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.

Tagged with:


This entry is now closed for comments.

  • Comment number 38. Posted by Sam Hodgson

    on 3 May 2013 19:02

    Thank you so much for all your comments about Bill Bailey's Jungle Hero. We had such fun making the series and it’s so heartening to read all your responses. The project was driven by Bill's passion to tell Wallace's story - and it’s great to hear so many people saying that this really shone through.

    Bribee, DL and Kelabitmountain - interesting to read that you've spent time out in Malay Borneo and Indonesia. It’s a part of the world that our production team know and love - and we were very lucky to have our Assistant Producer, Adrian Seymour, who speaks fluent Indonesia and has an extraordinary knowledge of the wildlife there. DL, your journey to Aru sounds a real adventure. We never managed to get there on this series - but it’s definitely on my list for the future. It was a place Wallace loved dearly and described in great detail (this was where he encountered the pirates!). Kelabitmountain, many apologies if you felt our pronunciation of Sarawak was incorrect. This was the advice we were given but in future I will go more 'Sir' and less 'Sar'.

    Wallace's early life in the UK was one area we didn't have time to cover in much detail in the series. But Dai and Fishonsaturday, as you point out he spent time in Neath whilst working as a surveyor - and took the chance to really develop his skills as a naturalist. I’d love to visit the museum next time I’m out that way. During the making of the series we also had the great privilege of meeting Alfred Wallace's grandsons who live on the South Coast. There is an exclusive web clip of Bill meeting John and Dick Wallace on the website: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p0160nxk/clips?page=2

    Alan, in answer to your question about why we did not feature Wallace's time in the Amazon - again we simply did not have time within the two hour series. Perhaps it’s something we can return too in another series. There is however another exclusive clip on the website telling the disastrous ending of Wallace's time in South America. http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p016l87q

    Fred, in response to your point about the explanation of natural selection, our aim was to tell the story of how Wallace came up with the theory - and why it was such a radical idea in Victorian times. There are many interesting wider points about evolution (even on the radio this morning there was a discussion about whether humans are still evolving) but our aim was to focus on the stages that led Wallace to his discovery.

    And Bonzo, you are absolutely right, on our map of Java, Jakarta should have been marked slightly further west. Well spotted and apologies.

    Finally in response to Jim's question - yes we did have fun making the series. We had a fantastic production team - both in the UK and out in the jungle - and Bill was a joy to work with. We hope to be able to bring you more series in the future!

More Posts