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Last month the Head of the BBC’s Natural History Unit Wendy Darke gave a Richmond Lecture on the important of storytelling for science. Beforehand, Jordan Kelly-Linden sat down with her to find out what it’s like being an influential figure at the BBC, to hear about all the exciting new documentaries heading our way in the coming year, and to learn the secret to a good story (clue, it’s about knowing your audience). Sophie Hunter transcribed the interview.

You might not know it but as Head of the Natural History unit at the BBC, Wendy Darke has brought you countless hours of factual and fun, animal-filled entertainment. Think of any big wildlife documentary produced by the BBC in the past 10 years and Wendy has probably had something to do with it. All those nights of Attenborough and chill? She’s had your back.

With a joint honours degree in Geology and Zoology from the University of Bristol, two honorary degrees, and over 20 years worth of experience in the BBC’s NHU, you could say that she’s something of a natural history expert.

Here’s how our interview went:

Okay, so first up, what’s it like being based in Bristol, rather than London or Manchester for the BBC? Is there anything special about it?

Bristol is absolutely the place to be. And that’s for lots of reasons.

One, the heritage. We’ll be celebrating 60 years of BBC Natural History unit next June, 2017. So in terms of the culture that’s developed, the expertise here, there is nowhere else in the world that has such a high concentration of talented wildlife camera people, programme producers or researchers.

So, if you want to be learning from the very best, Bristol is the place to be. We make more wildlife programmes here in Bristol than anywhere else in the world.

It really is the epicentre of the industry.

So how does the University of Bristol help with natural history at the BBC? Do you feed into each other?

I mean, I think it is fair to say there’s more to be done.

But, saying that, I was a graduate here, back in ’86, so I very much benefitted from doing geology and zoology at the university. It was the only university in the country at that time offering that kind of joint honours degree and it gave me a very good understanding of the subject area.

Many of my colleagues that I work with in the Natural History Unit have either done undergraduate degrees or PHDs at Bristol University, and some people have also come through on the Television MA course, as well.

I think that’s really positive. It was wonderful, I think it was last year, when you unveiled the new Life Science Building and David Attenborough was able to come down and do the big opening.

The presentation felt very significant as well in terms of strengthening ongoing connections that we have. There was very much a sense of a kindred spirit for wanting to learn about the natural world and then share the knowledge and storytelling with people, not just here in the UK but more globally.

It’s so interesting that you’ve got this kind of network of experts feeding into the BBC from in and around Bristol. It’s a factor you don’t always consider when you’re just sat on the sofa giggling at cute little animals!

Anyway, so, like you said, you’ve got the 60th anniversary coming up in June, have you got any plans? Ive heard rumours that theres a big documentary soon to air on the BBC.

Wow, haha, well usually, we have a landmark series every year that goes out in the autumn, and so this year in 2016 we’ve got the return of Planet Earth 2, ten years on.

Planet Earth was one of those huge iconic series that very much used specialist filming techniques like the helegamble. A piece of equipment that is basically a gyrostabiliser that sits in a helicopter that enables you to get aerial footage from a birds eye perspective. Importantly, with this equipment, you can zoom-in and get close ups maybe of a polar bear on an iceberg and then pull back out to give you that aerial perspective, putting this one bear into the context of his vast landscape.

So, that was the defining feature of Planet Earth ten years ago, but this autumn we’re coming back ten years on with the new Planet Earth 2. Now, we’ll be using, once again, the latest technologies. From things like octocopters, which is eight cameras on one of these remotely operated vehicles to capture images that really allow us to unlock amazing stories from the natural world.

But in terms of what we’re doing very specifically in 2017 and in line with our 60 years anniversary, we’ll be launching a brand new big blockbuster on the oceans. So, this is almost like Blue Planet 20 years on and what’s so significant about that is that 90% of what we now know about the oceans, we have only discovered in the last 10 years. And that’s all thanks to research and academic study and working with people who are trying to unlock the mysteries of the oceans.

So, it feels very timely to be celebrating 2017 with such an important landmark series on the oceans!

Some might say that most things in nature have been covered at least once in a tv programme or documentary, but you have been able to take a documentary from 10 years ago and re-vamp it with a new perspective and new research.

Do you think that natural history documentaries might start to take a different direction as technology advances and we start to learn more about our world?

Definitely. So, in terms of how do you continue to innovate in storytelling. You’re absolutely right. Only very occasionally do you find a new species.

When we made a series a few years ago on expeditions, called Expedition Borneo, we discovered a new giant rat in Borneo. That was hugely exciting, but you can’t bank on the development of ideas or on scientists finding new species, it doesn’t happen very often.

We also can’t bank on a new piece of technology. We’re always working with the tech industry and as soon as something new comes on the market we’re very excited to test it. But, again, you can’t guarantee something’s going to come up next year that’s going to be a game changer in terms of the technology.

That’s absolutely at the heart of what I’m going to be talking about this evening. What is within your gift is, what I call, the art and craft of storytelling. So, it’s the way in which we engage audiences, we invite them to come into our world.

Thinking about how much speed the online world is gathering, is this going to affect the way you start producing things?

What’s really significant is the fact that most of our audience now have access in the digital platform.

So, quite often when I’m watching a show now, I’m also watching the twitter feed. People are commenting before, during and after the programmes and saying what they like and what they don’t like and generating their own story narrative that works in partnership. I think that it’s fair to say the younger generation, not many people have a TV, but they are engaging with great content and great stories in a mobile-first world.

The challenge as storytellers is how do we take stories to audiences in a mobile-first world and that can often leave us thinking: ‘how do you tell stories in short form?’

So, the things that are shaping the direction of storytelling and content curation is the fact that audience are accessing stories in new and different ways. So we need to go to where they are.

Innovation is absolutely our DNA and its innovation through technology, innovation through taking our content to new audience on different platforms whether its mobile phone, short form, long form.

We’re shooting much more in 4k, which is a high resolution format. If you capture on 4k and if you’re lucky enough to capture a sequence, you can then use that sequence on a giant screen or in a feature films.

Whereas before, TV and feature films, because of the format you were capturing on, were two different worlds. Now, and you’ll see some examples this afternoon, where we’re capturing on location and then, some of those images are going on the telly and some are going on in, massive giant screens that are 40 meters high in theme parks.

Just a little bit back onto your storytelling point. What would you say to people that think creating a narrative around animals lives is a bit insincere and, obviously, youre very on the side of narrativising their lives, but what difference does it make? Do you think it encourages more people to watch it and conservation, getting people really involved in that?

I think there are two considerations in terms of this sort of notion of anthropomorphising animals.

At its most basic level is when we go as far as giving an animal a name in order to help an audience, sort of, connect. As humans, in connecting, particularly if you want to tell a story, attributing a name to an animal, particularly if you’ve got a group of meerkats and they all look quite similar, one way of distinguishing between them is to sort of give them a name.

The line that I absolutely say we never cross is to impose an emotion on an animal, because we simply don’t know, we can’t ask them. You’ll never hear commentary say that that little meerkat feels happy. That is an absolute no no in terms of storytelling because simply, we can’t support it.

What we could do instead, and I think it’s fair to say, it is what we do do, it to construct that sort of sense of atmosphere. If there’s plenty of food, the animals are very healthy, the sun’s out, life looks good, we would absolutely get a sense from some happy music that would illicit a sense of feeling good. But, the important thing is that for the audience to choose, it’s not something that we have said, but we would create an atmosphere to kind of represent story telling.

The other thing I would say is we deliver 150 hours of original content every year, for all audiences, from literally 3 to 103 across BBC1, BBC2, BBC4, Radio 4, Cbeebies, CBBC. While some people much prefer their natural history programmes presented in a much more factual way, we have lots of shows that are like that, and for those people who like their natural history like that then that’s great.

It’s not about right or wrong, it’s just knowing who the audience is and the approach you’re going to take.

David Attenborough opened the University's new Life Sciences building last year

David Attenborough opened the University’s new Life Sciences building last year

Okay so final question, what’s your advice for students?

My advice is to follow your heart, be true to your relationships, and aspire to always do your best work. I think if you’re doing that then you’re going to enjoy what you’re doing, and that’s important because you’re working incredibly hard.

If you’re doing something that the audience also wants, then its also very personally satisfying and I think its important to do things that have personal relevance to you, and to the people that you hang out with as well.

Then as you get a little bit older it becomes important to do something for the greater good of humanity. In a broader sense, that offers a higher level of personal satisfaction in terms of why any of us do anything, that helps to shape making choices in life around where you spend your time, energy and effort.

Update: Wendy Darke has since left her post as Head of the BBC Natural History Unit

What do you think about Bristol’s work in wildlife programming? Would you like to work for the BBC’s Natural History Unit?Let us know in the comments below or tweet us @EpigramFeatures.

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