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Harry Marshall - Earth in Vision

Updated Thursday 28th July 2016

Harry Marshall, Creative Director at Icon Films, discusses the ethics of opening up private and public archives, as well as the conservation of king cobras, environmental filmmakers around the world, and the box office success of River Monsters. 

Harry Marshall

Harry is the Creative Director of Icon Films – a long established award-winning, UK independent production company.  Over the last 25 years Icon Films has produced over 290 hours of high-end factual content for the international market.  Harry was born and spent his childhood in India, where he has continued to work and travel extensively with a particular knowledge of the Himalayas. After graduating from Oxford University in English he joined The South Bank Show at LWT, moving on to Border Television in programme development before joining Channel Four as Assistant Commissioning Editor of Youth Programming.  After leaving Channel Four Harry formed the independent production company, John Peel Productions in the Lake District in 1987. 

In 1990 he moved to Bristol and co-founded with Laura Marshall, Icon Films. With a passion for storytelling, finding and developing emerging talent, both off and on screen, Harry spends much of his time meeting people, watching telly, reading and writing. 

Transcript

Earth in Vision Project

I’m Harry Marshall, I’m the Creative Director at Icon Films, a company I have run in Bristol for 25 years.

How I got started

I’ve always felt an imposter because my degree was in English; however, I grew up in India and I went to a school in the Western Ghats and my father used to drive me to school through the jungles of Mudumalai and Bandipur, and we would occasionally see elephants, tigers, leopards, wild boar, all sorts of creatures. I remember a pack of wild dogs running across the road once in pursuit of a sambar and my father told me once that there was a particular way of catching elephants, which I think has always sort of stood me in good stead and perhaps even inspired my career choice. He said, ‘You do this by the combination of a pair of binoculars, tweezers and a jam jar. And what you do is you look at the elephant through the wrong end of a pair of binoculars, you pick them up with tweezers and you put them in a jam jar.’ And I’ve always thought that this is rather prescient indeed of the career that I would eventually have, it really covers all the bases of natural history filmmaking because you capture your image with an optical device, a pair of binoculars, you arrange the image with an editing device or tweezers and then you display your image in a jam jar or perhaps through a television screen. And that early experience of seeing those wild animals when I was a boy of eight or nine, I think, pretty much set my course.

What films first inspired me

I think the first natural history film that really moved me emotionally was the story of Solo and it was Hugo van Lawick’s film that he made with Jane Goodall and it was the story of a wild dog. Solo was the runt of the litter, I mean the classic underdog and the whole question of whether or not this particular individual was going to make it, whether or not this wild dog actually had a personality. I mean until then natural history films had been very reluctant to engage on a personal level and it was all about the survival of the fittest and the idea that a particular individual had any right to survive or might have any feelings in the matter was just never present. But there was this moment I think when Jane Goodall actually sort of crosses the line and picks up Solo and takes Solo in to give Solo water, Solo would otherwise have died, and then puts Solo back into the natural world. And I think that, for me that moment when that line was crossed was also when I stepped over the line. And I’ve always found this conceit… and I think it’s a conceit in every sense. I think it’s a conceit and I think it’s conceited that the human has no part in the natural world, that we film the natural world but we always frame out the flotilla of vehicles with the tourists taking their photographs because we want to sort of sustain this complete myth that humans don’t have a place in the natural world. The Natural History Unit I understand spent an awful lot of time using CGI to remove tyre tracks from the aerial shots of a wild dog hunt because somehow it would be unseemly that the audience were there seeing something that anyone else had seen. I think it’s a very disingenuous point of view.

What I’m most proud of…

I think the things I’m most proud of are those things that make a difference. I think that we are in an extraordinarily privileged position as natural history filmmakers to make a difference and rather than just making banal vanilla wallpaper to actually engage in films that are challenging, that either celebrate or... I’m very keen on films that celebrate the achievements of those people who are doing active hands-on work in the natural world. One of my earliest memories was of meeting an extraordinary man in what was then Madras, the town I grew up in South India. And Romulus Whitaker was a 20-year-old American, I remember in shorts with long hair and very tanned. And I think I must’ve been about five and it was a Christmas Eve and there was the old Colonial Club in Madras, the Adyar Club and Romulus had been brought in to entertain the kids, the expatriate kids. And he did this by emptying snakes onto the marble floors of the Adyar Club from his bags, these hessian sacks. I remember there was a sort of gaggle of ayahs and there was a lot of screaming as the snacks came out and Rom had a stick and the floors were very polished and the snakes were having real problems getting any purchase and he would pull the snakes out one after another and explain what they were. I seem to remember that there was king cobra so probably every reason for concern. But I was absolutely fascinated and 35 years later Rom and I made a film on the king cobra.

I think it’s one of the films that I enjoyed most from a sort of creative point of view, we called it The King and I and it was the story about this absolutely colossal king cobra who Rom had called Elvis and Rom’s attempt to breed with Elvis. But Elvis had a problem which was Elvis would eat his girlfriends. King cobras are snake eaters, ophiophagus, and whenever a female was presented to Elvis he would promptly swallow her and that of course didn’t result in any little king cobras. And we were making a film about Romulus’ attempt to set up a king cobra reserve up in the Western Ghats, which was the area where I had been at school. The idea that a 16ft poisonous snake would ever be accepted by the local population, can you imagine it ever being… the outrage that we get in Britain with any sort of talk of re-wilding, the reintroduction of beavers. Can you imagine how the introduction or the preservation of the world’s largest venomous snake would go down? And it’s a testament, both to Romulus and to the people of India, that India has some of its natural history left and they are prepared to put up with leopards and tigers and elephants and king cobras, which do occasionally kill people. But I think that that is the corollary, that’s the quid pro quo of living in the natural world.

And did the King and I save any king cobras?

Yes. I think that the film that we made about king cobras absolutely had some positive benefits, it was widely seen, seen by millions of people in the end around the world by the time it done its rounds. But more than that it was seen in India, it was seen at ministerial level and it gives the people who are working in conservation a sort of, a lever, and whether it’s a big film like the King Cobra and I film that we made for the BBC or it’s one of the little five-minute films that we have made for other Indian conservationists. So we have worked, for example, for the Whitley Fund for Nature and on a pro bono basis we have made films for them about the work of conservationists. And they, with a film like that in their bag, are able to go to the chief wildlife minister of a particular state and say, ‘I want to set up a king cobra sanctuary in this area’. And it gives them real power. The media is powerful, it is a lever.

Are environmental films bad box-office?

Well, environmental television might be bad box office, but I think not to make environmental television one might be accused of fiddling while Rome burns. I think that we have an obligation to our subject matter, I mean even if we were entirely self-motivated and self-interested, if we don’t bring to light the absolutely critical and pressing threats that the natural world face we would be left without anything to make a film about, unless we’re happy making films in sets, unless we’re happy making films based on archive.

So, I think that of course audiences can vote with their finger and can turn a television off, and you walk a tightrope, you can make audiences so despairing and guilt-ridden that they turn the television off. But I think there is enough to celebrate in the natural world and the examples that I have given of people like Romulus Whitaker, and there are many others, Shekar Dattatri is another wonderful example of an Indian natural history environmentalist who has brought about change and was, himself, a natural history filmmaker. There are enough positive examples to dwell on. Of course the negative is there, it’s wrong to bury our head in the sands, to use a natural history metaphor, but there’s enough to celebrate, enough of the positive.

River Monsters is a box-office success. Is it a conservation success?

So, for the last ten years we’ve been making a series with Jeremy Wade called River Monsters and it’s been, surprisingly I think, Animal Planet’s most popular, most watched series. Jeremy is a quietly spoken Englishman from a clerical background, his father was the local parish priest in rural Norfolk, a man with white hair and a gentle manner. He just doesn’t seem to be your average cable shouty host. River Monsters has been, I think, our most successful conservation brand. The mantra for River Monsters, Jeremy Wade’s mantra has been, ‘I’m not scared of a world with monsters, what scares me is a world where all the river monsters have gone.’ And so the audience are kind of lured in, I mean it’s a fishing programme and we also fish for audiences, we bait our hook, we give them a certain amount of sensation and high adventure. But in the end it’s Jeremy’s passion for the river and the health of a river and the fact that the big predatory fish are the canaries in the coal mine, when those big fish have gone you know there’s a problem. And because rivers are also the life blood of the planet, I mean the .01% of freshwater that exists on the planet carried in rivers and lakes is absolutely critical to all life and not just the life of animals, it’s human life. And so River Monsters has been a stalking horse for conservation for ten years and a very, very popular one.

How is the media changing?

The days when 23 million people would sit down and watch Life on Earth are gone, you will never get that enormous audience waiting for Sunday night at seven or whenever it went out. But what instead I think you have is this opportunity for lots of much more targeted natural history conservation films; I think even an opportunity for issue-specific films, campaign-specific films. I don’t think there has ever been a time when the equipment and the platforms exist that allow important environmental issues to be targeted so precisely, to be filmed at such a level of quality and can be brought, either to individuals or to an enormous audience. I mean things go viral and it must be every environmental minister’s worst nightmare when a story on their beat, in their backyard, goes viral. They feel compelled to do it.

I remember going to a talk with the guy who setup Google Earth and he was saying that optimism must surely derive from the fact that there’s no longer any place to hide, that you can bring stories from the Yasuni Rainforest showing illegal bulldozers knocking down trees, you can go in incredible detail through satellite imagery to effluent being pumped into a river. The opportunity to name and shame through these very specific targeted natural history bites rather than Life on Earth epics is, I think, really interesting in terms of its ability to bring about change.

What if the BBC released its archive to the public?

Should the BBC make their natural history archive available to one and all? Well of course the BBC are suffering the same cutbacks and the same budget cuts as everyone else, but I think that the opportunity for natural history to be used for good is unprecedented, it’s not as if it’s their comedy archive or their current affairs archive or their feature film archive. This is something that, in the end, the public have paid for and in the end the public will live with the consequences of climate change. So if there’s ever a case, I think, where that archive should be freely available… I mean in effect it is, people are able to download pretty much anything anyway. But only those people who sort of go through the front door and are legitimate go to the trouble of clearing it. But yes, I think that if it’s being used for environmental purposes why should they be charged? If it’s being used for non-commercial purposes why shouldn’t the BBC make that available? I mean certainly at Icon Films if people come to us and say, ‘Do you have footage of tigers? We are making non-profit films on tigers.’ Absolutely, we make it available.

Would Icon Films release its archive?

I think that there’s a kind of moral argument that supersedes any other genre with its particular power when it comes to natural history footage, that this is something that belongs to everybody. The natural world belongs to everybody. And charging someone to use your natural history footage, if it is a not-for-profit end, seems to be akin to charging someone for a glass of water. I mean you could walk into the Ritz and ask for a glass of water, OK, if you are going to ask for bottled fizzy water you’ll get nailed, but if you ask for a glass of water there is a kind of universal acceptance that a glass of water is free, it belongs to everyone, you should not charge another human being, or indeed an animal, for a glass of water.

And I feel, to an extent, that is how natural history footage should be: there is a universal ownership to the natural world. If people wish to use that footage for good, for natural history conservation films, on a not-for-profit basis, I think it’s probably immoral to charge them.

Well targeted environmental films: An example?

Scattergun versus sniper: so, in the past I think that natural history films were fairly broad, fairly general, they dealt with the large iconic events. I think increasingly there is a realisation that you can make a difference if you pick off a very specific target. It might be species-specific, it might be about a particular issue. I have a friend, who’s an Indian natural history filmmaker turned environmentalist, who made a film about an iron ore company in Southern India – which had 25 years previously been granted an exception to open cast iron ore in a national park. And he made a film, which I think he said in the end cost him maybe three or four-thousand-dollars, about the Kudremukh Iron Ore Corporation that sat in the middle of the Kudremukh National Park. And it was one of the most despoiling industries, but it was an incredibly profitable iron ore corporation.

But what he did was he made a film showing the damage that was being done in this area, a rainforest in the Western Ghats, an area of extraordinary biodiversity, and he presented this film to the chief minister. And this chief minister had, 25 years previously, Chief Minister of Karnataka, granted permission for this exception that allowed this iron ore corporation to begin its operation. And he said, ‘Dear Minister, this is what you did, this is the damage that has been caused, and this is what you can stop. Please think about your legacy.’ And it was the most manipulative, personal, directed bullet aimed for one man, the chief minister. And the chief minister denied the application of the Kudremukh Iron Ore Corporation to re-open, he took away their licence and they closed. And now there is a town that once housed 20,000 people with a hospital, schools, being overgrown in the middle of a rainforest in Southern India because of this lethal shot that Shekar Dattatri launched. I mean, marvellous. He told me that his effigy was burnt in time honoured manner by disgruntled employees of the Kudremukh Iron Ore Corporation. But there are now king cobras and tigers and bears wandering about in what was once the most despoiling piece of open cast industry in the middle of a national park.

How well has natural history television reported the decline in the natural world?

Planet Earth, one of the big BBC natural history flagships, had the strapline, Planet Earth: as you’ve never seen it before. And someone quipped, ‘Planet
Earth – as you’ll never see it again.’

Very selective in presenting the highlights, the unspoiled highlights of the natural world. I’m sorry to hear that there were also scenes which were kind of tailored and edited so the real problems were not apparent. I understand there was a shot of the Himalayas where snow was placed on the mountains by dint of CGI so we could see the black-necked cranes flying over them with a nice snowy background.

So, are we doing enough to present the problems of the environment? Will future generations look back at us as apologists, as deniers who simply didn’t have the courage to make a choice between ratings and telling the unvarnished truth? And probably we haven’t done enough.

I think the making of has always been this sort of rather poor tail that follows behind a series, you know, there will be a sixth film which will look behind the scenes, “the state of planet earth”. But perhaps that is just political, psychological reality, maybe that is what the human race is about, and Attenborough has always said, ‘I have given as much environmental information as I think people can take. If I’d given more they would’ve turned off.’ I think in latter years Attenborough has stepped further away from his position of perhaps moderation in this.

But could we have done more? There have been programmes that have dealt with unapologetic environmental action. There was an American series called Whale Wars, which was about a mad captain on a ship sort of ramming Japanese whalers and it was popular, he was a sort of latter-day Captain Nemo. But did it deal with the complexity of ecosystems? Have people like E. O. Wilson, people who really understand how environments work, have they been given the platforms? Yes, they have, there have been a number of complicated environmental films. But they are simply not as popular as the rosy-tinted natural history that people want to watch when they come home at the end of a long day and flop with a gin & tonic in one hand and a zapper in the other. That’s the point that they have a zapper in the other, they are armed and ready to turn over if you give them too much of the reality.

Planet Earth: Optimist or pessimist?

I was quite irritated when I read that James Lovelock, the author of Gaia, had said, ‘Too little, too late, the end is nigh, we might as well all go off and buy Maseratis and have fun.’ I think that’s OK for an 80-year-old man, I don’t know if he’s got grandchildren, but it’s certainly not OK for me and I have children and I just don’t regard this as an option.

I don’t regard that as an option. As David Attenborough said to me, he said, ‘We just have to keep buggering on.’ So I think whether or not you’re an optimist or a pessimist is not really the question, I think we have only got one planet and this is it. I’m afraid it’s a case of doing everything you possibly can so there is no regret. But I do believe that what man has done man can undo.

I think probably there are other pretty enormous contributory factors, there are cyclical events in global weather and in solar flares which are probably well without our control. However, there’s the recent story that gave me great optimism of the Kaveri River which was once considered to be the finest fishing in British India in the gazetteers, the colonial fishermen would go down and they would regular catch 160lb mahseer. And those fish basically died out in the seventies and they haven’t been caught for the last four decades, but recently a 120lb mahseer was caught in the upper reaches of the Kaveri. And this particular area where this monster fish had been caught was owned, and run, by a syndicate of geeks. These are computer programmers from Bangalore and they had formed a syndicate, they had taken this area, they had policed the rivers and had done everything they could to protect it. So if there’s ever any truth that the geeks shall inherit the earth, this was it.

The Kaveri is now producing big mahseer again, and if such a polluted river can do that, well I think anything’s possible. And all over the world there are some wonderful examples of people doing great things, so if rivers like the Hudson being brought back from the brink. The Thames, you know, proverbially, I’ve never seen one but I am told that the salmon are running again. But the efforts of a retired station master in Ladakh who’s been creating artificial glaciers by diverting streams and using spare tyres to create new frozen areas so there can be water in the summer. I mean these are fairly low-tech answers and I think if individuals can do enough to bring about change, just what would be possible if, at a governmental level, change was absolutely required, as I think it will be. Then the inventiveness of the human race will be put on question and it will be a case of sink or swim.

<End of Interview>

 

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