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With the withdrawl

 

 

 

Films, videos and film-making

 

 A brief history

As a young lad in the early 1960’s I remember going to see some of the films made by the RSPB film unit.  Development officers from RSPB headquarters at The Lodge in Bedfordshire travelled around the country with a projector showing 16mm reel to reel films on screens in church halls, village meeting rooms and small theatres.  It was a brilliant way to serve and entertain the RSPB membership (as well as sell some merchandise).  Swallows at the Mill was one production I remember capturing my imagination; it was in colour which made it more lyrical than some of the black and white films on television at the time.  Like those made by  Armand and Michaela Dennis's in Africa, the Zoo Quest adventures with David Attenborough, and Peter Scott with his Look programmes.  The places and wildlife they encountered and commented on was fascinating and captured my imagination.

Those individual presenters were heroes and I remember once attending an event at The Assembly Rooms in Norwich where Armand and Michaela Dennis gave a presentation.  I queued to get a signed copy of their latest book On Safari which I still have.  Peter Scott particularly inspired me as he was also a renowned artist.  Although I was enthusiastic about my art and was painting and drawing all the time, film also interested me.  I was energized by its potential, after all somebody had to be behind all those wildlife camera lenses, all those filming trips and expeditions needed planning and assistants, and there had to be creative teams helping to make things happen behind the scenes, and being a producer or director sounded really exciting. 

After A Levels and aged about 19, I enrolled on a foundation course at Great Yarmouth College of Art and Design.  A three-year Fine Art degree course at Leicester Polytechnic followed where in the first year I began working with super-8 film and a very early video camera available in the department and made use of the tiny film studios. The first unsuccessful effort was a very short film about wildlife in churchyards in and around Leicester.

At college I also spent a lot of time in the printmaking studio, which I found particulalrly interesting and took to with great enthusiasm.  But I began to feel that making a career purely as a visual artist might be more difficult than hoped.  Film seemed like a better propect.  In my final year, eager to learn more about wildlife film-making, I made contact with the RSPB film unit and volunteered to do anything to help.  Not long after I found myself with a husband and wife camera team in Wales already working on a film about red kites.  They needed someone to help carry equipment and put them into the camouflaged nest hides, and I got on with general duties keeping the base camp functioning and running errands.

So, at the end of my time at art school I invited the head of the RSPB film unit, Anthony Clay who I'd already been in touch with, to view my final BA degree presentation.  Soon after I was very lucky when he offered me a full-time job at the RSPB Film Unit as a Trainee Film Production Assistant.  My 18 months there were fantastic.  I was given every kind of job -  standing around in the editing suit handing glue and scissors to the film editor; driving to the Rank film labs in West London to deliver raw film or retrieve rushes.  Sometimes I found myself at the BBC Natural History Unit in Bristol dropping off rough-cut sequences from films we were collaborating on, or loading film magazines and cleaning cameras, and once had the opportunity to shoot a short film sequence of my own on birds eating berries in winter.  It was all very thrilling and I was hugely excited by the possibilities that film offered. 

I began to see that it might be possible to combine my creative enthusiasm and artistic temperament with a passion for the natural world and maybe find a place working in wildlife film-making. Then luck struck!  At the time I was house-sharing with RSPB colleagues and socially we mixed with a fantatstic gang of scientists, field assistants and adventurers from the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) nearby in Cambridge.  They used the same pubs and shared the same kinds of enthusiasms.  Among them was Pete Prince who I got on well with and who'd just returned from two and a half years on Bird Island and South Georgia in the remote South Atlantic.  He asked if I'd like to travel back there with him to be a field assistant on a seabird research programme he had been appointed to put together.   It was at very short notice, but it was an offer and opportunity I couldn't refuse!

Every moment down south on Bird Island (three summers 1975, 1976 and 1977) when I was not required for a field assistant’s task I was drawing and sketching - at the same time realising that there was huge potential for making films about the penguins, albatrosses, seals and whales all around us on the island.  So, after the first season - in colaboration with Pete and with permission from BAS - we returned to the UK briefly for the summer to borrow money and acquire cameras and lenses, buy film stock, light-meters, changing bags, travel cases and all the necessary kit to make a film.  Through my previous contact with BBC Natural History Unit we got in touch and they encouraged us to make a film but offered no commitment or money upfront.  Instead, the BBC showed a great willingness to view the material when we got back and decide then whether there was a film to be made from it all.

Fortunately the material was up to the mark.  We had worked to a script about fur seals and we knew the island and its wildlife so well there was definitely a story to be teased from the footage and the hours of sound recordings.  The first film we made The Private Life of the Fur Seal was subsequently shown on BBC1 television as part of the Natural World series.  A second programme telling a more complex Antarctic story, The 150 Million Ton Shrimp was made the following season and the finished film was shown on BBC2 television two years later in the World About Us series.  

After finally returning home opportunities to develop fine art painting, book illustration work and other art ideas grew and grew keping me very busy.  It seemed wildlife film-making was a very exciting phase and not the main driver of what I was trying to do with expressing a passion for the natural world.  Then, after writing and illustrating An Artist on Migration in 1991, a book about bird migration with chapters centred in West Africa, I showed part of the story about the seasonal floods in the Sahel to a grea tfilm director friend David Cobham who took it to the BBC.  Fortunately the idea was commissioned as a 50-minute film and  Beyond Timbuctu was shown in the BBC2 World About Us series.   Following the perceived success of that and the earlier programmes - and working with David again - I was commissioned by Channel 4 Television to write and present the six part Birdscape series about a range of British landscapes and the lives of some of the birds, and some of the people associated with them;the series aired in 1991.

I'd been lucky for 15 years or so being able to work with others making films that were all linked to painting and drawing in the field.  But gradually it was obvious that  opportunities to exhibit work were expanding as ideas for future film projects started to diminish.  Production teams moved on, new department heads wanted to refresh programme themes, and commissioning editors were looking for brilliant new programme ideas.  So being an artist began taking over my working life completely and I've been grateful for every opportunity it has presented ever since.  But I'm still interested enough in film to take a little GoPro camera with me out into the field.  The aim is to make short films, but that seldom happens as  things quickly get busy again in the studio as soon as I'm back and there never seems to be the time to edit and sort a decent sound track - but every so often I enjoy having a go!

 

 

 

A Few Winter Days in North Norfolk, 2019                 

Beyond Timbuktu

 First shown on BBC2 in the World About Us series, September 1988.  The film was directed by David Cobham who I was able work with again in recent years.  He invited me to illustrate his book A Sparrowhawk's Lament.  Sadly David passed away in 2018.

Birdscape

 These were a series of six programmes (directed by David Cobham) commissioned by Channel4 television and first broadcast in 1994.  Each programme focused on a UK habitat where there was an interesting landscape and natural history story to tell.  Here are three of the six - The Ouse Washes in Cambridgeshire, Kite Country in Wales and Heathland in Dorset.