Wallace, myself and the BBC

by Dr George Beccaloni, Series consultant

Two of my greatest passions in life are cockroaches and Alfred Russel Wallace, so I am fortunate to not only be the curator of the London Natural History Museum's collection of orthopteroid insects (cockroaches and their relatives) but also the director of the Wallace Correspondence Project.

Cockroaches and Wallace have something in common: although both are very important and interesting, they are sadly misunderstood and underappreciated by most people Leaving cockroaches aside, why is Wallace so significant? Well, not only is he the seldom acknowledged co-discoverer with Darwin of evolution by natural selection, but he also made many other major contributions to biology and to subjects as diverse as glaciology, land reform, anthropology, ethnography, epidemiology, and astrobiology. He is regarded as being the 'father' of evolutionary biogeography (the study of how plants and animals are distributed) and his book 'The Malay Archipelago' is one of the most celebrated travel writings of the Victorian era and has never been out of print.

I’ve had a passion for Wallace's life and work for 15 years, and first met Bill Bailey when he came to the Museum wanting to know more about the great man. I got to know him and discovered what an intelligent, down-to-earth, good natured, decent bloke he is. Better still, Bill happens to share my desire to correct the history books and give Wallace his fair due. The other great thing about him is that he can be very amusing.

In 2011, Sam and Tuppence decided to make two films for the BBC to mark the 100th anniversary of Wallace's death in 2013, finally giving Bill the chance to put Wallace back in the limelight. Fortunately the Museum agreed that I could spend three weeks working with Bill and the BBC crew in Indonesia on the second programme. I had an incredible time: I experienced the first earthquake of my life (scary), got up close and personal with black macaques (one even used my back as a trampoline when I bent over to photograph an insect!), was enthralled by gremlin-like tarsiers, amazed by colossal coconut crabs, and blown away by Wallace's standardwing birds of paradise displaying only about 10 metres away from me.

The Sulawesi region is now one of my favourite places – especially the national park we visited on the island of Halmahera, which strongly reminded me of Conan Doyle's Lost World. I hope you enjoy watching the programmes as much as I enjoyed working on them.