BBC Four explores The Girl Who Talked To Dolphins

I was thrilled to be asked to make this film. It’s an astonishing story, and rare to come across such a compelling narrative from the 1960s that’s not been told before.Christopher Riley, Producer/Director
Date: 08.05.2014     Last updated: 08.05.2014 at 16.09
Next month, BBC Four will show this one-off documentary exploring one of the most extraordinary experiments in the history of animal science.

In the early 1960s, American neuroscientist John Lilly began attempts to communicate with dolphins, by teaching them to speak English. To perform the experiment, he built a large white concrete house on the coast of the US Virgin Islands in the Caribbean, and hired a team of researchers to study what he felt was one of the smartest animals on Earth. Known as the Dolphin House, the building had a sea pool underneath it, which held three of these mammals and allowed the scientists to observe them at close quarters.

One of the researchers, a young woman called Margaret Howe, was charged with teaching them to talk through their blowholes. Between 1965 and 1966 she gave her pupil, an adolescent male called Peter, concentrated language coaching, in an attempt to accelerate his ability to speak English.

But what started with Sixties idealism would spiral into the darkness of the decade. The experiment would end in tragedy, and for years after there would be rumours of the dolphins suffering drug abuse and scandal over the nature of Margaret’s relationship with Peter.

Now, for the first time, the real, remarkable story of what happened at the Dolphin House can be told.

Executive producer Mark Hedgecoe says: “When I first heard about the Dolphin House I was utterly captivated by it. It was the most remarkable story of animal science I had ever heard and involved a host of unforgettable characters and events. I immediately realised it needed to be told properly in a documentary.”

Producer/director Christopher Riley says: “I was thrilled to be asked to make this film. It’s an astonishing story, and rare to come across such a compelling narrative from the 1960s that’s not been told before. But we knew we could only make it if Margaret wanted to take part and so my first job on the project, last autumn was to ask her!”

Margaret Howe Lovatt says: “I’ve had a good bunch of letters from people asking if they could interview me, but I’ve not done any of it. Many things had happened since the dolphin live-in programme, so I let it fade, and then the BBC came along and didn’t scare me. The girl and the dolphin living together caught a certain age.”.

BBC Commissioner Tom McDonald says: “At the heart of this film are the extraordinarily vivid and candid interviews with many of those who were part of - and bore witness to - the events which occurred at the Dolphin House. It's a story which is genuinely stranger than fiction. But far from gawping, this film finds integrity, humanity and genuine emotion in the most surprising places."

The Girl Who Talked To Dolphins, a 1x60-minute programme from BBC In-House Productions, was commissioned for BBC Four by Kim Shillinglaw, Head of Commissioning Science and Natural History, and Tom McDonald, Factual Commissioning Editor.

The film will be premiering at the Sheffield Documentary Festival on 11 June 2014 and shown later on BBC Four.

Notes to Editors

A selection of clips of the programme is available on the BBC's YouTube channel.