Simon Bell - Producer
Hidden Kingdoms – Under Open Skies
Simon Bell is a producer at the BBC’s Natural History Unit where he’s been working since 1996.
- Feeling truly part of an orangutan rescue team when working on Orangutan Diary in Borneo - covered with mud, I helped them push their 4x4 out of a ditch on the way to rescue an orangutan in distress.
- Watching the ‘joy’ on the face of Tillman the skateboarding bulldog during filming for Super Smart Animals.
- Filming Britain’s native butterflies but also its eccentric butterfly enthusiasts for Butterflies: A Very British Obsession (Natural World).
10 questions about making Under Open Skies
1. How would you describe Hidden Kingdoms in three words?
we wanted the audience to be transported into the dramatic worlds of miniature animalsSimon Bell
‘A roller-coaster ride’. Alternatively… ‘Enjoyable, informative, entertaining’
2. How did you go about selecting the main characters and locations to feature in your programme?
Although Hidden Kingdoms is first and foremost a factual programme we knew from the start that we wanted the audience to be transported into the dramatic worlds of miniature animals. The search was therefore on both for engaging animal characters which the audience would feel an immediate connection with and also iconic environments which would provide a ‘cinematic’ setting.
3. What challenges did creating this new style of wildlife documentary bring?
This series employs a unique variety of techniques and a novel, storytelling approach. We’ve used elements of dramatic reconstruction not only to create the unique and distinctive perspective from which these animals view the world, but also to reflect the dynamism and drama of their lives.
4. Why did you decide to make a series with a more dramatised and personalised approach?
Although the world these animals live in and the way they experience it is very different from our own, in many ways the challenges all living things face are universal. We all grow up, face hardship and have to find our way in the world – these are universal truths shared by mice and men! By presenting natural history in this way I hope that, as well as being true to the facts, we have also helped viewers to see that we have a great deal in common with these incredible animals.
What was wonderful when watching early cuts of Under Open Skies was having people shed a tear when the grasshopper mouse leaves home at the end. I kept thinking ‘that’s just a mouse walking away from a rusty car’, and yet it is undeniably an emotional moment we can connect with as humans.
These animals lead amazing lives. Having them talk would have been factually inaccurate! Whereas what I hope we have done is allow them to tell their own dramatic; and often emotional stories merely by filming their incredible natural behaviour.
5. Did you derive inspiration from any unusual sources when writing your stories?
When filming in the iconic landscapes and locations we featured it is hard not to be influenced by cinematic references. I watched a lot of classic westerns when researching the story of the grasshopper mouse. John Ford’s The Searchers was a particular favourite, as was Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West. Eagle-eyed (and eared) viewers may detect a western influence both in the music and in some of the shots.
6. Which Hidden Kingdoms’ character would you be most like and why?
It’d be the dung beetle. This has been a long and challenging production. We never gave up, but at times it felt like we’d been rolling this ball for a very long time.
7. Which super power would you like to have if you could choose one?
When I was a kid thinking about this, it was always the rather modest super power of being able to move absolutely silently in order to sneak up on people. Make of that what you will!
8. Which 'B' character do you like most in the series?
I loved the grasshopper mice. During the filming we would go to sleep listening to their miniature howls on location. It’s a sound that will always be with me.
9. What is the most important thing you’ve learnt through making Hidden Kingdoms?
It’s that all life has incredible value, irrespective of size.
10. If you could make a second series, what little animal would you most like to feature?
The one animal that nearly featured in this series and whose story I am still desperate to tell is the gerbil. Their real lives are a far cry from the safety of your local pet shop. Instead, it would be an epic tale from the Mongolian steppes - filled with proud golden eagle hunters on horseback, sweeping grassland, swooping saker falcons, Bactrian camels and strange long-nosed saiga antelope.