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

Thursday 18 April 2013, 09:58

Sam Hodgson Sam Hodgson Producer

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    Bill Bailey - first of a new breed of national ambassadors?

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    Great that Wallace's work is getting some recognition.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    Bill Bailey is quality!
    Love his work, love his comedy, love that he still looks scruffy after sprucing up...he ain't the next Attenborough though...and neither is that bore Professor Brian Cox!
    Steve Backshall should be the next main animal documentary presenter...I can't think of anyone else

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    Wallace spent some considerable time in Neath and in the Vale of Neath studying the flora and fauna of the area. A bit of a local hero.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    It is indeed good that Wallace is gaining more recognition – he was obviously a good man, as is Bill Bailey.

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    What a fantastic programme, I saw more in one hour than I saw in six months serving as a soldier in that jungle

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    Well, Sam based on the first episode you've a lot to live upto - really looking forward to Episode 2.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    Very enjoyable. It brings the 2 books, The Malay Archipelago and Where Worlds' Collide, to life. The story coupled with the photography makes Great Sunday evening viewing. The jury is still out on Bill as the storyteller but looking forward to next week.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    Fantastic episode 1. Very clear explanation of the development of Wallace's thoughts. Bill Bailey could indeed be the new Attenborough. Lack of pretension, real enthusiasm, and most importantly real understanding.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    Great programme with one omission. No mention of Wallace's five years in the Amazon, his shipwreck and loss of most of his collection before he went to Indonesia

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    What a brilliant program and so interesting. Bill Bailey was great and really held my attention, which isn't easy!

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    A programme about one of my favourite subjects (natural history) written and presented by one of my favourite people: Sunday evenings don't get much better! It's such a shame there's only one more episode to look forward to. Bill's knowledge, passion, enthusiasm and, of course, humour make for great entertainment which also educates, unlike so many TV programmes these days. Could Bill one day be to Natural History what Tony Robinson is to archaeology? I hope so. More of this please, BBC!

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    Loved this programme! Bill's genuine enthusiasm comes across. He doesn't pretend to be a professional scientist but is clearly knowledgeable. Fascinating tidbits of info:for example, having only seen tigers red in tooth and claw had never before considered them eating durian fruit! (Wonder if they ever eat them after they've fermented? - now that would be entertaining - from a distance!).

    Aside from the content, one of the best things was the pace of delivery. So many programmes recently delivered by non-academics have gone at a pace so slow that one is tempted to pick up a book between sentences and I, for one, have switched off out of sheer frustration and boredom at pace and lack of anything new to learn. Mr Bailey gets this is just right. Thank you.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    What a treat! Some presenters tell you everything when you can see it anyway; some are ponderous and slow. Bill allowed the pictures to speak for themselves and the extra things he told us added extra interest. And it was wonderful to hear from someone who is so clearly passionate about his subject. Maybe a successor to David Attenborough?

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    Great tribute show! Thanks. Wallace's crossing of the "hungry" sea between Bali and Lombok reminded me of the Bali Triangle hypothesised 1.6g dark matter body at the bottom of the Philippine Trench. See here for more fascinating details: [url=]Bali Bermuda Triangle Plane Crash April 2013[/url]

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    Just wanted to say I just watched the program and I LOVED it.
    Can't wait for the next episode.
    B. B. might not be the next Attenborough but i like his respect for nature and science while still making a very interesting and entertaining program and I would like to think that Attenborough does to as I liked his appearance in the program.
    Thanks and please, don't stop making excellent programs like this.

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    Always had a soft spot for Wallace after reading his "Malay Archipelago" - a modest man full of delight at the natural world's endless variety. Despite a plane wreck, a riot and the overthrow of the Indonesian government, managed to visit the site of Wallace's camp on Aru in 1998; saw green tree pythons and greater birds of paradise - but no Wallace's standardwing there, bah.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    I'm sure it'll make an excellent programme but everybody already knows about Wallace really... well, anyone who knows anything about the history of the theory of natural selection does and if that isn't every student in the land from primary school upwards then there's something wrong with our education system.

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    Absoloutely brilliant viewing, Bill Bailey is terrific, I really like his easy, unpretentious style, and he is obviously a clever, well read guy, his commentary was spot-on. I will be recording this series throughout. Show all the kids!
    Ps. I know Bill Bailey is great, but will everybody stop 'pigeon-holing' (!) him by comparing him to the wonderful David Attenburgh, -who Is in actual fact still with us!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    I prefer Wallace to Darwin since like myself he was interested in spiritualism; a different source of inspiration than malarial fever. Did he come to any conclusions about his spiritual quest or the cause of supernatural manifestations; something still unresolved?


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