At ten past eight in the evening on Tuesday 16 January 1979, British viewers were invited to embark on the opening stage of what would turn out to be one of the most spectacular and ground breaking journeys in British television history. The 50-minute programme was advertised in Radio Times as the start of an ambitious attempt across 13 weekly episodes to explore “the incredible variety of living things, and fossils, which throw light on the ancestry of life”.

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The series was called Life on Earth, its presenter David Attenborough. It decisively announced not only a new phase in natural history TV, but the beginning of a decades-long era in which the BBC and, in particular its own Natural History Unit, would become a dominant player in the global broadcasting marketplace.

In some respects, Life on Earth started rather unspectacularly. Since this was the story of evolution, the first episode was largely about single-cell organisms. The next featured sea snails and shrimps. In fact, the series would be more than halfway through before it served up that familiar medley of giant lizards, lions and zebras that viewers of natural history had come to expect.

Nevertheless, only two episodes in, the renowned critic Clive James was writing in the Observer of watching “enthralled… Slack-jawed with wonder and respect”. Nor was he alone. Such was the startling intimacy of those first images of translucent floating amoebas that millions of other viewers around the country were also glued to their sofas.

By the penultimate episode, which featured Attenborough in an extraordinary unscripted sequence sitting on a Rwandan mountain side being caressed by gorillas and whispering to camera about the “mutual understanding” between them, the Observer critic was reaching new heights of ecstasy. This, James wrote, was stunning proof that television could be an “instrument of revelation”.

Here too, he suggested, was perhaps the clearest example yet of the BBC’s “collective genius” for creating blockbusters. For James, Attenborough was undoubtedly crucial to the series’ success: he was the arch-communicator, deeply knowledgeable about science yet able to convey complex ideas through simple statements. Yet the sheer quality of the BBC’s film footage – “so magnificent that it would have been inconceivable even a decade ago” – struck him as equally important.

What viewers witnessed in the opening months of 1979 was the result not of one man’s efforts but of team intelligence: Life on Earth marked the inauguration of a long and distinguished lineage of epic wildlife series fronted by Attenborough for the BBC. It was also the culmination of more than half a century of broadcast professionals busily working out how to feature animals on air in a way that was both entertaining and scientifically sound.

When it came to natural history broadcasting, the Corporation had its own evolutionary story to tell.

The birth of a genre

Back in the 1920s, the BBC’s Savoy Hill studios had often been filled with pets and other readily available creatures. Two widely publicised programmes from 1924 featured the “Great Howl” from a rescue dog named George, in which young listeners to Children’s Hour were invited to report on their own pets’ reactions at home, and a live “Zoo Concert” from Regent’s Park in London, featuring jackasses, a hyena and a walrus.

Eight years later, when experimental television transmissions began, animals were being given top billing almost as frequently as the singers, dancers and musical hall artistes. Parrots, hornbills, toucans, a boa constrictor, a Capuchin monkey and even an alligator were among those hauled before the cameras to do a quick turn.

A juggling act in which a “goldfish” in a bowl was balanced precariously on the top of a billiard cue actually involved the use of a cut-up carrot

There was, as one eyewitness of these pioneering years recalled, a considerable degree of chaos behind the scenes. There was sometimes a touch of subterfuge, too. One favourite among viewers, a juggling act in which a “goldfish” in a bowl was balanced precariously on the top of a billiard cue, actually involved the use of a cut-up carrot.

When television returned after the war, two of the most familiar faces on British screens were those of Armand and Michaela Denis, who would be seen setting off on safari at regular intervals. Their approach was sentimental and anthropomorphic, with one BBC insider dismissing it as “husband and-wife-venturing-into-the-deepest-darkest-Africa stuff”.

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Husband and wife team Michaela and Armand Denis in Uganda in 1952. Their televised safaris during the 1950s and 60s were often highly sentimental in tone (Photo by Thurston Hopkins/Picture Post/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Husband and wife team Michaela and Armand Denis in Uganda in 1952. Their televised safaris during the 1950s and 60s were often highly sentimental in tone (Photo by Thurston Hopkins/Picture Post/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Even Zoo Quest, launched in 1954 and featuring a young David Attenborough and a London Zoo curator bringing a variety of snakes, birds and lizards from the undergrowth of New Guinea or Madagascar back to the studio to accompany an informative talk, still had the faint air of a Victorian animal-capturing expedition about it.

By 1973, when Attenborough was emerging from almost a decade toiling away in the upper reaches of BBC management and eager to return to the frontline of programme-making, it felt as if a more challenging approach was needed. Two recent TV series, 1969’s Civilisation, presented by Kenneth Clark, and 1973’s The Ascent of Man, presented by Jacob Bronowski, had shown what could be achieved when lengthy slices of airtime were committed to the detailed exploration of a chosen subject by a leading expert in the field.

As he began setting out his plans for a grand series about evolution, Attenborough knew he would be able to draw on a large network of scientifically literate producers, researchers, sound recordists and film-makers

More significantly, perhaps, there had been a revolution in the BBC’s own technical capabilities and zoological knowledge in the two decades since Zoo Quest had first aired. The Natural History Unit, which had started rather modestly back in the 1950s inside the BBC’s West Region based in Bristol, had been growing steadily in size, expertise and reputation. It meant that as he began setting out his plans for a grand series about evolution, Attenborough knew he would be able to draw on a large network of scientifically literate producers, researchers, sound recordists and film-makers.

The promise of an unprecedented £1-million budget to meet above-the-line costs, as well as extra money from the American company Warner Brothers, soon helped seal the deal.

In focus: how woodpeckers helped create the Natural History Unit 

It was thanks largely to the producer and amateur bird-watcher, Desmond Hawkins, and a young studio manager, Tony Soper, that the BBC’s West Region in Bristol built for itself an enviable reputation in the postwar period for specialising in natural history radio. But it was one of their most valued contacts in the bird-watching world who helped them launch into television.

In 1954, Peter Scott, who ran a wildfowl sanctuary in Slimbridge, near Gloucester, attended the International Ornithological Congress in Switzerland. On his return, he went straight to Hawkins: “You’ve got to see this film.” While at the Congress he had seen 13 minutes of footage of woodpeckers recorded by the German naturalist Heinz Sielmann. What struck Scott as remarkable about Sielmann’s film was his stunning use of close-ups, and the infrared technology that had allowed him to film inside a tree trunk.

The German was quickly signed up by the Bristol team, and his film screened on BBC Television. The next morning, there were so many phone calls from excited viewers that the BBC’s switch board became jammed. The extraordinary public response to the woodpecker film provided the nudge that BBC managers in London needed to invest extra resources in Bristol.

The Natural History Unit was soon established. Its first big TV series was Look, which began in 1955 and ran for over a decade. It was introduced by Peter Scott, and featured short films promising a “fly’s eye” view of toads, foxes and other native species. Expertly recorded film footage remained in short supply, but over time a pool of camera operators and sound recordists was trained up.

In 1957, Faraway Look was launched, showcasing filmed reports from abroad. Two years later, to coincide with the centenary of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species, Scott and Soper hitched a ride to the Galapagos Islands, and returned with enough footage to fill seven half-hour episodes. Their pioneering location reports offered a tantalising foretaste of how television would tell the story of evolution through Life on Earth two decades later.

Over the years of its creation, the scale of the production effort for Life on Earth had to keep pace with the scale of its presenter’s ambition. Since Attenborough wanted the story of evolution to drive the whole shape of the series, and for his argument to be illustrated not by an endless sequence of fossils in museums but by shots of living creatures out in the world, crews had to be dispatched to all points of the compass.

Attenborough’s determination to talk about opposable thumbs led him and a production team to that mountainside in Rwanda; his reference to a coelacanth, a rare type of fish, required another crew to scour the ocean depths for the first, fleeting images of one of the most elusive creatures on Earth.

Several sequences that demanded extra lighting or sustained close-ups were captured by an independent production company, Oxford Scientific Films, working with specially constructed studio sets. In the process, new lenses, new filmstock and new filming equipment all had to be developed.

The pursuit of excellence

The whole, fiendishly complicated process was coordinated by a trio of senior producers at the Natural History Unit: Chris Parsons, John Sparks and Richard Brock. And it was the Natural History Unit that ensured that Attenborough’s narration reflected the most up-to-date knowledge. Its researchers consulted more than 500 scientists and visited 183 different institutions around the world – the kind of ongoing dialogue that reassured the scientific community that the BBC would never set out to vulgarise or misrepresent their findings in this or any future series.

Natural History Unit researchers consulted more than 500 scientists and visited 183 different institutions around the world

The high production values of Life on Earth were visible to all, and undoubtedly helped secure major international co-production deals for the BBC in the years ahead. As one BBC insider put it, it demonstrated the “idea of excellence being an end in itself”.

The series also established David Attenborough’s personal reputation as the human embodiment of public service values – what one of his colleagues, Huw Wheldon, would have referred to as the BBC’s mission to “make the good popular, and the popular good”.

Above all, Life on Earth showed the virtues of deep, sustained institutional knowledge – and the kind of magical, life-enhancing TV that could be made when different parts of a well-resourced broadcasting machine came together and clicked sublimely into place.

David Hendy is emeritus professor at the University of Sussex. His latest book is The BBC: A People’s History (Profile, 2022)

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This article was first published in the July 2022 issue of BBC History Magazine

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