interview with Sir David, here.


47. Mike Rosenberg

Mike set up the independent film company Partridge Films in 1974. His Channel Four series Fragile Earth won three Golden Panda awards at the Wildscreen Festival in 2006.


48. John Downer

John pioneered many of the techniques now commonplace in wildlife film-making, such as placing cameras on animals or flying alongside birds. He series-produced Supersense and Lifesense, which focused on how animals see the world.


49. Alastair Fothergill

Alastair Fothergill joined the Natural History Unit in 1983. He has worked on a wide range of programmes, including The Really Wild Show, Wildlife On One and Reefwatch. He was appointed Head of the NHU in 1992, but stood down in 1998 to series-produce The Blue Planet before going on to make Planet Earth.


50. Simon King

Born in Kenya in 1964, Simon started working in natural history films at the age of 10, appearing in The Fox and Secret Place. Simon has contributed to many BBC productions both as a cameraman and presenter, including the award-winning Tyto the Barn Owl and, more recently, Springwatch.


Find out more:

  • Wild Film History, a comprehensive database of 100 years of wildlife film-making.

  • To visit Sanjida's site, click here.



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