Natural History at the BBC

Julian Hector is the outgoing Head of The BBC Studios Natural History Unit (NHU), the department responsible for Blue Planet II, Blue Planet Live, Planet Earth II, Dynasties, Springwatch, and a host of other innovative titles. At COP26 in Glasgow, alongside Sir David Attenborough, he premiered the latest landmark: The Green Planet, which will air in January.

Julian will be speaking at this year’s Nature Matters with natural-history journalist Ben Hoare about the future of natural-history television and its dual responsibility to entertain and enlighten viewers (Saturday, 16:30-17:15). I spoke to Julian about artistic expression and the natural world, the ‘Blue Planet II effect’, and the role of storytelling in alleviating anxiety as well as inspiring action – which he will be talking about at greater length during his session at Nature Matters.

Julian is optimistic despite the urgency of the tasks at hand, and sees a clear set of challenges and questions facing the delegates at Nature Matters and the wider world. He believes that storytelling is at the heart of inspiring collaboration and local action.

In your eyes, what role do the arts and creativity play in forging connections between humans and the natural world?

One of the great things that the natural world offers to humanity is an almost infinite seam of expression. The arts – in a broad sense, including painting, literature, music, and dance – make emotional connections with subjects, tapping into the humanity of that expression through observation. Nature, with its colours and sounds and interactions, as well as its fragility and its relationship with us, is uniquely interpreted by each maker of art – and it is those interpretations which are so valuable.

This expression goes beyond anthropomorphism, which is just one small device of storytelling to make characters relatable to humans. Storytelling is at the heart of everything: it’s the bridge between humans and nature. After centuries of us trying to control nature and leaving such a large human footprint on our surroundings, the arts have never been more important in providing different ways to connect to the natural world.

The ‘Blue Planet II effect’ has become a buzzword for the power of successful media-led behaviour change campaigns. What can the entertainment sector and mainstream media achieve in terms of raising awareness and increasing public engagement?

The Blue Planet II effect was the result of highly innovative storytelling where we emotionally engaged audiences with the characters within the Blue Planet II sequences. The immersive and emotionally engaging storytelling allowed audiences to understand that animals live out their lives with plans to survive and raise their young. So when you add a major pollutant into their lives (in this case: plastic) then the connection between this very visible problem and its interference in those plans is implicit.

That’s what the Blue Planet II effect is; it’s about storytelling which makes the subject of the story (in this case the natural world) relatable, and therefore our relationship with it becomes very real. In the wider sense then, the important thing is to create that emotional engagement, which needn’t be around despair and doom and declining numbers, but can be around telling the stories of the lives of animals and plants such that we understand that our behaviour can interact negatively with it.

Just like that famous still photograph of the seahorse holding a cotton bud in its tail, the sequence of the sperm whale calf mouthing a large plastic barrel that once contained oil made the audiences realise that pollution is happening at every level and we all have to do something about it. It’s all about nudging audiences to understand the relationship with the wildlife around them.

Are those iconic images and very emotional visual scenes important to creating a legacy?

Beautifully shot images of nature are stunning, and we welcome their beauty and power into our homes. And then when you have images of fragility, it’s heart-rendering.

We are visual people, but the other aspects of storytelling are all part of the mix. Words (both how you say something and the cadence of how you tell it) and sounds are really important, while music supplements stories with incredible power.

What role do figureheads like David Attenborough play – as part of that mix – in telling stories and changing behaviour?

David Attenborough is a unique individual who has been around a long time as a trusted voice and an extraordinary storyteller. My team and I lean on trust enormously; audiences need to trust what they’re seeing, what they’re hearing, and what we’re making.

Audiences also like authentic voices. So if other people have a deep knowledge as well as a genuine and authentic love of nature, they also have a very important role to play in terms of getting the message out and attracting large numbers of people. And we have an important role in finding those new faces and voices.

The natural world is a global commons which belongs to everyone, and I think it’s wonderful that social media platforms allow everybody to share their perspective and knowledge (pitfalls aside!).

This year’s Nature Matters will take place in Bath which is not far from where the BBC Natural History Unit has been situated in Bristol for over 60 years. Why is the South-West such a good hub for interdisciplinary action?

In 1979 ‘Life on Earth’ was first broadcast which defined a whole new era: the big natural history landmark was born. This attracted huge global audiences over time. The upshot of this was that it acted as an incredibly potent magnet for talent; people came to the region to make wildlife films and to support the making of wildlife films.

The talent grew and sustained, and now, in 2021, Bristol has a vibrant and healthy ecology of the BBC and non-BBC companies in all aspects of the production process. We’ve been collaborating over the last 10 years directly with the University of the West of England (UWE) where the Natural History Unit, with UWE, runs a Masters in Wildlife Filmmaking. Those students come from loads of different backgrounds and they’re seeding a lot of that diversity in wildlife filmmaking.

Bristol has an enormously vibrant arts and music scene and its own theatre, and it’s a city which has for a long time celebrated its diversity with views and opinions and input from everybody. All of this cultivates and generates a creative environment in which conservation bodies, scientific endeavours and the media all interact – many of which have their headquarters in or near Bristol and Bath. It’s a really vibrant community of people who just love knowledge and content.

What does this year’s theme, ‘Local to Global’, mean to you?

Television is a global business: we bring the full scale of the natural world into people’s lives, giving them access to the wonder of the natural world wherever it is and wherever they are. Our role is to liberate stories of the natural world to provide people the exhilaration of escapism – as well as to immerse them in the fragility of the natural world at a global level.

But we are also interested in things which are local. We’re very proud of long-running strands like Springwatch which are very much part of the cultural vernacular of this country. Springwatch celebrates the natural world of the UK and the science behind the knowledge of the local habitats here. As a live programme, it allows UK audiences to really understand and immerse themselves in an agenda that isn’t theirs in the here and now while anchoring them in local natural history.

When it comes to the big international landmarks and campaigning, the BBC has to be impartial because that’s part of its charter and the trust we cherish and protect with our audiences. But what we do campaign about is our relationship with the natural world. We link up organisations with specific campaigns, a great deal of which are about local advocacy. I feel our job in this sense is to bring people together and empower local organisations.

Making connections is very important; one of the great things which has emerged out of these tense climate change talks is how our actions here can affect people thousands of miles away. People have real power to act locally in terms of who they support, what they buy, how they live their lives. These are the connections which are right at the top of the climate change and ecosystems agenda.

How can we support and encourage collaboration – across different media or between different disciplines?

Creativity is a wonderful elixir, and we are all conjoined in our relationships with the natural world and the creative subject matter it provides us with. The research organisations – whether universities or government institutes or charities – originate the knowledge which we then package up as powerful storytelling on television or radio.

To work in partnership, you need to bring different things to the table rather than competing in the same airspace. Fostering collaboration requires leadership to help everyone recognize what they can offer.

What role can groups like New Networks for Nature and events like Nature Matters play in making change?

New Networks for Nature was originally self-assembled by a group of people interested in those who use the natural world for expression and want to share how nature inspires them, meeting to bounce ideas off each other and build creativity.

I believe that sort of essence of New Networks hasn’t diminished – it’s just grown. So New Networks elegantly brings together scientists, authors, naturalists, nature-reserve managers, content producers, presenters, musicians, poets: people widely across the arts and the sciences by an interest in the natural world.

This year the event is live-streamed and, while we’ve lived in difficult times during the pandemic, we’ve all learned to use video very well! But whether it be in the room or by video, people meeting and being and exchanging creative thoughts and making friendships in a safe space can only be good for our relationship with nature – and that’s what New Networks does.

In your session at Nature Matters, you will be discussing the conflicting obligations of nature entertainment to simultaneously enlighten while relaxing viewers. Can you give us a brief insight into how you think natural-history television can resolve this conflict?

People love being in the company of natural history and the awe and wonder of it all. We portray that with globally defining photography and storytelling.

Escapism is important; I’ve never known a time as we’re in right now where I have seen so much anxiety around. The messaging everywhere is apocalyptic and so much action is needed. We have an important role in portraying the natural world as a place of enormous global heritage and cultural value that it’s part of not just keeping us alive, but actually what makes us human. That, in some ways, is the entertainment side.

We also have to portray truthfully how the natural world is in decline and how our relationship with it has been hostile for so long that it looks like there could be a very dangerous end-point where ecosystems cease being functional. We therefore have to balance the wonder of nature with telling a story that allows people to act responsibly and to do more, and that is a constantly evolving process.

In addition to our documentaries, our big landmarks have had a big impact. They attract huge audiences and skilfully make people care about their surroundings in a way that doesn’t arrest in fear but actually makes them want to do more. That’s what I’ll be talking about at Nature Matters.

Has the change over the last few years left you feeling optimistic?

The work we do reaches the population at large – which is our main priority – but also reaches those that have enormous influence. I’m an optimist because we have to be. I am optimistic because we have a big role to play and a responsibility to do so.

As I look at COP26, the big message is that the treaties that are signed have to be about nations working together with a sustained plan that will mend our distressed planet – or more poignantly, allow the earth to continue to sustain us. The world did come together to take on a global pandemic, where science and change in behaviour worked; the scientific endeavour of the world’s nations did come together to solve the hole in the ozone layer, and quite quickly. Exactly the same has to happen with reducing the rise of global temperatures and, on a quicker time scale, restoring ecosystems. Measures and our behaviour have to reverse the destruction of rainforests, the draining of wetlands, over-development of coastlines to name but three – and of course for wildlife to share the farming landscape equably.

Geopolitics is very complex, but citizens are involved like never before – whether that is because of influence, social engagement, or the effects of work that we all do. I think attitudes of waiting until someone else has fixed it have gone away; there’s a palpable sense that it is everyone’s responsibility at different levels.

What other questions and challenges are you taking to Nature Matters?

I think it’s important that we keep at the heart of discussions that functioning ecosystems – not just habitats – are vital to a living world. The restoration of the biodiversity which allows these ecosystems to sustain on a large scale is the important agenda, as it is through the characters living within the habitats of ecosystems that we tell stories. That’s the important message for me.

Do you have a particular species that acts as a guiding force during this time?

I adore albatrosses. Not a day goes by where I don’t think about them! Albatrosses are the most wonderful oceanic aviators; they soar over the oceans and alight on very remote places to breed. (I love remote windy places, particularly in the Antarctic). They’re long lived, and both parents take equal duties in raising the offspring. They are so beautiful, but they are so vulnerable.

When I used to work with albatrosses on South Georgia in the 80s I used to love their smell: a unique albatross musty smell. The jacket I used to wear back then still has that albatross smell!

Julian will be joining Ben Hoare for a conversation about the future of natural-history television from 16:30-17:15 on Saturday November 20th. See the full programme and buy tickets here:

Written by Noa Leach

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