Natural history programmes were almost an endangered species reveals Blue Planet producer

Alastair Fothergill was honoured with the BBC Trustees Award at the 2017 Grierson British Documentary Awards

A turtle in Blue Planet 2

Imagine a television landscape devoid of epic wildlife series – programmes that, themselves, had become an endangered species. Given the massive popularity of the current hit Blue Planet II, that seems improbable, but that’s exactly the situation that prevailed a couple of decades ago, according to the man credited with making the UK one of the world’s leading producers of natural history films.

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In a 35-year career Alastair Fothergill’s hits include Frozen Planet and the original versions of Planet Earth and Blue Planet.

“It may be difficult to believe now with the massive success of Blue Planet II and Planet Earth II, but landmark natural history wasn’t always flavour of the month,” he said at an awards ceremony on Monday night. “When I was appointed head of the BBC’s Natural History Unit in 1992 there was a strong feeling that we had shot our bolt. David Attenborough had just done his last big epic series Trials of Life and there was a thought that we had filmed every wildebeest in the Serengeti.”

That was the backdrop to his pitch, a few years later, to make the first Blue Planet series.

“I was quite nervous when I went to see the then controller of BBC1, the aptly named Peter Salmon, and said ‘would you take eight hours on fish. Oh and by the way David Attenborough can’t author it or present it because the diving is too technical, oh and by the way I want a really large budget because we want to film the open ocean and deep ocean in a way that had never been filmed before’. I really believe that only the BBC would have had the nerve to commission that series.”

Fothergill made his comments at the Grierson British Documentary Awards where he was honoured for his work in natural history film-making. Previous Trustees’ Award winners include David Attenborough and Louis Theroux.

Chairman of the Grierson Trust, and former controller of BBC1, Lorraine Heggessey said: “Alastair Fothergill has transformed the natural history genre and through his enduring partnership with David Attenborough has created some of the most memorable television moments of all time.” Attenborough himself said of Fothergill: “He’s a formidable man.”

Fothergill now runs his own independent film-making company and has been commissioned by Netflix to make their first blue-chip natural history series, Our Planet, scheduled to air in 2019.

In other ceremony news, Grayson Perry picked up his third Best Presenter award for his Channel 4 series All Man, beating Nadiya Hussain (The Chronicles of Nadiya), Rich Hall (Rich Hall’s Presidential Grudge Match) and Stacey Dooley (Young Sex for Sale in Japan).

Nadiya also lost out in the most entertaining documentary category to the C4 series 999: What’s Your Emergency.

The surprise of the evening was that the Islands episode of Planet Earth II (yes, the one with the racer snakes) did not win the best natural history documentary prize. That instead went to the BBC2 series Wild Ireland: The Edge of the World.

Other notable winners were BBC2’s Hillsborough which picked up best single documentary (domestic) and BBC2’s Exodus: Our Journey to Europe which took home the best documentary series award.

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The BBC took seven of the prizes on the night, Channel 4 won two and Netflix received one.