BBC HomeExplore the BBC
This page has been archived and is no longer updated. Find out more about page archiving.

24 September 2014
Inside Out

BBC Homepage

Contact Us


You are in: Inside Out > West > BBC Natural History Unit

Jonny Morris

‘Animal Magic’ filmed at Bristol Zoo

BBC Natural History Unit

The Natural History Unit in Bristol is celebrating its 50th birthday this year. Today, the unit has a global reputation for the quality of its programmes.

BBC Natural History Unit

  • BBC Natural History Unit was co-founded in 1957 by Desmond Hawkins and Tony Soper
  • The NHU is based in Clifton, Bristol
  • The unit has been led by Neil Nightingale since 2003
  • Each year 100 hours of television and 50 hours of radio are produced
  • It is the largest wildlife documentary production house in the world
  • David Attenborough is one of the NHU's high-profile presenters

The NHU employs 200 people who make 100 hours of TV and 100 radio programmes a year, as well as online, books and DVDs and even feature films.

Early roots

However, it was not always like that: mighty oaks from little acorns grow.

It was an accident of birth that Bristol started making nature programmes.

Frank Gillard

Frank Gillard

After the war, in 1946 the new controller of BBC Bristol, Taunton schoolmaster Frank Gillard had to decide what items he could contribute to the network.

He decided on archaeology, farming and natural history.

The next 11 years were spent experimenting with the subject and the new television medium as well, before officially becoming the Natural History Unit in 1957.

Peter Scott

Of course everyone assumes Sir David Attenborough was part of this early team, but in truth, he was asked to come and head the unit but he was too established in London to take the job.

There was a gentleman’s agreement that he would continue the far-flung overseas assignments he was covering in his ‘Zoo Quest’ series and the NHU would stick to Europe and Britain.

Peter Scott and David Attenborough

Peter Scott and David Attenborough

However, this was not to last very long as Sir Peter Scott, the charismatic presenter of the scientific ‘Look’ series, was asked to judge the sailing competition in the 1956 Sydney Olympics.

If the NHU were to have their new series ready for their launch in 1957, they had to have their presenter.

So, in true pioneering style, they sent a cameraman to Australia with Peter Scott where they could capture stunning footage as well.

Amateur cameramen

Remember, these were still early days and it was an extremely untried industry. Nobody knew how best to film their subjects.

All the cameramen were essentially naturalists who learned to use a wind-up Bolex camera, which ran for approximately 28 seconds a time.

The NHU team were always phoning up friends of Sir Peter Scott and rich businessmen to see if they had taken any wildlife films on their holidays to places like Fair Isle and Skomer Island.

They also had regular amateur cameramen like Eric Ashby in the New Forest and Leslie Jackman in Paignton who specialised in their own local flora and fauna; mammals for Eric and marine life for Leslie.

Leslie even made a whole ‘Look’ item in his garden shed.

Peter Scott would use discussion, maps and even painting in the studio to beef out the items if they were not long enough.

Animal magic

On screen there were the exotic ‘Zoosome Twosomes’, such as Armand and Michaela Denis and Hans and Lotte Hass, rulers of the safari and underwater worlds respectively.

Soon there was Johnny Morris with his terribly popular ‘Animal Magic’ series which was filmed at Bristol Zoo and in the studio where Points West is based today.

Johnny Morris with friend at Bristol Zoo

Johnny Morris with friend at Bristol Zoo

The output ranged from the strictly academic ‘Life Cycle of the Rabbit Flea’ to Johnny Morris’ anthropomorphism which was not very scientific but brought children to love the animal world through his comedic voices.

New film techniques

Sophisticated filming techniques were developed; infrared technology was used first in a disused basement turned fox den at BBC Bristol, to show the natural behaviour of foxes and their cubs.

Macro lenses brought us views of insects that had never been seen before; with time lapse photography, blooming plants were sped up and hummingbirds' wings were slowed down; all bringing a greater understanding of our natural world.

David Attenborough's Living Planet

David Attenborough's Living Planet

The secret world of nature was brought alive in all its glory.

New life was breathed into nature programmes - the way we saw nature was radically changed as viewers got a bird's eye view of wildlife in all its complexity.

First mega series

The first mega-series to be produced by the NHU was 'Life On Earth' in 1979. It was presented by Sir David Attenborough and cost a million pounds. 20 cameramen were sent to 49 countries.

It is a formula that has been a huge success ever since.

The natural world is a source of never-ending wonder and the NHU continue in their quest to bring it to our screens.

New technology has made a real difference. High Definition heli-gimbal mounts for aerial filming have enabled crews to fly so high above their subjects that they do not know they are there.

Sir David Attenborough

Sir David Attenborough... mega series

This means they can film wolf chases and even get close-ups of migrating birds without running the risk of chopping them in the propellers.

New submersibles have enabled film crews to accompany scientists to ocean depths never discovered before. It means that new species are still being discovered.

And as for Sir David Attenborough: the word from the head of the NHU, Neil Nightingale, is that he's not definitely not retiring any time soon.

Also featured

Hooked on horse tranquillisers.  Why is ketamine such a problem in the Forest of Dean?

And the British surgeon introducing kidney transplants to West Africa.

last updated: 29/11/07

You are in: Inside Out > West > BBC Natural History Unit

Watch Inside Out again via iPlayer
Natures top 40

About the BBC | Help | Terms of Use | Privacy & Cookies Policy