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Mary Colwell - Earth in Vision

Updated Wednesday, 13th July 2016

Award winning TV, Radio and Digital producer Mary Colwell discusses her inspirations, what she is proud of, environmental issues and her hopes for the future.

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Mary Colwell

Mary Colwell is an award winning TV, Radio and Digital producer, with major broadcast awards on all three platforms. Mary has worked for the BBC, ABC and independent companies across a career that started in the 1980’s. Mary has two science degrees from Manchester and Bristol universities. She published her first book “John Muir – The Scotsman who Saved America’s Wild Places” in 2015 and is a feature writer for The Tablet.  She is currently walking 500 miles across Britain and Ireland to raise awareness about the decline of the curlew.


Wildscreen, 20th–23rd October 2014

Earth in Vision Project

I’m Mary Colwell and I am a producer in Natural History Unit Radio. I also do a lot of other freelance work outside radio, outside the BBC.

How I got started…

Interested in the natural world, very definitely. I used to go for long walks in the Peak District with my dad and we always took a geology hammer and one day we broke open a piece of limestone and inside was a shellfish, just beautifully preserved, a whole shellfish. And I can remember now the amazement at seeing this shellfish just sitting there, the first human beings to have seen this creature for 360 million years! And that stuck with me. I think of it actually quite often, maybe once, twice a day sometimes, going back to that feeling that we’re part of this great continuity of life on Earth, and from that, from that interest in geology, I developed a more broad interest in natural history.

What inspires me…

The programme which I think is enchanting is a radio programme and it’s called Tweet of the Day, and to me it is just one, little, 90-second burst of joy early in the morning, and it’s like the audio equivalent of someone giving you a little, soft kiss on the cheek or squeezing your hand or something. It’s a very grounding, a very joyful experience and I absolutely love it. It doesn’t ask you to be full of awe and wonder; it doesn’t ask you to worry about anything; it just says, ‘Here’s something fantastic!’ Love it.

What I’m most proud of…

A few years’ ago I knew somebody whose husband spent a long time in prison and he was quite a violent character and she became quite a close friend of mine. When he came out of prison I went to see him and I took my radio recorder with me and he had said he’d completely changed his life and he told me the story of that. He said when he was in prison he began to get very depressed and in Bristol Prison at that time you were allowed to keep a budgerigar, that was the only pet that’s ever been allowed in prisons and I don’t think you can anymore, but at that time you could have a budgerigar. And he went, he chose the egg and he went up every day, every week, to see if this egg was still OK, and then when this egg hatched there was a little chick for him to look after. And the relationship he built up with that budgerigar, who he called Pig, turned his life around, and he said for the first time he understood what it was like to feel a real bond with something, to feel a responsibility, to feel a sense of real emotional connection, to know that something depended on you and he depended on it, and this was even though he had five children outside. And that budgerigar changed his life. And I recorded this interview with him and I then recorded a prison chaplain talking about the journey people go on in prison. I put the two interviews together with a bit of music and it won a Sony Gold. It took me a day and a half to make!

Can you mix natural history with environmental issues?

I don’t think it’s inevitable, I don’t think it’s inevitable that there’s a trade-off between concern about the natural world and the joy and wonder. I think that everything comes down to how you tell a story. Ever since we’ve been cavemen and women sitting round campfires, we’ve told ourselves stories; we’ve entertained ourselves, we’ve expressed really important things about ourselves and our society through stories and we are inbuilt… ingrained in us is the ability to understand a story. We want to be taken on a journey with the story. A story which is just all happiness is a bit boring, a story that’s all depressing is just not worth listening to; it’s how you tell the story, how you bring people on that journey and you can combine those elements really well if you know how to tell stories. There is no trade-off; it’s a matter of storytelling.

Can you mix blue-chip with environmental issues?

It makes sense on one level. The distinction between blue chip and environmental programming makes sense on one level, in that blue-chip’s whole raison d'être is to make you feel completely overwhelmed by what’s around you, so it uses lots of techniques which are not real: amazing music, slow motion, incredible long distance shots, whatever it is, you get to see things that we would never, ever see with the naked eye just going for a walk somewhere. So it has a real function in getting into the real folds of the skin, if you like, of the natural world and making us all feel, ‘Wow!’ and that is essential. So I would put that in a box and say, ‘Yes, unless we feel awe and wonder we won’t necessarily want to do anything about it.’

For me personally, awe and wonder isn’t enough. I need something else extra to that, although I do understand why people just want to switch off, sit back and be amazed. I think that there is a real problem with saying we either have blue-chip or we have environmental, because actually what we’re saying is, we either have something nice and lovely and gorgeous to look at or we get depressed, and I don’t think that’s the right way to look at it. I think we either have blue-chip, which is a celebration of the intricacy of the natural world and the wonder of the natural world, and we have people and nature stories. And they’re the way I would divide it, rather than calling it the environment, which has become sort of the ‘E’ word, which everybody thinks, ‘Oh dear, now I’m going to be told what to do and how to think and be blamed,’ we have a redefinition of that and say, ‘Let’s start telling stories about people and nature.’

Are environmental issues bad box office?

I don’t know if much research is done into the relationship between audience figures and environmental problems, I assume it’s out there and they’ve made a decision. The only thing I go on is the response we get to programmes that we make. So on Radio Four making Shared Planet which is all environmental issues, we get huge responses from people who want to talk and want to discuss it and want to give ideas. I also know from making the series Planet Earth: The Future which is the environmental series that went alongside Planet Earth, got huge amounts of response and people writing in saying, ‘Why isn’t this put on at prime time, why is it tucked away at some really late time?’ And from public talks I give, people want to know about what’s happening in the world, so it’s only my personal ideas, but I think people really are interested in environmental issues.

Has natural history broadcasting fully covered the global decline in wildlife?

I really don’t think natural history broadcasting has got even close to telling that story. I think that the fact that we’re losing, that the whole of the natural world is thinning out as we speak, under our feet, before our eyes, is the biggest crisis we face, and I think natural history broadcasting in general has not wanted to see that; it’s wanted to shy away from that, it’s wanted just to show pretty things and nice things and big things, and all that environmental, awful stuff, we’ll let news deal with it. I think it’s a dereliction of duty, quite honestly. I think it’s one of the biggest crises this generation faces and we have a prime role to play.

Natural history with people

The change that I’ve seen in natural history broadcasting is the inclusion of people a lot more, so over the last 20, 30 years people have come into what’s considered blue-chips trans like the natural world and so on far more than they ever used to. So this recognition that the relationship between people and nature has definitely gained ground, that’s a really positive sign. And we know that people like to know about people as well as they like to know about nature, so that’s the way that we can start telling the stories in a big and meaningful way and bring it right home to people’s doorsteps, so that’s the biggest change that I’ve seen.

Does the BBC’s structure inhibit new ways of presenting natural history?

The way the BBC works, I think, makes that a very difficult thing to do, I think people have been trying to put natural history into arts, into science, into religion for quite a long time and then there’s lots of fights about who has control over the editorial, so <laughs> until the BBC becomes a bit more holistic and different departments work more closely together, I think that’s a difficult one. The Natural History Unit has made inroads into current affairs, small inroads but it has, but it struggles, I think, elsewhere.

My current project…

At the moment I produce Shared Planet which is the Radio 4 series, presented by Monty Don, which looks specifically at the relationship between people and the natural world, particularly with reference to a growing human population. But I also write a lot, I write a lot of articles on the relationship between faith and the natural world, I give huge numbers of public talks, run workshops, so general outreach stuff as well as programme making.

Future developments in natural history…

What I’ll be doing over the next 5 to 10 years I’ve no idea! What I think is happening is that the national conversation about natural history is turning from a whisper into more of a conversation that you can hear and that’s when people who outreach into society will start to get more involved or that’s what I hope will happen. So taking natural history, taking nature, taking things out there right into the pubs and clubs and churches and youth groups and wherever of society is where we have to go and it’s where, I think, we will go, but it can only be done by the communities themselves; it can’t be done by imposing it from outside. And I think it would be wrong to think that people inside the natural history filming world can somehow make all that happen. People will do it themselves and they’ll do it in great ways.

What roles can religion play in saving the environment?

The awareness of the world’s religions about the environmental crisis has grown massively over the past 10 to 15 years, hugely, and I think it’s really exciting and I think it’s something that scientists, that the people in the West, we need to think a little bit more carefully about, we don’t think about this enough. In the West, in Northwest Europe in particular, we all think that religion is something which is very private and we don’t talk about it. That is not true in the rest of the world. Most of the rest of the world is religious and they identify themselves by their religion. Religion is very much the milieu that they work in everyday, so when you get people who are religious, to apply that religious faith to all kinds of different parts of society, you see real change, because it becomes what you do every day, it becomes part of who you are. So for the environmental, scientific, and it becomes very scientific in Northwest Europe, attitude to the natural world, if we break that scientific approach down and make it more spiritual and more emotional, more human if you like, then the religions have a huge amount to contribute to the environmental movement.

What they bring is things that actually, quite honestly, are missing quite a lot from environmental conversations, things like a sense of great time unfolding, that this is all part of a journey that we’re all on and we may not get to the end of that journey, but as long as you take each step in that journey and do it well, you will eventually get to the end. You don’t have to sort everything in the next year and the next two years. It takes that pressure off people. They bring a sense of joy and a sense of awe and wonder, which is actually what is at the very heart of people. They bring a sense of humility, and that’s something that we miss massively, that humanity is just simply humble before God, whatever that God is to you, and that sense of humility is in the end what will help us understand how much we depend on nature. They also bring deep-seated community, they bring a sense of otherness, they bring these words which are so not 21st century: words like service, words like sacrifice, words like compassion and humility, togetherness in a communal sense, koinonia. They bring all that sense to the environmental movement which will make it accessible to people who don’t speak the scientific language, and even those that do speak the scientific language are people nonetheless. We’re all just human, spiritual beings, and for the environmental movement to include religions, to welcome them, to ask what they’ve got to contribute, not just ask them to do things for them, but to ask you, ‘What can you contribute to where we all need to get to?’ will open doors that we can’t imagine the power of.

What is the potential of releasing BBC natural history archive?

Releasing the Natural History Unit archives out to the public is a really exciting prospect, particularly in this age of everybody’s really hands-on with new technology, so you could imagine that musicians or comedians or drama students, actors and actresses, teachers, specialist groups like religions, could really take that archive and do something so different with it that we have never thought of and would never think of, because we’re not those kinds of people. So the fact that you could make a rap song and use archive from the Natural History Unit to me just takes it out to a new audience which is exactly what needs to happen.

Young children can make films now, you can make a film on your mobile phone, you can make a film sitting at your laptop on the computer and it’s out there. We don’t need to worry about that. If the material is available you build it and they will come <laughs> is really applicable to natural history, you make it available, people will use it in ways that we can’t even begin to think of. So I can’t think that it could ever be anything but good for nature if we put nature more into society. And people are worried about not having permission to use it, that’s the main problem.

The future of Planet Earth: Optimist or pessimist?

It depends what day you ask me. Sometimes I’m really optimistic, sometimes I think that the goodness of humanity really shines through and we don’t want to live in an impoverished world and we don’t want to be lonely on this planet with just people and concrete; that is a very depressing and life-sapping vision. I really do think people want to be fulfilled and live in a fruitful, vibrant Earth, I believe that. Whether we have the emotional strength to do what it needs to get there is another question. We’re constantly fighting between political systems and governments that are telling us to consume more and to have more and to grow our economies when we know inside that that’s not sustainable, when we know that the Earth can’t keep on giving in a never-ending way. So we know that’s not sustainable, but can we get out of it; who can step off this mad bandwagon first? No government’s going to say, ‘Us, we’ll get off first.’ That’s not going to happen. So whether we have to go through some monumental catastrophe or collapse of governments or countries or whatever, some kind of disaster which really makes people sit up and think, then maybe those of us who are left behind will realise that it’s been madness so far. Maybe we’ll be wise enough to act before that happens. If you ask James Lovelock, his idea is that before WWII we went right to the brink before people pulled together and saw the threat and acted, and he thinks that might happen with the environmental crisis that we’re facing. I hope he’s right, but I hope we have learnt from history, that we’ll act sooner than that.

<End of Interview>




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