Bill Bailey's Jungle Hero: An audience with the sultan


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What gift do you buy for a sultan? Comedian Bill Bailey's answer is a tin of biscuits.

We were heading out to Indonesia to film the second episode of Bill Bailey's Jungle Hero, about one of the great forgotten heroes of natural history – Alfred Russel Wallace.

To this day, the Wallace Line is the most significant dividing line of animals on the planet

Bill first heard about Wallace 15 years ago when he was birdwatching in Indonesia and he's been fascinated by his story ever since.

Wallace was a bug collector who spent eight years travelling through Borneo and Indonesia in the 1850s, seeing orangutans, flying frogs and birds of paradise.

And in a malarial fever he came up with one of the greatest scientific ideas of all time – the theory of evolution by natural selection (independently of Charles Darwin). Bill's determined to get Wallace recognised alongside Darwin.

Filming for the series took us from the deep jungles of Borneo to the remote and exotic Spice Islands.

Wallace's discovery was like science fiction - a whole new concept of what a frog could be

As one of the producers, I was keen to get a sense of what life was like for the Victorian explorer.

And it was on the volcanic island of Ternate – Wallace's base for three years – that I believe we got our best insight.

Wallace had to get permission to explore from the sultan of the islands and now, 160 years on, Bill had to obtain his permission for us to film.

We weren't quite sure what to expect from our meeting with the sultan of Ternate, organised through our location fixer.

We'd been told he was a somewhat eccentric character and a great fan of Wallace but other than that we had few details.

"Arrive at the palace at 9am", we'd been informed, "and look smart" (not the easiest thing for a film crew recently emerged from the jungle!).

As we approached the gates it was clear the sultan had organised quite a welcoming party.

Guards with golden shields and spears were there to greet us. Courtiers in ceremonial tunics lined the route. There was a great sense of occasion – and a very real connection with Wallace's journey.

After a quick scrub up, Bill arrives at the palace

This was the same palace he visited when he first arrived in Ternate in 1858 – and apart from the bright pink steps, little had changed.

Although I knew visiting the sultan was an important part of our story, I was concerned that a formal interview might feel stuffy – out of character with the rest of the film.

My fears were allayed as soon as we stepped inside the palace.

Seated on a vast throne, and flanked by his courtiers, the sultan first enquired whether Bill was from the government.

When Bill explained he was in fact a comedian, the sultan insisted he tell some jokes after the meeting. At this point even the courtiers cracked a smile.

The sultan was passionate about Wallace and genuinely proud of the naturalist's links with Ternate.

He was outraged that Wallace wasn't better known in England. And he was happy to give us his approval to go in search of birds of paradise on a neighbouring island he controlled.

To see Wallace's standardwing birds of paradise is an 'extraordinary and rare privilege'

The meeting had been a success. But there was one last surprise. As we were about to leave, the sultan asked if we’d like to see his crown – or mahkota.

I had heard that it held magical powers but was somewhat taken aback when the sultan told us it was covered in tiny hairs – that grow!

From a few feet away I couldn't see any evidence, but the sultan insisted the hairs grow so rapidly the crown needs a haircut once a year!

It was a surreal ending to my first audience with a sultan – and a genuine insight in to the extraordinary world Wallace experienced more than 150 years ago.

Sam Hodgson produced episode two of Bill Bailey's Jungle Hero.

Bill Bailey's Jungle Hero starts with Wallace In Borneo on Sunday at 8pm on BBC Two and BBC Two HD. For further programme times please see the episode guide.

Comments made by writers on the BBC TV blog are their own opinions and not necessarily those of the BBC.

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