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The BBC Natural History Unit's logo.

The BBC Natural History Unit (NHU) is a department of the BBC dedicated to making television and radio programmes with a natural history or wildlife theme, especially nature documentaries.

The NHU has been based in Clifton, Bristol since its formation in 1957. It currently exists as a specialist department of BBC Factual Production, which is itself part of the BBC's Vision Studios. Every year it makes about 100 hours of television and 50 hours of radio, making it the largest wildlife documentary production house in the world[1]. In July 2009 the BBC announced that Andrew Jackson had been appointed as the new Head of the Unit, following Neil Nightingale's decision to return to front-line programme making. Jackson will take up the post in the autumn of 2009.[2][3]

A commercial arm of the NHU, Wildvision, produces a variety of programmes for both the BBC and external broadcasters, notably Discovery's Animal Planet digital channel, in which the BBC is a joint partner with Discovery Networks.




First steps in natural history broadcasting

The BBC’s natural history links to Bristol date back to the 1940s, when Desmond Hawkins, a young producer, joined the West Region staff. His personal interest in the subject led to a radio series called The Naturalist, which began on the Home Service in 1946 and proved an immediate success, later augmented by Birdsong, Out of Doors and Birds of Britain.

By the early 1950s, Hawkins had been promoted to Head of Programmes, West Region and was keen to translate his success to the developing medium of television. At the time, radio still commanded much higher audiences than the fledgling television service but Hawkins was not alone in recognising the potential for natural history programmes in the audiovisual form. His vision was shared by Frank Gillard, the regional Head, and the two men would become the driving force behind the establishment of the Natural History Unit (NHU) in Bristol.

Until such formalities were completed, natural history programmes were the responsibility of the Features office of the West Region Film Unit. One of the first programmes was an outside broadcast from Slimbridge in 1953, the first TV collaboration between the BBC and Peter Scott. Occasional programmes continued the following year, but it wasn’t until 1955 that a regular studio-based series presented by Scott began: it was called Look.

One of the early problems for the Film Unit was the difficulty in sourcing film stock. At the time, the only wildlife cameramen were amateurs and the footage wasn’t always good enough for broadcast. Some of Scott’s own expedition films were used for early episodes of Look. One particularly outstanding film from 1955, shot by Heinz Sielmann, showed woodpeckers inside a nest hole.

The Unit is formed

By 1957, with Look firmly established and Gillard and Hawkins lobbying hard, the BBC management in London approved the official formation of a Natural History Unit. Gillard was on the search for a senior producer to head the new Unit, and asked David Attenborough to take on the role. Attenborough had good credentials (he was a trained zoologist) but declined, having recently settled in London with his young family. Instead, he was placed in charge of the newly-formed Travel and Exploration Unit, striking a deal which would allow him to continue to film his popular Zoo Quest (1954-1963) series alongside natural history output from the fledgling Bristol unit. The Travel and Exploration Unit in London also introduced viewers to more exotic wildlife, and made household names of the first natural history presenters. Armand and Michaela Denis filmed East African wildlife for their On Safari programmes, whilst another pioneering husband-and-wife team, Hans and Lottie Hass, created some of the first underwater films.

Nicholas Crocker, a senior producer with West Region, became the Unit’s first Head in September 1957. Founder members included Tony Soper (producer) and Christopher Parsons (assistant film editor), both of whom would go on to play a major part in the Unit’s development.

Although much of the Unit's early output concentrated on British and European wildlife, one of its first productions to be broadcast was Faraway Look featuring Peter Scott in Australia. The early programmes were limited by the available technology, but it was also a time of great experimentation in style and content, bringing the Unit notable success. Animal Magic (1962-1983), presented by Johnny Morris and Tony Soper, was a successful format for young audiences which ran for over 20 years. The Unit also collaborated with Gerald Durrell on several films of his animal-collecting expeditions, beginning with the series Two in the Bush (1963) from Australia and New Zealand.

Colour television arrives

In the early 1960s, natural history filmmaking was being held back by the limitations of the available technology, particularly the restrictions of shooting often fast-moving subjects in poor light and spectacularly colourful subjects in black and white. The second of these problems was about to be resolved.

Around the same time, the technology to broadcast and receive colour television was being developed, and the BBC made funds available to begin filming in colour to allow filmmakers to experiment with the latest equipment in preparation for the switchover. The Major (1963), produced by Parsons and filmed largely by New Forest cameraman Eric Ashby, told the story of an ancient English oak and was the Unit’s first colour production. This was one of six films made for the BBC by part-time film-makers Ron Peggs and Leslie Jackman. Leslie filmed the insect sequences at his home in Paignton using specimens collected by John Burton.

Colour transmission finally arrived in 1967 on BBC Two under the stewardship of David Attenborough, who had retired from programme-making to move into BBC administration. The first natural history film to be shown in colour was Ron Eastman’s Private Life of a Kingfisher (1967), written and produced by Jeffery Boswall.

Attenborough wanted to make a strong statement on BBC Two of the boundless possibilities that colour television offered, and recognised that natural history was the obvious subject matter to choose. He commissioned a series called The World About Us (1969-1982) that would broadcast in a 50-minute Sunday evening slot. Because of the challenge of producing enough colour material, the commission was shared between the NHU and London’s Travel and Exploration Unit. The extended opportunities offered by the 50-minute format and improvements in film technology and expertise finally allowed the NHU to begin showcasing its talent.

Birth of the blockbuster

One of Attenborough’s main achievements as Controller of BBC Two was to commission Civilisation (1969), a major series on art history presented by the respected Kenneth Clark. It was a resounding success with critics and the public and spawned the birth of the ‘blockbuster’ documentary series. Parsons, by then an experienced producer with the NHU, recognised the potential for a similar treatment with natural history as the subject and approached Attenborough in 1970 with the idea. Attenborough was receptive, even to the idea that he should present the series, but both men realised at that time that it was beyond the scope of the Unit’s capabilities.

When Attenborough resigned from his administrative duties to return to programme making at the start of 1973, planning for the blockbuster series resumed. It was another three years before the resourcing and financing were agreed, the outline episode scripts written (by Attenborough) and a production team in place. Parsons would serve as series producer and share production duties for the individual episodes with Richard Brock and John Sparks. Filming took place in 39 countries, featured over 650 different species and involved over 1 million miles of travel. Attenborough himself has said that if it hadn’t been for computerised airline schedules, the series would have probably been impossible to film. When it finally broadcast in 1979 on BBC One, Life on Earth drew an audience of 15 million people in the UK and was seen by an estimated 500 million people worldwide.[4]

Building on success

The Natural History Unit made its name with Life on Earth, and was rewarded by being awarded departmental status by BBC management in December 1979. Christopher Parsons, by then its most experienced producer, became the first official Head of the Unit. It celebrated its silver jubilee in 1982 with the miniseries Flight of the Condor, and went on to seal its reputation as one of the foremost production companies for popular natural history films in the following decades. A succession of 'blockbuster' series have followed the format established by Life on Earth, often presented or narrated by Attenborough and transmitted on BBC One. The Blue Planet (2001) and Planet Earth (2006) typify these signature programmes, characterised by high production values, specially-commissioned musical scores and often ground-breaking footage of wildlife from around the globe.

The NHU has also diversified into other programme formats. Its Diary series have featured African big cats, elephants, orang-utans and bears in a nightly wildlife soap opera. One of the longest-running programmes was David Attenborough's Wildlife on One (1977-2005) which broadcast in a regular early evening slot.

The Continents strand on BBC Two has featured series on all the world’s major land areas over the past fifteen years, including Land of the Tiger (1997), Andes to Amazon (2000) and Wild Down Under (2003). Also on BBC Two, the annual Springwatch (since 2005) and Autumnwatch (since 2006) series have brought live pictures of British wildlife into millions of homes.

50 years of wildlife filmmaking

In 2007, the Unit celebrated its 50th anniversary and was rewarded with a special award at the International Broadcasting Convention in recognition of its unique contribution to wildlife film and documentary making.[5]

On television, the anniversary was marked with the broadcast of Saving Planet Earth, a conservation-themed series which helped to raise over £1.5 million for the BBC Wildlife Fund.[6]

In October 2007, the BBC announced that the NHU would suffer cuts of a third in both staff numbers and its £37 million annual budget, as a result of the Government’s decision to impose a below-inflation increase in the television licence fee. The cutbacks were widely condemned by industry and media figures and by programme-makers including David Attenborough.[7][8]

In response to the criticism, Keith Scholey, Factual Controller of BBC Vision, promised that the BBC would "continue to make and show the ambitious, large-scale, truly memorable series that audiences associate with BBC natural history output".[9] Titles affected by the cuts include the BBC Two Wild strand.[7][10]

Productions already underway were not affected by the cuts, so the following year came Wild China, Pacific Abyss, Lost Land Of The Jaguar and Big Cat Live, as well as the Unit's most ambitious radio event to date, World On The Move. Natural World also received a three-year commission from BBC Two on its 25th anniversary.


Since its inception in the 1950s, the Natural History Unit has produced a wealth of material for television, radio, and more recently, cinema. Being the first and the largest production unit devoted to natural history programme making, it maintains an extensive archive of images[11] and sound recordings as well as film stock. The filmography article presents a chronological summary of the Unit's major television and film productions.

In production


As well as returning series such as Natural World and Springwatch and natural history content for BBC One's The One Show, the Unit has a number of major commissions currently in production:

  • Gorillas (provisional title) will follow the efforts of scientists and conservationists to protect the last remaining mountain gorillas in Africa. The three part series will be broadcast on BBC Two in 2010.[12]
  • Africa, announced by the BBC in January 2009, is a six-part BBC One series described as "a definitive television series on the greatest wildlife continent on earth". It will be the first project for Neil Nightingale, the former Head of the Unit, on his return to programme making.[2]
  • Earth Flight was commissioned by the BBC in March 2009 from independent producer John Downer Productions. Each of the five episodes will look at bird migration on a different continent, using innovative cameras and filming technology. Earth Flight will debut on BBC One in 2011.[14]
  • The BBC is collaborating with Animal Planet on two African series. The greatest concentration of wildlife on the continent will feature in The Great Rift, due for completion in 2010. The following year, Madagascar will focus on the natural history of the African island.[15]

The Natural History Unit increasingly provides original content for cross-genre programming. It is currently working with BBC Wales on Human Planet, a landmark factual series to be screened on BBC One in 2010.

Feature Films

Following its first steps in feature film production with the spin-off documentaries Deep Blue (2003) and Earth (2007), the Unit has finished production on its first original feature, The Meerkats, set in the Kalahari Desert. Co-produced by BBC Films and The Weinstein Company and directed by James Honeyborne, it will aim to build on the popularity of the Animal Planet/Oxford Scientific Films series Meerkat Manor.[17]

Awards and recognition

The Natural History Unit as a whole was awarded the Gold Medal at the 2001 Royal Television Society awards for its "outstanding contribution over the past 44 years to broadcasting about the natural world". It was praised for being a "a national resource for people's understanding and love of wildlife on our planet, and a symbol of both quality and talent in public service broadcasting"[18].

NHU filmmakers are regularly nominated and rewarded at film festivals such as Wildscreen, the Missoula International Wildlife Film Festival and the Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival and their output has been recognised by the wider broadcasting industry too, winning several Emmys and BAFTAs and the coveted Prix Italia on three occasions. Further details are provided in the relevant articles for specific series.

Recognition has also come in the form of high audience viewing figures and audience approval ratings, particularly for 'blue-chip' series such as Planet Earth. When first screened in the UK it was watched by more than 8 million people[19]. In 2008, episodes of Life in Cold Blood and the Wildlife Special miniseries Tiger: Spy in the Jungle both reportedly achieved the highest-ever audience appreciation index (AI) rating for a factual programme[20].

Heads of the NHU


  1. ^ "Directory of Production Companies". The International Association of Wildlife Filmmakers. Retrieved 2007-07-06.  
  2. ^ a b "BBC's Natural History Unit Head Neil Nightingale to return to programme making for the BBC". BBC Press Office. 2009-01-23.  
  3. ^ "Andrew Jackson appointed as new Head of the BBC Natural History Unit". BBC Press Office. 2009-07-06.  
  4. ^ "Heroes of the Environment: David Attenborough". Time.,28804,1663317_1663319_1669883,00.html. Retrieved 2009-03-07.  
  5. ^ "IBC Honours BBC Natural History Unit For Contribution To Wildlife Film". 2007-09-21.  
  6. ^ "Saving Planet Earth - The Fund". BBC Online. Retrieved 2008-01-03.  
  7. ^ a b "BBC flagship Natural History Unit to be cut by a third". The Independent. 2007-10-26.  
  8. ^ "Sir David Attenborough attacks BBC over wildlife budget cuts". Sky News. 2008-01-21.,,91248-1301626,00.html.  
  9. ^ "No extinctions at the BBC when it comes to broadcasting natural history". The Independent. 2008-03-03.  
  10. ^ "Shock at BBC Natural History Unit cuts". The Guardian. 2007-10-24.,,2198273,00.html.  
  11. ^ "Miracles of Nature". Western Daily Press. 2009-02-21. Retrieved 2009-03-07.  
  12. ^ "Gorillas, a new documentary series for BBC Two". BBC Press Office. 2008-09-23.  
  13. ^ "Attenborough is back - again". The Guardian. 2007-09-21.,,2174349,00.html?gusrc=rss&feed=4.  
  14. ^ "BBC One takes an aerial adventure in new natural history series, Earth Flight". BBC Press Office. 2009-03-12.  
  15. ^ "BBC Worldwide, Animal Planet Team on Specials". Broadcast & Cable. 2009-03-29.  
  16. ^ Khan, Urmee (2009-10-08). "Rare baby panda and koala bears in new BBC series". Daily Telegraph.  
  17. ^ "The Meerkats: BBC Films and the BBC Natural History Unit collaborate on ambitious first feature film". BBC Press Office. 2006-11-01.  
  18. ^ "RTS Programme Awards - 2001". Royal Television Society. Retrieved 2009-03-07.  
  19. ^ "BBC finds a treasure in Planet Earth". The Observer. 2006-04-09.,,1749763,00.html.  
  20. ^ "Tiger: Spy in the Jungle - Sunday 8pm BBC One". NatureWatch blog. 2008-04-01.  
General references

Information in the History section is largely drawn from the following sources:

  • Parsons, C. (1982) True to Nature: Christopher Parsons looks back on 25 years of wildlife filming with the BBC Natural History Unit. Patrick Stephens Limited. ISBN 0-85059-530-4
  • Attenborough, D. (2002) Life on Air: Memoirs of a Broadcaster. BBC Books. ISBN 0-56348-780-1

The list of Heads of the Natural History Unit is taken from the following source:

  • BBC/2 entertain Great Wildlife Moments DVD (2003). Bonus feature: Heads of the BBC Natural History Unit

External links


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