Honoris Causa – Doctor of Science
Durham Cathedral, 27th June 2007
Alastair Forthergill was a member of St Cuthbert’s Society from 1980-1983 where he gained a BSc in Zoology.
A family summer home near the nature reserves and mudflats of Norfolk; an inspirational Biology teacher who took his pupils in a battered minibus to observe peregrine falcons: out of such things grew a passion for the natural world which brought Alastair Fothergill to Durham to read Zoology. He had already spent time observing wildlife in Africa; and he already knew – he told his tutor at their first meeting – that he wanted to make nature films. Memories – perhaps faulty – of those days before reformation banished irregularity, though they always find young Alastair gifted, do not always find him in equal measure assiduous. Be that as it may, real drive and focus underlay the outstanding success of his undergraduate studies, which was prognostic: an expedition to the Okavango swamps of Botswana, which he filmed. The film was submitted for a BBC award, which clearly did something to launch a career.
When he graduated in 1983 Alastair Fothergill went straight into the BBC Natural History Unit. He worked on the award-winning Really Wild Show, on Wildlife on One, and with the team that developed live underwater broadcasting in Reefwatch. Work with David Attenborough on Trials of Life was a prelude to his own first full series, Life in the Freezer, about how everything from algae to whales survives in the extreme conditions of Antarctica. While working on this he was appointed head of the Natural History Unit, at thirty-two the youngest ever director of a BBC department.
Alastair Fothergill’s two greatest projects to date have been the BBC series, Blue Planet, broadcast in 2001, and Planet Earth, broadcast last year. Both were several years in planning and production, were hugely resourced, took multiple camera teams to locations all over the globe, and used new techniques of photography, in the depths of the ocean and high above the ground, to produce images of unprecedented vividness. They were transmitted to huge audiences and general acclaim in the UK, and earned many awards before worldwide distribution to millions more. Alastair Fothergill describes both series as ‘absolutely traditional wildlife filmmaking’, that is, not computer graphics, celebrity presenters and crocodile wrestling, but serious scientific filming of animals in their natural habitats engaged in their normal behaviours. Using their advanced technology to show the most extreme conditions – the highest mountains, waterfalls, and trees; the deepest oceans, lakes, and caves – they take us to worlds to which we could not possibly travel, worlds of which they are revelatory. Informed by the most up-to-date science, they include identifications of new species, behaviours never before filmed, and, at the bottom of the sea, all-but-unknown locations and ecosystems.
The simple, broad effect is of the wonder, beauty and variety of the natural world. They are indeed the planet and its wildlife as we have never seen them before. Alongside the high-tech brilliance – the Hollywood-devised heligimble for filming from a great height so as not to disturb normal animal behaviours – there is low-tech bricolage – the cinébulle, a difficult-to-steer hotair balloon, swung with a precarious platform for the photographer, which became impaled on a giant cactus. These Heath-Robinson aspects maintain an ethos of the sang froid of the gentleman adventurer, an ethos which Alastair Fothergill unusually demonstrated on camera, when in 2002 he copresented Going Ape. Filming in the jungles of West Africa, with one companion, Alastair joined a troupe of chimpanzees, whose way of life he intrepidly shared, including their diet of safari ants. You will not wish to know details of the mysterious illness he contracted, but, let us say, his female companion could not be similarly afflicted with tennis-ball-size swellings in the region of the groin.
In Blue Planet and Planet Earth Alastair Fothergill and his colleagues turn wonders of natural fact into yet more gripping television, by using an array of devices to create visual and narrative interest and generate vivid feelings for wild animals in their natural environments: pathos (a young elephant following the scent of its mother’s tracks, but in the wrong direction); horror (in a river filming piranhas, uncertain whether or not they attack people); fear (deep cave exploration, with only a thread to re-wind your way back through the narrow crevices); disgust (insect examples in such abundance that one is spoilt for choice). And often all these passions at once are engaged by the almost infinitely varied spectacles of death. The films do show many examples of striking care, above all in the drive to protect offspring – a female hump-backed whale feeding her calf for months without being able to eat herself; male emperor penguins each nursing his egg through the extreme conditions of the Antarctic winter. But alongside this the films are also a continuous revelation of nature’s violence. Beside what they reveal of the endless search of predators for prey, the effort to eat or the strategies to evade being eaten, Tennyson’s horrified account of ‘Nature red in tooth and claw’ seems almost Romantic. Both Blue Planet and Planet Earth show worlds of perpetual hunting, terror, and violent death – a pride of lions setting upon a terrified elephant; a spectacularly filmed sequence of African wild dogs hunting impala; the special computer filming used to reveal the splitsecond way of that virtuoso predator the great white shark with a seal; but most of all Brood X cicadas, which after seventeen years underground as larvae, emerge in trillions to pupate, copulate, and be eaten, with all their predators for one brief respite gorged to satiety. One would wonder at the placidity of temperament not driven to nightmares by these revelations of how all life lives upon terror and death. But alongside the wonder and beauty of the natural world, that is what Alastair Fothergill’s films reveal. They also, in an understated but clear way, address the great contemporary subject of the harm that human beings are doing to the natural environment. Planet Earth begins with a statement of the fundamental problem. Voice of Attenborough (voice of God, as it were, in natural history broadcasting): ‘A hundred years ago there were over one-and-a-half billion people on earth. Now over six billion crowd our fragile planet’. The programmes return to the issue repeatedly – showing threatened species, and effects of global warming from a diminution of the plankton and krill stocks basic to the marine food chain to the death of a polar bear, killed by walruses it had attacked only because transformations of its habitat deprived it of more usual prey. The related argument, that conservation is an issue with economic and political dimensions, was left for programmes created to follow up Planet Earth, which brought out clearly how poor communities cannot but sell whatever they have to sell, whether or not that means oil palms replacing rainforest.
For his outstanding contributions to the public understanding of Science, for setting new international standards for production in natural history broadcasting, and for promoting public awareness of the biodiversity of life on earth and issues concerned with protection of the natural environment, Mr Chancellor, I present Alastair Fothergill to receive the degree of Doctor of Science, honoris causa.
© Professor David Fuller, Durham University.