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James Smith - Earth in Vision

Updated Thursday, 28th July 2016

James Smith of the BBC's Natural History Unit talks about the experience of live broadcasting natural history content, as well as audiences craving the countryside in their homes, and how the NHU archival footage could be used to document the changing state of the UK's natural heritage.

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James Smith

James began his career as the environment news editor on BBC Wildlife Magazine before he moved into television, working on films about badger culling, climate change and salmon farming with the BBC’s Natural History Unit.

He was a key member of the team that made the anthropological series Tribe, and worked on the BAFTA-winning Amazon with Bruce Parry and the follow-up series Arctic with Bruce Parry. He has made TV series about conservation in the Congo Basin, climate change in Alaska and deforestation in Brazil. Before joining Plimsoll Productions to oversee Camp Zambia, an ambitious wildlife film project, James was working closer to home, series producing Springwatch for BBC TWO.


Earth in Vision Project

My name is James Smith, I’m the series producer of the Watches, so that includes Springwatch, Autumnwatch, Winterwatch, at the BBC’s Natural History Unit.

How I got started

I loved geography, that was my favourite lesson at school and I loved learning about the world and so I had an interest in travel and seeing the world, but I think in the late eighties there were a series of programmes not just on the BBC, but Channel 4 as well, and I remember one in particular that was called A Decade of Destruction and I think having wanted to travel and having a sense of adventure and wanting to see the world, I then saw programmes like that, that made me really care about the world and what was happening. There were a shocking series of films and images, very iconic, and around the time Sting was campaigning. I think I was 16, 17, it was a very formative time and the seed was sewn then. It wasn’t until a few years later that I managed to start working in television, but I think from that moment I wanted to try and do what I could and highlight some of the issues that were affecting the planet.

What inspired me

Ooh, I mean I think the Attenborough series are obvious, aren’t they? They created an awareness and love for the natural world which I think is very important. It’s difficult, I wouldn’t say there were specific things, my memory is slightly blurry, but it’s a period of time for me, it’s 1985 to 1990 I think, when I was watching a lot of television and seeing a lot of things. The films, interestingly a lot of the programmes were all of a similar vein, they were quite shocking, they were designed to shock, they were designed to raise awareness, they didn’t hold back, they might have even possibly over-exaggerated certain issues, but the idea was to get the message out there and I think that’s what affected me largely.

Early environmental films: Did they exaggerate?

I made a film about deforestation in the Amazon and the idea was that 20 years on, what had happened? So in the late eighties all the predictions were in 20 years’ time it was going to be a desert and then I went to the Amazon and 83 percent was still intact, the rates of deforestation were very strong. I put the question to a campaigner in the Amazon and he said, ‘We had to press the alarm bell, we had to press the button, we had to make the world aware’, and they did, so I don’t know if it was tactically a mistake to do that, but I think it just highlights how environmental filmmakers have to be very careful about the facts and I think more so these days, we have to be absolutely scrupulous and not, because I think nowadays the climate is different and people will jump upon you and look at weaknesses in your research and exploit them.

Environmental films: Getting the facts straight

I think it’s working in a world where environmental issues are now debated alongside education and health and everything else, it’s not this niche new thing, it’s now an issue that most people are globally aware of, but it’s also got its detractors and its critics, so they’re always quick to jump on any kind of inaccuracy, so I think in environmental filmmaking you need to be even more careful and stringent with your facts.

Climate change: A BBC film that made an impact

One of the first films that I worked on was called Warnings from the Wild and it was about climate change at a time when climate change was deeply unfashionable and a subject that most people wouldn’t talk about. It was in the old days of the BBC where we had a total free reign. I was only the researcher, but we able to pretty much decide where we going to go and what we were going to do without any interference from on high and we took some risks and it was broadcast without much scrutiny either. It wasn’t like today where we have innumerable execs and commissioners pouring over it, and the film went out with very low expectation and I remember getting the press, I remember going to the shop and buying the newspapers and I bought the tabloids and the Express and the Mail and the broadsheets, and I remember leafing through the TV supplements and it was front page on nearly all of them; it was front page on the Sun, the Mirror, the Daily Mail I remember had a huge thing, the Telegraph, we had a kind of iconic picture of the golden toad of Costa Rica that had recently been classified extinct, probably the first casualty of climate change, and the film essentially was showing how wildlife was feeling the effects of climate change and how in 1998 there was still serious debate amongst the scientists whether climate change was real. The idea of the film was it is real, look what’s happening to the wildlife, and it got 3.1 million viewers on BBC 2, which at that time if you got over three million you were invited up to London to the 3 Million Club, which we were invited but we didn’t go, but it rated highly, it got tons of press and it was on a subject, as I say, that was one that wouldn’t really be talked about round the dinner party table.

So I think that … I think you can … television won’t change the world. It’s a drip feed thing, it can just help slowly but surely wear away at people’s attitudes, so I’m not … I don’t pretend that that film had massive significance, but I think at that time in the country it helped perhaps make people realise that climate change was real and that was some time ago.

So, I think if you can…It depends on the story and how you present it. And that was a bit of luck. We had no idea that it would be that popular and that successful, but it was, and it was beautiful to look at. We started in the Arctic and finished with coral reefs in the Tropics, so it had this fantastic global journey about it, it was beautiful to look at, but it was also a very serious issue. So I think if you can get the ingredients right it can work on all levels.

Springwatch, Autumnwatch: What I’m most proud of

I’m immensely proud of it all. I think it works on a lot of different levels and essentially we try and bring a bit of the countryside into people’s homes. 90 percent of people in Britain live in towns and cities and yet, I feel, yearn for some contact with the natural world and we try and give that to them. It’s a live show, so we have cameras out there live and I think that’s very much part of our USP, is that immediacy and that sense that we’re experiencing a closeness to nature that we can then relate to the audience.

I think what it does brilliantly is it connects with the audience and the audience are very much part of our programme-making, so we do a lot of audience-focussed content; so we launch surveys, we try and get people engaged. We then feed in the results of those surveys and that engagement back into the programme, so it feels like there’s a conversation with the audience that’s ongoing and we do that. We’ve got sister shows, spin off shows, that are much more audience focussed, we have a huge web presence and social media team as well, so it’s… And it’s been like that since the word go. It’s been going for ten years now, but it started with this very interactive ethos at the core of it and it still has that and we’re building on that as the technology and the social media outlets increase, it allows us to have an even fuller and more rapid conversation with our viewers.

Springwatch, Autumnwatch: Combining natural history with environmental issues

Well we always try and weave that in. So, we structure films … I’ll start that again: we always try and make a mix of films, so we try and celebrate the natural world by having blue-chip wildlife films where you learn about behaviour and it’s very immersive, but then we always try and include some issue-related films. So in the current series we’ve got two films that stand out: one is looking at how pharmaceuticals make their way through the food chain and into wild bird populations, particularly starlings. So it’s actually starlings are being affected by Prozac is one drug, and there are many other drugs out there, but a particular researcher has studied how wild birds could be affected by Prozac, which is very stable and doesn’t break down and it affects their feeding and mating behaviour, with potential long-term serious consequences, so that’s a real issue film for us.

We’re doing another film with Iolo Williams, where he goes on to Grassholm Island in Pembrokeshire and rescues fledgling gannets that are caught, ensnared in plastic. They use the plastic to make their nests because it resembles seaweed, but then when the fledglings come to finally leave the island at the end of the breeding season they get entangled and ensnared and often die, so he joined a team to go on there and rescue the birds and that’s going to be a springboard for a whole campaign about plastics in the ocean and plastics in the environment, and we are going to be urging our viewers to go out and do a clean-up and collect plastics in a two minute beach clean.

So we’re always quite conscious of the issues there and we can also respond very quickly; the State of Nature report last year we focussed on a great deal. The BTO have just released a report on how migrating birds are being affected, so those are elements and stories that we weave in to our narrative and we always make sure that we try and do that, because I think you can’t just celebrate the natural world without giving the context of what’s happening.

What’s most exciting about Autumnwatch?

What excites me about Autumnwatch is you do a lot of work before hand, but then you just focus on one week, we broadcast four days a week next week. So at the moment I’m tracking weather systems, hurricanes blowing in and how they affect migration, so I feel very connected to the natural world. We’ve just been filming red deer rutting, and that finally happened, the fungi have all come out this weekend, so I kind of .... for me personally it gives me a real connection to the season, but then things may change next week. At the moment we are waiting for 30,000 starlings to turn up from the continent and they haven’t come and the wind’s all going the wrong way, so there’s always a sense of nervousness and trepidation, you’re never quite sure what’s going to happen, but that’s … you have to live the experience with the wildlife and the wildlife doesn’t always cooperate, so that’s exciting, but also slightly nerve wracking.

Are environmental issues bad box office?

It’s difficult, isn’t it? You say “bad box office” and I immediately think of The End of the Line and The Inconvenient Truth, both of which did very well at the box office and afterwards, in Hollywood terms. It’s interesting, some of the films I think it depends how you present the message.

So, I worked with Bruce Parry and we made two series, one where he travelled down the Amazon and one where he went around the Arctic, and both were overtly environmental; the Arctic film was about climate change and the Amazon was about deforestation and there were lots of hard-hitting sequences, with slavery and gold mining and all sorts of other things, and they rated very well, 4.1 million for the final show of the Arctic series, so people do watch these things, but it wasn’t sold up front as an environmental series and there was lots of other entertainment in there, Bruce Parry squeezing a seal’s eyeball into his mouth, which obviously got a lot of attention. I think perhaps sometimes with those kinds of stories you can reach a wider audience… sometimes with those kinds of stories you reach a wider audience but perhaps the message is somewhat diluted.

I don’t know. It’s difficult. It’s … yeah, I don’t know. Some films do punch through, so The End of the Line, who’d have thought that would have been watched by so many people around the world? So, if you get it right and it feels new and fresh and people haven’t heard of the issue before then they’ll come to it. I think the problem is that sometimes we feel that because it’s the environment, because it’s important, we should make a film and people should watch it, but that’s not going to work. People won’t watch it because they feel they ought to, people will watch it because it’s going to entertain them or draw them in through its news-worthiness and freshness, they must feel compelled to watch it.

Environmental issues: Is the BBC constrained?

The BBC wouldn’t make that, nor would they make Jamie’s School Dinners, but they might not also do The Great Global Warming Swindle as well, so that’s Channel 4’s remit, to be perhaps on the edges and be a bit more interrogative and controversial and try and do things new and differently.

I think those campaigns are very effective and I think yes, the BBC is held back from doing those things; it’s just not within its nature really to launch that kind of campaign.

Environmental issues: Is the BBC too constrained?

Yes. <Laughter>        

I don’t know. If you look at the last 15 years there has been a series of films made trying to chart the decline of species and habitat, but it hasn’t given the focus to it that it should have done, I don’t think anyone has, I don’t think Channel 4 has, I don’t think the world has really. Those figures are shocking, but it’s not just highlighting these issues, it’s what you can do about it and I think that’s the major problem that we have with audiences in the UK, why should you care about the golden toad going extinct in Costa Rica; it’s trying to connect the people to these issues, that’s the hardest thing.

What we do with the Watches is easier because it’s on your doorstep and Grassholm is shocking because it’s right off the coast of Britain, it’s not a plastic island in the middle of the Pacific, it’s happening right here, so we can play that local card, but I think it’s an immense challenge for all of us to try and make people self-aware and also I think make people aware in the host countries. That’s where a lot of the conversation is happening day to day and where the real battle is and perhaps there’s a way that the BBC and other broadcasters can work with charities and have impact on the ground.

The BBC archive: Could it be used as a record of environmental change?

Absolutely. The Natural History Unit returns again and again to the same sites and films similar species and so there is a chronological record of lots of different habitats, so there is a fantastic resource there if it was harnessed in the right way.

I think one thing with the archive that I would love to see, and I wish the BBC would make the archive more freely available for, is to make bespoke films that are not shown to the British audience, but are shown to the audience in Sierra Leone or Pakistan or Brazil or wherever. You could have fabulous shots of mandrills and their wonderful behaviour but then package that around local conservationists and showing how bush meat in Africa is killing gorillas for example, but use the fabulous Blue-Chip footage that only the NHU could get, but use it for a conservation purpose on the ground, so I think there is all sorts of ways the archive could be harnessed and I think it’d be a real shame if it wasn’t.

In ten to 15 years’ what kind of programme would you expect to be making?

Well I hope see conservation programmes becoming more important and more necessary. I would hope that the BBC would, I think being realistic they will continue to have a mix of very high-end programmes that sell very well around the world and do very well here too, but I would hope that there continues to be a regular stream of conservation-focussed programmes that get into the issues. I think that what’s really nice is when you can mix the two. When you can have something that does very well in the box office as it were, but also sells very well too, if you can combine those two messages together, I think that’s something; if I could crack that particular nut I’d be very proud.

BBC archive as a record of environmental change – an example

I’m sure we have, yeah. I’m just trying to think of specific examples, if it was mountain gorillas for example, it would probably take some skilful work to put it together, but you could probably show the habitat loss, you could certainly have a five year on five year, because every five years we go back and film the same species in the same spot. Whether we’ve got all the shots, I don’t know, but in the rushes there’s this massive archive, it’s not just the things that were shown, there’s a lot of rolls of film and everything else that’s there that could be utilised if it was archived and used in a creative way.

BBC archive: Could it be released to the public?

Sounds negative, there is so much, having, as a researcher wading through the archive, I mean it’s huge, so I think confusion might be an initial thing, if it’s not done properly. It is vast and not everything is logged and I know there are programmes that I’ve worked on where there are entire tapes, cases of tapes, have just been put into the library and are sat there.

I think if it was freed up and it was made available to conservationists, who they could target specific communities, specific areas of the world where there’s a real crisis for certain species, I think it would be immeasurably powerful. I think people in the Himalayas for example, who will sell a snow leopard pelt because it means food for their family for a month, if they knew a bit about the behaviour, if they fell a bit in love with that animal to a certain degree, and also realised that there were tourism benefits, then they’d think twice about selling that pelt and you could make significant steps. But they never see snow leopards and if they do see them they see them at a distance; it’s connecting people to the wildlife around them that archive, I think that’s what that archive could do.

But I think there are innumerable ways that it could be harnessed and utilised, but it would be an inordinate amount of work to make sense of such a vast resource.

Planet Earth: Optimist or pessimist?

Ooh, it’s really hard. I’d feel optimistic by the growing sense of awareness, particularly among children, it’s now rooted in their primary education, secondary education, whereas when I was younger, even when I started making films, climate change, people, there was a huge debate about it and most people didn’t believe it was happening, and that thankfully now most people accept these kind of realities. So I’m an optimist when I think about the level of education and awareness around the world.

Sadly, when you look at the reality of what’s happening on the ground, it is depressing, the increases in population, the demands on habitat, the… the small scale but continuous increments on wildlife are just never ending, and so I suppose I’m pessimistic, I see a future where we just have nature reserves, where there is a protected area and everything outside is degraded. I don’t see how else really, unless something radical happens in the next 50 years, I can only see a world where we put a lot of effort. If you look at the UK, it’s the model now, that at the Watches we go to RSPB reserves or WWC reserves. There’s no other wild… well, I wouldn’t even class it as wildernesses in the UK, they’re very highly managed and so I’m pessimistic in a sense that I think in a lot of parts of the world that’s the only place where wildlife’s going to be able to survive. Unless we do something radically … make some kind of radical change, but that strikes me as the reality.




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