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Amanda Theunissen - Earth in Vision

Updated Thursday 23rd June 2016

Amanda Theunissen, Editor of 'Nature' in the eighties, discusses environmental issues, The Octonauts and digital archive. 

Amanda Theunissen

"I’ve worked in every part of television since John Logie Baird invented it.  I starting as a reporter on the local news in Bristol and ending as Editor of Nature, the environmental strand based in the BBC’s Natural History Unit.   We were trying to tell environmental stories and warn of climate change long before the E word became fashionable.  I’m not sure we changed anything at the time but we did lay the groundwork for people to listen later.

I left the BBC  in the 1990s and since then have worked as a Producer and Executive Producer for all UK terrestrial broadcasters and extensively with US channels  - National Geographic and Discovery/ Animal Planet. My remit has covered natural history, science, environmental and historical documentaries and drama-docs.   I also have wide experience in re- versioning European documentaries for the international market which is a very particular skill.

I worked as a mentor and lecturer for Documentary- Campus (the European film initiative and training and production forum) for many years and have been involved in Wildscreen producing numerous sessions and teaching script writing and interviewing techniques since 2002."


Amanda Theunissen

Wildscreen, 20th – 23rd October 2014

Earth in Vision Project

My name is Amanda Theunissen and I suspect I’m here because way back in the eighties I used to edit Nature, which was the BBC’s only environmental strand. It came from the Natural History Unit but they didn’t have any journalists and so I was called in as a journalist and, for about five years, we ran an environmental strand. I was the editor at one stage and I retained my interest always in environmental stories and environmental film making.

Natural history and environment: How I got interested

Well, to be absolutely truthful, I’m not terribly interested in natural history per se as an art form; animals – absolutely lovely, I’m much more interested in people. And it was working on Nature that made me so aware of what the environmental issues were then and are still now.

I think probably the thing that really triggered my interest and made me almost obsessive about, as I am to this day, was a film I made in Poland before the wall came down when a report was smuggled out that said seven-twelfths of Polish land was unliveable on because the Soviets had been using it as their industrial backyard. And I went and made a film there and that changed my view about the environment forever; it stopped being just a job and became an obsession.

Why did the BBC Nature strand come off air?

It came off the air because we failed as a popular broadcaster. It was very new, it was quite different, the science at the time was not specific and it was very hard to get scientists to commit themselves to almost anything, and as you know, guys on television saying, ‘Well, it could be this or it could be that’ is not really what television is all about. We couldn’t find anything at that stage which didn’t seem… the stories were, of necessity, gloomy. It was the first time anybody had really looked at the field and looked at the issues, and we failed. We failed to make it a popular programme and it was felt that it wasn’t achieving anything useful for the BBC and they took it off and replaced it with celebrities going into the wild to look at animals, which is fine it its form, it’s fine it its form, but it meant an awful lot of stuff wasn’t covered. And there was one other issue too which was important, although it may not be important for you but it was important at the time, which was that we needed American money to make full length programmes. Magazine programmes we could manage at home, that would be fine, that wasn’t an issue; full-length programmes we needed American money and the Americans weren’t interested in anything that was happening in England and the English weren’t interested in anything that was happening in America. So we fell between two stools and we failed.

Since ‘Nature’ came off air has the BBC succeeded in covering the environment?

It’s played out very badly for it, and you can judge the result by the numbers of environmental programmes after Nature, almost zero. I was once at a conference with a senior BBC commissioning aide and the aide said to me that she was really proud of the fact that she’d managed to stop the head of BBC 1 commissioning environment programmes because they simply didn’t bring the audience in. I was horrified.

I just don’t understand, because I don’t understand the mindset of commissioners, faced with this disaster, which is looking at us all and their children and their grandchildren and so on, I don’t understand why they won’t let us deal with these serious problems. If you want to make a programme about child abuse, you wouldn’t pretend it was something else, you wouldn’t feel you had to slide it in around the side. Why do we feel this with the environment; why do we even talk about it as ‘the e word’? I just don’t understand it. I don’t understand what commissioners are looking for which prevents us from dealing with the most serious questions head on.

Please give an example of a successful environmental programme

Yes, do you know what I think is the most effective environmental programme on television, it’s called The Octonauts. It’s a children’s programme, they are ten minute films, they’re about creatures, a group of animal adventurers who live at the bottom of the sea and every ten minutes they save a species, they clear plastic out of the oceans, they travel all over the oceans. Everybody between the ages of four and ten watches The Octonauts and those children know more about the sea and the threats to it and the dangers and the interest than any adults. It’s tremendous! The programme they made about clearing plastic out of the ocean was as hard hitting as you could possibly get, and I simply have never understood why the broadcasters think it’s alright to tell children about these things but somehow adults can’t deal with it.

What is good about programmes like The Octonauts and Hugh’s Fish Fight?

Well, The Octonauts is slightly different. The Octonauts works because at the end of each episode the The Octonauts have cleared a bit of the sea, saved a fish, looked after a whale, whatever. There’s a resolution, there’s a beginning and a middle and an end and they’re very well put together, there’s excitement, there’s a little bit of jeopardy and then it works. Hugh’s Fish Adventure gave you a positive chance to do something about it, you could not buy the fish, you could make an effort; it was something you could actually deal with. I do think there’s an issue about programming where the problems are so huge that there is nothing the individual person can do about it and I think that’s what holds the programmes back a lot.

What we tried to do on Nature, and we failed, but it would be easier to do now, would be to have a magazine programme where you could identify smaller issues, and from the smaller issues, small and open issues where you can actually get involved and you can actually do something. It’s being able to do something, it’s a sense of helplessness, I think, not that it’s doom and gloom, it’s the helplessness. And it’s the helplessness in the face of political intransigence, which is why I feel social media is probably the way forward, not main broadcasters. There’ll always be beautiful films about animals we can look at from afar, but I’m sure that if change is going to come it’s not going to come through the main broadcasters, because they're just too cumbersome and too heavy, it’s going to come through social media where you actually feel you can make a… you can send a tweet there and then and you can add your name to the list and you can make it work. That’s what people need, that’s what makes The Octonauts work, it’s because they actually do something. And if you can’t do anything then you just feel bad about it.

Is it possible to mix blue-chip natural history with environmental issues?

One of the things about the different layers of decision making is that personal views become stronger than perhaps they should. I was once at a conference with a very high up BBC person who told me how proud she was that she’d managed to persuade the controller at BBC 1 not to run environmental programmes because they were bad for the audience.

Now, none of that strikes me as being particularly usefully academic.

Separation of powers. I think part of it is a personal thing, it’s to do with a very influential Head of the Natural History Unit, who was of the view that viewers were not interested in problems, they only wanted to see beautiful animals; they didn’t want to know about the problems surrounding them. And he was a very influential, very forceful man and he covered what could’ve been a development into animals and the environment. For quite a long time the BBC… and I can only really speak about the BBC because I don’t know …sorry, and indies… The BBC used to have a sort protocol that programmes would finish with a two-minute piece roughly on the lines of, ‘Time for the snow leopard is running out’ or ‘Can man and the otter live together?’ And that was the way they dealt with it. But mostly it was for old … and it is still received wisdom, that people really only want to watch animals, they don’t want to watch any of the issues or the problems behind them, they don’t want to know how difficult it is to film a lion because of the ring of people around it and the shortage of food and the shortage of water and the artificial… they don’t want to know that it’s very difficult to find snow leopards because they’re being hunted to extinction. They don’t mind about… that’s not quite right. They don’t mind about animals being hunted to extinction provided it’s done by foreigners. What they don’t want to know is that the mountain habitat, the snows are melting and it’s becoming increasingly difficult for the snow leopard to hold on. The feeling is they don’t really want to know about that, they just want to see the beauty.

I think Enchanted Kingdoms, which is just about to have a theatrical release, which is a programme about Africa in 3D, cost millions, there isn’t a human being in sight for a start and there isn’t an animal in trouble, it’s just utterly, utterly beautiful and that’s all there is to it, and I can’t make any more sense of it than that it is received wisdom that audiences don’t want to be troubled, they don’t want to be troubled with stories about the environment, they don’t want to be troubled. And it’s received wisdom and I don’t understand why people aren’t rethinking it. It takes me back to my answer about The Octonauts because if it’s alright for children, it’s alright for Steve Backshall to cut off sharks’ fins on CBBC for children, why isn’t it alright for grown-ups to deal with the issues head-on as well? But received wisdom is that people will turn off, but as there’ve never been any serious, head-on programmes about the environment since Nature finished, I don’t know where that received wisdom comes from.

What is the potential of releasing natural history archives?

I think it’s incredibly important that archive, that group memory is triggered about how fast the changes are happening, and I think archive would be a very good way of doing that. It’s not that I’m against the idea of releasing archive. I think it is important that people realise how fast things are changing; within short lifetimes things are changing and if you could see the river that used to be full of fish when the presenter was a boy isn’t now, then that’s really very strong. My only concern would be the practicalities surrounding it.

If you’re going to make it free to download and deal with, then that means people can fiddle with the pictures, fiddle with content, edit content, edit stuff out of context. I think that’s quite difficult. I don’t quite see how you give free access to anything other than the blandest material, and certainly not to scientists. They sign release forms, technical phrase meaning release form, saying the BBC can do what they like with it or the television company can do what they like with it, but that was for a specific purpose in a specific programme context. So I’m not quite sure how that would work. That’s the people, that’s the scientists.

I suppose there is a use for 30-year-old pictures of what the Amazon used to look like, what the rivers used to look like in specific contexts, but I’m not entirely clear what the function is of making material available. I mean there’s no reason for it not to be available but I’m not quite sure what the purpose of making it available is. I don’t know what your end aim is.

Environmental issues: Are young filmmakers responding?

One thing I’ve found is a huge frustration with the limitations of conventional terrestrial broadcasting. And an awareness of how amazingly difficult it is to get anything on, to become part of the industry if you’re aiming at terrestrial broadcasting - very influential, very important, very top of the tree and all that but becoming increasingly cut off from it. Increasingly I find people interested in, especially young Americans, in simply starting their own channels. You do all the work yourself, you make films yourself, you put them on one of these tiny, tiny free channels and eventually, if you’re lucky, you attract enough advertising to pay you a bit of money to keep going. It’s not the prestige of the National Geographic or the BBC, but it is a much freer way of working and a much more interesting way of working, for them, because they are not in this terrible straightjacket and formality of the big companies. I find that very much, a sense that they could be doing things in a different way, they could be doing things outside the straight formulas and trying to get into that rather than coming into the industry that we know.

Do young filmmakers see the split between pure natural history and environmental issues?

No, they don’t at all because, apart from anything else, straight natural history is so unbelievably expensive and that’s not the way they do it. Whereas if they’re going to go down to the river and say, ‘This river used to be full of fish and now it’s full of industrial foam,’ then that’s much easier to do and much quicker and much more immediate for them. I think, increasingly, beautiful animals are becoming like, I don’t know, Egyptian gods or something, they’re out there, they’re for admiring and looking at but they’re not for feeling any part of. Increasingly people are becoming aware that they’re never going to see a snow leopard. What’s much more worrying is that they may never see a red squirrel.

The future of Planet Earth: Optimist or pessimist?

It’s both in a curious kind of way. I’m more pessimistic about political responses and the difficulty of getting politicians to do stuff for which they won’t see an immediate response. I’m more pessimistic about the Daily Mail effect or Nigel Lawson effect, the denial; I’m more pessimistic about that bit, about fixed interests, vested interests having control. But I’m more optimistic about what ordinary people feel and the growing strength that you can do something small in your own area. I think people are waking up to what’s happening and are becoming more involved and more active. There has been a whole period of time where environmentalists were a butt of the jokes, they were the muesli, knitting, sandal-wearing Guardian readers and that became a terrible cliché, and actually I think that’s not true. I think one of the really interesting things is when you start to look at local environmental groups, how many there are, what a wide spectrum of stuff they’re covering and how concerned people are and how concerned younger people are. My grandchildren, aged seven to four, spurred on by the The Octonauts and me, we go down to the beach and we pick up plastic rubbish and we put it in a bag and we take it home, and the children say, ‘This certainly shouldn’t be on the beach, Amanda! This should be in the bag,’ and we take it all home. Now, we didn’t do that with our children but I’m doing it for my grandchildren. I think that’s very positive.

<End of Interview>


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