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Screen Time To Wild Time: 60 Years Of The BBC Natural History Unit

03/04/2017 16:24
©www.photographybykarenmcdonald.co.uk

Like millions of Britons I've grown up on a healthy diet of wildlife telly. I can just about remember the seminal Life on Earth in the late 1970s and have the book, signed by my two Grans, to prove an early appetite for these programmes made in Bristol. This was an era when films like this shaped the national conversation and were part of the routine of families sitting down together to watch jaw-dropping images and compelling stories beamed into their living rooms from around the world.

Fast forward a generation and Planet Earth II, the latest blockbuster involving Sir David Attenborough, has defied the TV gods to bring in ratings that seemed to be part of history. My ten-year old daughter was hooked on the narrative of nature in these drama filled programmes and it inspired her to make Sir David her hero for a school project; showing the power of TV as a force to engage a new generation with the joy of the natural world.

Fuelled by a thirst for the story of the natural world, in all of its full technicolour, the series reached the digital generation, who consume their content in a very different way from the core audience that watched the programmes on BBC1. In the age of split screening and snackable content the stories that often had more twists and turns than Eastenders worked across channels from iPlayer to sharing via Facebook.

Bristol remains the epicentre of wildlife film-making (and radio too). In the age of so-called soft power the Natural History Unit, which celebrates its 60th birthday this year, can rightly claim to be a global superpower, attracting a broad range of amazing talent from across the globe to make films and radio programmes that have captivated and inspired generations.

A new research project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and led by a team at the University of Bristol is using this anniversary year as a chance to reflect and capture the impact of the Natural History Unit. Over the decades a network of researchers, producers, camera men and women has congregated around the city, effectively creating a hub of creative energy and innovation. The unit has been at the forefront of technological innovation and looking at fresh new ways to engage audiences.

The Watches (otherwise known as Springwatch, Autumnwatch and Winterwatch) have been at the forefront of telling the story of the challenges facing nature in the UK but also looking for solutions. Over many years I've had the privilege to work with the team producing this live showcase of British wildlife, whether helping Autumnwatch to come to Brownsea Island or organising regular appearances for the Farne Islands. These programmes have tested new approaches to live wildlife broadcasting that really does work and always seek to encourage their viewers to get involved with supporting the fantastic work that conservation organisations do in the UK.

It's not just TV that can capture the spirit and wonder of the natural world. The BBC's radio output is stellar when it comes to the natural world - think of the majesty of the tweet of the day series on Radio 4 and those occasional series that you stumble across that stop you in your tracks. The power and glory of sound and the narrator will leave you spell-bound, getting closer to what nature is all about.

There has been a well-documented decline in our connection to nature in pretty much one generation. It's something that has happened as we have moved en mass to towns and cities and for a variety of other reasons. Telling stories that inspire must be at the heart of getting people back into nature and captivating the next generation. Films and radio produced by the Natural History Unit will without any doubt play an essential role in allowing us to see the sheer beauty and diversity of wildlife around the world and getting us in to nature in our own backyard.

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