Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Mt. Cook goes underground

Guess where I'm going on the 17th September . . . I've been invited to the third annual Durrell Lecture at the Royal Geographical Society. I'm really looking forward to it.
It's a long time ago now, but have I told you about the time I worked with Gerald Durrell?

You must remember him . . . “My Family and Other Animals” . . . Jersey Zoo. A wonderful, larger-than-life character. I’m sure you know of his books, and of his outstanding work for conservation.
Gerry died in 1995, but the Zoo and the conservation work continue to flourish under the dedicated and commited leadership of his wife, Lee.

I was at the BBC in Bristol, working with Gerry, when he conceived the idea of Jersey Zoo. All of us in the Natural History Unit were fired by his enthusiasm, and many of us became Founder Members. I’ve been a Member ever since.

The reason that Gerry was in Bristol was because he was working on a series of wildlife programmes that the BBC had initiated and funded. This series took him and his first wife, Jacquie, on a tour of Malaysia, Australia and New Zealand. A BBC cameraman accompanied them on the tour, and they returned to the Natural History Unit with a welter of film that needed to be scrutinised and edited under the supervision of the producer, Chris Parsons. How was I involved? Well, I was part of the team working with Chris.

I’m telling you all of this because of an entertaining incident that occurred near the completion of the project. If you've a moment to spare, I think you’ll enjoy it.

Gerry had done a magnificent job. The series, to be called "Two In The Bush", had ample footage and plenty of thought-provoking topics. After several weeks of hard work, we reached the concluding programme which was set in New Zealand. But, with only a short time to go before transmission, the editor received a nasty shock. A critical link sequence had been overlooked. A shot of Gerry standing on Mount Cook had somehow been forgotten. There was no alternative means of linking two important sequences, nor of conveying the vital information.

You must remember that those were the days before editors could create clever, digital illusions. Very reluctantly, we discounted the option of taking Gerry up on the Mendips and pretending he was on snow-capped Mount Cook. The Mendips were gentle Somerset hills, this was mid-summer. The chance of fooling keen-eyed viewers was remote.

In desperation, it was decided to fake the scene indoors. A tight close-up of Gerry’s head against a white wall might, we hoped, be sufficiently convincing. After much searching, we finally discovered the ideal location . . . the storage basement below the Copying Room. It was perfect . . . off-white walls . . . plenty of space . . . no-one in the vicinity . . . as near to Mount Cook as you could hope to find in Bristol!
There was, however, one serious snag. The large machines in the Copying Room were constantly in use copying scripts. Standing in the empty basement it would have been as silent as Mt. Cook had it not been for the incessant, loud rumble of the copying machines overhead. The machines would need to be silenced for the critical five minutes whilst we shot the all-important sequence.

I went to see the Copying Manger and explained our predicament. She was anxious to help, but equally anxious not to fail the Producers who were awaiting her scripts. I told her that I understood her problem, but perhaps something could be negotiated.
Something was . . .

At three o’clock on the following afternoon, Gerry, Chris, Jim the camera-man, the sound recordist and I all gathered together in the basement. Jim set up his camera . . . the sound recordist set up his recording equipment . . . Gerry and Chris discussed the all-important link sequence . . . I stood by a chair, holding a broom handle.

Finally, Chris looked around . . .were we all ready?
We were . . . he turned and nodded at me.
Mounting on the chair, I took the broom handle and carefully lifted it as high as I could. With the end of the broom handle, I made three, sharp knocks on the ceiling above our heads.
It took a minute or two, but, slowly, the dominant rumble of the copying machines died down. Total peace descended on the basement.
“Camera . . .!” cried Chris, “ . . . Action . . . !”
Gerry made eye-contact with the camera lens, `”Here, on Mount Cook . . .” he lied with aplomb.

And, do you know, of all the millions of people who watched the series, I don't think a single one noticed that Mt. Cook had gone underground!

Now you can see why I'm looking forward to meeting Lee Durrell at the lecture on September 27th.
I'll tell you all about it!

In 1988, Gerry buried a time capsule in the grounds of Jersey Zoo. This was the message he sent to future generations . . .

We hope that there will be fireflies and glow-worms at night to guide you and butterflies in hedges and forests to greet you.
We hope th
at your dawns will have an orchestra of bird song and that the sound of their wings and the opalescence of their colouring will dazzle you.
We hope that there will still be the extraordinary varieties of c
reatures sharing the land of the planet with you to enchant you and enrich your lives as they have done for us.
We hope that you will be grateful for having been born into such a magical world.