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Richard Brock - Earth in Vision

Updated Thursday 23rd June 2016

Richard Brock, founder of the Brock Initiative and Living Planet Productions, discusses 'Life on Earth', archive and conservation issues in broadcast. 

Richard Brock

Richard Brock worked as a natural history film producer for the BBC for 35 years, working on Life on Earth and The Living Planet. However, concerned by the lack of coverage on the state of the environment, he started his own independent production company, Living Planet Productions. They have made over one hundred films on environmental topics. 

He set up the Brock Initiative which uses his archive of footage to create new programmes for those who are connected to the situation at hand - communities and decision makers - those who can make the difference. These programmes are not made for general television or western audiences, many of them are shown to people who have never even seen a TV. 


Richard Brock

Earth in Vision Project

My name’s Richard Brock, I’m an independent filmmaker, was with the Natural History Unit for 35 years, worked on Life on Earth and Living Planet with David Attenborough and now do my own films almost entirely about conservation.

What inspired me…

Well I suppose it was way back to school days when I was birdwatching and catching butterflies as you did then, television probably to some extent and whatever it was at that time, so it really just grew up with me, and I went round the world filming on various series for the BBC, so it just grew from there. And I got more and more interested in conservation from what I saw and that’s why I’m trying to do something about it in my own way.

How I got started…

Well I applied to the BBC in Bristol, which was very small then, there was probably only 50 people if that, and I was eventually taken on as a general assistant, which I think means dog’s body. And I started in radio with someone called Tony Soper who made a film about geese up in Scotland and then I went into television in a small way with Look with Sir Peter Scott and the famous Heinz Sielmann Becker film which was a… I didn’t used to call it the watercooler moment, but people talked about the fact that you could see inside a woodpecker’s nest. Now these days you’d see inside every nest that exists, but at that time it shattered people, they were so excited by that. And Heinz Sielmann was a star and of course he went on to make other excellent films, but they never had the impact of that first one, because it was like seeing into a secret.

The programmes I worked on…

I did work on that series called Look for a long time and they had a studio show, which of course now would look very, very old-fashioned, where Peter Scott interviewed various people, sometimes they had animals in the studio. And then David Attenborough came on the scene, he did Zoo Quest and he usually had animals in the studio which bit him or escaped, and that was good value. So I remember him when he looked even younger than he was then! <Laughs>

Radio and conservation

I really love radio and they do more conservation on radio than they do, explicitly at least, on television now.

I think they’ve done several series about conservation, usually … it’s on a Tuesday morning about 11 o’clock and I used to watch those. They took really good stories, obviously very well researched and there was 12 in a row and I think they’re now doing something with the same slot which is about nature and people and conservation. So they keep going at that, which is really important.

Is there more freedom in radio than television?

I’m not sure in terms of the politics whether that’s true. I think the BBC has to be careful, so whether it’s on radio or television probably doesn’t make that much difference. Obviously there are images that you could show on television which would show more, say more, than something less visible on radio, but I think the discussions and the interviews on the radio are so important, that really if you watch and listen to both, then you get a really good cross section of what’s going on.

Natural history filmmaking: The early days

Well in terms of budgets and things like that, you just had to have an idea and you’d go to someone with the idea and say you want to do a film about tawny owls or woodpeckers and they’d say, ‘That sounds interesting, off you go!’ There was some talk about how much might it cost, but there wasn’t much control on it, shall we say, which was great; if you were free to go on your own or with a crew and just film the things you really wanted to show, then that was perfect really and I really made the most of that, I think. It was usually driven by some idea or story or animal that you really wanted to show and that was a great privilege to be able to do that. I’m not saying you couldn’t do it now, but you’d have to go through various development departments and committees, I don’t know, all sorts of people have to check it, certainly the money would be looked at, which is fair enough, it’s public money. But no, the old days it was very free and easy I would say and a very appreciative audience, because a lot of things hadn’t been seen then. These days I think the problem is that almost anything you want to show has been seen somehow before. I think the big new series, there’s one called One Planet, there’s another one called Our Planet; these are two landmark series, to use a well-worn phrase. Now they claim this is going to raise the bar. Well I can’t believe that the bar can go any higher, but they’re going to hit the bar, because I can’t think of anywhere which is an unknown place, a major landscape with very rare animals that to some extent hasn’t been seen. I challenge them to show that and I look forward to it and they’ve got massive budgets, they’ve got five years and maybe they will do that, but as soon as you say Amazon or Sahara Desert, maybe somewhere in China, but then there have been series made in China. Australia’s been done, whole series have been done in Indonesia, obviously America. I look forward to seeing what they can do by raising the bar, it’s a challenge now.

So in the old days you didn’t have that, if you went and showed a few lemurs in Madagascar with David running around, terrific. Now I think there’s probably a programme on Madagascar every few months, and those programmes sometimes don’t tell the truth, because they show all these lovely animals in Madagascar, but when I did a film in Madagascar what I wanted to show was that only 10% of it was like that; the rest had been trashed. ‘Oh no, we can’t have that, that’s bad news,’ but it’s the truth.

What I’m most proud of…

Well I suppose the record shows that Life on Earth must have been that, apparently seen by 500 million people; well how you count 500 million people I don’t know, but some of those obviously were young people, university types perhaps, and I believe that these programmes were shown on university syllabuses, if that’s a word. So hopefully that did influence people and that was a long time ago, it was like 25, 30 years’ ago, so since that time through all the other landmark series, that’s probably had the most impact. It had the advantage too of course of having animals that no one had seen before, because we did have a good budget, we did have David Attenborough very much behind us and I think that’s the series he’s most proud of. So I don’t think you can beat that. I’m not putting down the people who are going to raise the bar, but I think it’s a tough one to do that and I look forward to it. I just really hope there’s some conservation in it. I don’t think you can really now put a programme out which is, if you like, pure wilderness. I think the audience is thinking, ‘It can’t really be like that, can it? There’s got to be some snag.’ And then of course you get accused of saying it’s all gloom and doom, well it’s not all gloom and doom, there’s a lot of positive stuff that could be looked at, I think.

Attenborough: ‘Life’ after Life on Earth

I think it was one of Attenborough’s things he always wanted to do. He’s always maintained it’s the greatest show on Earth, the greatest show on the planet, the story of life, and in a way ever since that series, which was filmed with new equipment, it had really good people working on it, you couldn’t beat it. You could do Living Planet which I also did, you could do Trials of Life, you did The Private Life of Plants, and interestingly with Attenborough, because Attenborough was the driving force of course, behind all this, was I think he always wanted to have the word ‘life’ in the titles. And I remember way back when we wanted to the Living Planet we said, ‘David, what we’d like to do is call it Planet Earth,’ which of course was done subsequently. And he was very polite and shrugged it off and slid round it and he said, ‘No, I think we’ll call it The Living Planet,’ and since then ‘planet’s’ always been in there in nearly all of them, I think. Sorry, ‘life’ has always been in there, so you have The Life of Birds and The Life of Mammals and it went on and on and on.

Life on Earth: What I like most

That’s a tough one because there were a lot of them. I suppose the programme that intrigued me most, and this goes back to new things to see and I don’t think there’s been much on frogs and toads and amphibians, that much since, because people aren’t that interested, even though Kermit is one of the most successful frogs in town, but I think being able to meet some of these people who were so fascinated by these animals. And there’s a frog from Chile that broods the tadpoles or frogs, the little frogs in its mouth, this is the male, so he’s singing, then he’s pregnant, so he stops singing and then out come some baby frogs, and the guy waited 180 hours for this to happen and he got the shot, so that was just one example. And the nice thing about working with something like frogs or bats, which I also worked on, is there are these really, shall we say obscure scientists who are fanatical about their animal and they welcome you, they say, ‘Gosh, we could do this,’ and if you give them some money, obviously you like to help them with their research, and so they’ll help you. On the other hand, more recently what happens, if you’ve got a very popular group like chimpanzees or lions or something, and these chaps have been working on it for 10 years, what they don’t want to see is a crew coming in for a week, filming what they’ve discovered and then going home, paying them a bit of money. So I think there’s a real difference and I really like working with these guys. Some are quite eccentric, if you went to a bat conference, they weren’t exactly hanging from the ceiling but they were <laughs> different! And the frog guys <laughs> often quite cold-blooded and strange, but so determined to help you make a good show on frogs. So I think, in answer to your question, the programme that interested me most included the particular species that interested me most, was the one on frogs.

Why I left the BBC

Well I’d done my time, I think, I had 25 years and I’d done the big series, I’d done one-offs like Natural World, I was involved with that from the start, that was wonderful. I suppose in the end I don’t think the BBC was, as a whole, if you’re going to include the channel controllers, the commissioners and the development people, they were not really prepared to support conservation, certainly not upfront. They would hide it. And you probably know the story, The Blue Planet, the one about conservation which was called Deep Trouble was not shown on BBC 1 in this country, it was hidden in my view, on BBC 2, because they didn’t want to show it. And in the States when it was shown in the States, they didn’t even show the last programme. And there was some big conference and someone went up to a millionaire and said, ‘We’d like some money for the oceans,’ and this guy said, ‘Well, I’ve just seen Blue Planet, there’s nothing wrong with the oceans.’ So actually that was devaluing the oceans and I think the BBC is to blame for that, because if any corporation, any large organisation, hasn’t got the guts to take a chance and it’s the last programme, if they put it on BBC 1, alright if it got less of an audience, well OK, they could say, ‘We tried.’ And obviously a lot of people would have watched it.

Getting conservation on air

I think the trick, and I think you’d probably agree with me, is to try and blend a message, let’s call it a message, don’t preach but put an intriguing message through a very well-made, blue-chip movie. And there are ways of doing that and I think the Batman film in Mexico with that very good scientist, he was a Mexican, you wouldn’t really expect that, working with Agaves, that’s a plant, and bats that fed on the flowers of the plant and tequila. Now if you had to find a mix, a winning mix, in my view that was it, and I’m sure there are others like that, but personally that’s what I’m always hunting for.

What’s the programme?

It’s called Batman. I think it was called Batman and it was a nice title actually. And this guy was so committed, I think these characters, they’re so important, alright you have a language problem, sub-titles maybe showing it round the world, whatever distribution problems you might have, but I think it overrode those really with this amazing mixture, so that’s what I would be looking for personally, and it was quite positive. I think that’s another thing that one could talk about is how negative or how positive some of the stuff is these days. I think it’s better than it was. (The programme is called The Bat Man of Mexico)

Environmental issues in the early days of television: Were they important?

No, I don’t think so, because the pressure wasn’t on then at that time. I don’t think climate change was ever said, I don’t think it was out there at all. I seem to remember that Sir Peter Scott, who was like the godfather or grandfather of conservation, he was a sort of silent… he was a single voice out there, and it was at the point where all people knew about wild species were children’s books, you know tigers live in India, lions live Africa, kangaroos live in Australia, that was it, and they’re OK out there, that’s all we knew, it was like tradition. And then gradually people became aware that there was problems for some of these animals and then of course it broadened to where they lived and eventually broadened right out to the planet, which is what we’ve got now. So I suppose you could argue that actually it’s changed quite a lot in quite a short time, but there’s been a delay in some cases that people just didn’t want to see it, they didn’t want bad news, you come back from the office, you don’t want to be told the world is about to end. You say, ‘Put the telly on, there’s probably something funny.’

What I did after leaving the BBC

Well I suppose if you continue the problem that I had when I left, that the BBC wasn’t doing enough on conservation for whatever reason, and I thought to myself I can maybe help, particularly with the social media, which I don’t understand, but I have a lot of younger, helpful people who do help me, and I could see the way that was reaching people, so to depend just on television, although there were a lot of other channels on television and probably I would think if you look at all the channels that can show wildlife, there’s probably about 10 actually, so channels like Watch, Yesterday, Eden, National Geographic, Animal Planet, Nat Geo. Now some of those are trash, some of those are shark fang TV, which I dislike, to put it mildly, but I felt that more could be done with a bit of skill in the storytelling, and so with this idea I had of winners and losers I was looking at 30 different subjects and trying to assess how to turn losers into winners, so the intention was positive. Now that doesn’t mean there aren’t lots of losers, there are lots of losers if you go round the planet, I’m afraid, there are lots of losers, but some of them have been turned into winners and what I tried to do was take interesting stories, which, as I said before, include people, individual scientists maybe, and an interesting animal, in a way that you wouldn’t expect. So each one is probably about some issue, it’s hidden in a film behind, if you like, some scientist or person or animal.

Telling a conservation story: Fulmars and plastic

So for example the one on fulmars, which is a sea bird, a beautiful sea bird, it’s suffering from plastic, eating plastics, and its numbers grew when the fishing business increased and a lot of trash fish was chucked out of boats, so the fulmars did well and now they’ve gone down, because they’re eating plastic. So the film actually starts in somebody’s house where they’re using plastic in some way and they flush a plastic item down the loo or down the sink, alright so I’ll let you choose your item. Anyway, it goes down the tube, down the tube, goes down the tube, it goes into darkness, it goes out of the fulmar’s beak, are you still with me, with a wet wipe, condom, whatever, ends up in the chick. So the opening sequence is one minute, you relate to that, because that’s what you do, but the opening minute is tracking through pipes which turn into the throat of a baby fulmar and that’s going to kill it and indeed, it’s going to kill the adult. So then you start looking at what happened to this, it’s a detective story, why have these birds come up and then gone down? And of course they’re beautiful to look at. So you may need a scientist, you may need a fisherman, you certainly need someone in the house using plastic, so that’s just one example of trying to mix an interesting lot of ingredients that you wouldn’t expect, because surprise, particularly in these kind of films, is so important. So I have about seven ingredients that each programme would include, including sex and comedy, that’s the idea.

Telling a conservation story: The Beach Boys

We’re doing one on the beach boys, it’s called The Beach Boys, it’s about ghost crabs in Kenya, it’s a very well-studied animal, you probably know, lives underground in tunnels and we’ve got the music obviously, if we can clear it, the Beach Boys music. So it’s a crabs’ eye view, living on a beach in Watamu in Kenya. And they’ve got these amazing eyes on stalks, you probably know, so we certainly have a camera underground in the burrows, we might even have a tiny, tiny camera on its head behind its eyes. And that’s for the kids who live along there, that’s for the children, so hopefully they’re going to laugh at this, so it’s just another mix that might work.

How do you use social media?

Well what I do, ‘cause I’m stupid, so myself I ask people to do this for me, so I have a website and the stuff goes on YouTube. Most of these films are between 20 and 30 minutes, they’re quite fast moving, they’re all a surprising mix, that’s what I would try to say, and there’s 30 of them; so we will have 30 by the end of the year, we’re just coming up to about 15 at the moment. The first one we’ve really finished, because we wanted to get it out quite soon, was about whaling, it’s called Are Whales Winning? And it’s quite political, it looked at obviously the whaling industry, which is quite corrupt and still in the balance whether the Japanese will go down again next season; they said they may go down., and there’s a remarkable, slightly crazy guy called Captain Paul Watson, you probably know Sea Shepherd, very dramatic, but it also combined the whole question of whales in captivity and the effect on Sea World. So that was a case of taking on or exposing what was already being exposed, which was the cruelty to animals and that two trainers have been killed at Sea World, which is run by a beer company. And so that, for me, when I see these ideas and I see that combination of elements, plus great shots of whales hopefully.

The other thing that was to my advantage is because I started making some of these films about 10 or 15 years’ ago, well nowadays HD has taken over from standard definition, SD, so I appreciate that; I like to think that if the story’s good enough it doesn’t actually matter too much, people will watch it. But actually I can use it to my advantage. By using, we have a logo, W&L, Winners & Losers, and with that we put the date on the screen, so we actually use the older material as part of the story of the film, so it’s actually about change, because all these things are changing. We did one called Is Dubai Doomed? which is about the state of a very greedy country. We sent it to Dubai, and as each big meeting comes up, the next big one’s in Paris, we update that Dubai film, so when people see it, hopefully they’ll say, ‘God, that was last week.’ So we’ve got the structure of it and in some cases as I said, these films have already been assembled. I took a chance, made them, assembled them in the past, and there they are sitting upstairs and I think, ‘I could use that, I could update that, put some new stuff in and it will make a new story at half-an-hour.’ So that applies to say, 30 of these films, and they’re all about different issues, they’re all about different kinds of animals, so they’re not all birds or something; we’ve got several on fish, frogs we’ve got, whales obviously, just a whole range of them.

The use of archive for environmental filmmaking

Well I suppose there are certain species, and Wildscreen had this arrangement, didn’t they, where you had an endangered species and they kept that for those particular species, in case someone wanted to show it later, and actually the golden toad of Costa Rica, which died out for no apparent reason, was in Life on Earth, so that was a species that is in the archive and should be. If you broaden it to environments or habitats, that is more difficult, and again there may be some losers there. You could go back to a place which had had forest and is now, quite likely has been chopped down and is a desert. On the other hand, you could go the other way and you could back to places which have now been replanted, or flooded when it was drained before, so I think you could go both ways. I think there’s a time value in that, a historical value, and archive value in that. Whether it’s worth, and I don’t know if I mean money here, but I don’t know if it’s worth the money and the personnel to do this, because if it’s not done and isn’t accessible then you might as well give up. I mean you’ve got to do it, haven’t you, so that people can reach it? And that is going to be the question, whether there is any big fund, whether the BBC in its benevolence feels it can do that. I mean you could argue the same about all sorts of other subjects, not just natural history, so I really don’t know the answer to that.

The fact that Life on Earth exists as separate programmes, at least that’s, as far as I know, that’s still there. If you’re talking about what we used to call the offcuts or the rushes or whatever it was, I’m not sure they’re still held and you’d need someone to go through and say, ‘Well this bit is useful, this bit is useful,’ and probably those bits amount to, I’m guessing, 10% of what’s still in the archive. So somebody’s got to make that decision and chuck out the 90% I suppose, put it in a skip.

The future of Planet Earth: Optimist or pessimist?

I have to say that the current against the planet is inexorable. I mean human numbers, I mean sex is fun, people like having children, that is absolutely basic. Climate change obviously has become … climate change fatigue we have, people actually don’t want to know about that. I think what I felt, the reason I did Dubai was Dubai seems to me the worst example of excess on the planet. The greed, the consumerism, the pollution … just no thought for the future, but a lot of people would aspire to that. You can’t really blame them when someone in another country sees these cars and these big shops and these malls. When sea level rises in Dubai, as they say it will, what about those islands they’ve built at huge cost. If you were a footballer and you’d built this villa or bought or rented this villa on one of those islands, one of the palm islands, you’re buggered – you’re going to be flooded.

Now Dubai doesn’t have a set-up which, at the moment, seems to restrain that. It’s run by this ruling family and they just see everything getting better for ever more. And it can’t be. It’s not sustainable, the magic word, it’s not sustainable. So I think the number of people and what they need, the resources that they need, or are led to believe that they need – it’s easy for us to sit here in the sunshine with everything we want in a way, but you think of the desperately poor people, the migrants and so on. I mean I don’t see a way out of that.

<End of Interview>


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