As part of the David Attenborough’s 90th birthday celebrations, the BBC will be showing the *‘Zoo Quest for a Dragon’ episode – a search for the Komodo Dragon in Indonesia, which marked David Attenborough’s television debut. This episode will be shown on Tuesday 17th May 2016 on BBC4 at 9pm.
Cinematographer Charles Lagus BSC, photographed this 1950s nature series and points out that the publicity has got a couple of things not quite right!
The press have broadcast that David Attenborough stepped in for the regular host, Jack Lester, after he was involved in a car crash as a stand in and that the episode which has been dug out of the archive for viewing on May 11th has had colour added. Unfortunately, according to Charles Lagus, most of this information is incorrect, see below!
… ‘Before departing on these expeditions the Beeb film department naturally expected me to shoot on 16mm B&W stock but from my experience I knew that B&W copy of colour was definitely superior. It was only after much argument (and cost analysis) that I was allowed to use colour. I used Kodachrome 100 foot rolls. The stock was inevitably kept under appalling conditions of temperature and the exposed film not processed until our return to the UK up to 5 months later!
Ninety percent of the Zoo Quest episodes were shot in colour, the few rolls of B&W we had were kept entirely for when there was not enough light for the slower colour stock.
The 11th May is the correct original transmission date and I appear in it almost as much as David, who certainly never expected to be the star or commentator and was most worried about it but had little option under the circumstances.
This upcoming broadcast is in fact completely re-edited from all material found quite by accident by a researcher in the BBC vaults. It had all originally gone out 60-odd years ago in B&W – never in colour – as only B&W television was available, it took some 10 years before colour viewing became the norm. Nobody had ever seen the original or remembered its existence, including David.
Those who worked on this version and others who have viewed the copy have all commented on the colour quality … “so much better than what is transmitted now”
Jack Lester, who was the Curator of the Reptile House at London Zoo, contracted an unknown tropical disease after a trip to Africa, which is why he couldn’t host the series, not because of an accident – unfortunately he eventually died after several recurring episodes of the disease.
A typical incident on one of the trips which might amuse:
David and I were camping by a river when the Indian who was helping us said that he could hear a boat coming with an engine – a rare event and it was a long time before we could hear it faintly. When it came into view it was a primitive dugout canoe with a tiny outboard driven by a Indian. In the bows (true) was a cloven stick with a BBC envelope addressed to me. It was from Head of Films and it said … ” Charles Lagus please be informed that recent Kodak research advises use of reflectors.” … signed Jack Mewitt HD Television. It was the only communication we ever received from the film department!’ …
Charles Lagus was the first cameraman engaged by the BBC to shoot natural history footage. His filmmaking career began when he switched from studying medicine to photography in 1946. In 1986 he was awarded the “Lifetime Achievement Panda” for his services to wildlife film-making by the Wildscreen International Film Festival in Bristol, UK.
*Zoo Quest was a series of 30 minute nature documentaries broadcast on BBC Television between 1954 and 1963 and was the first major programme to feature David Attenborough. The series began as a joint venture with London Zoo and ended with millions of viewers seeing for themselves animals and locations which might otherwise have remained the stuff of myths and legends.
In each series, Attenborough travelled with staff from London Zoo to a tropical country to capture an animal for the zoo’s collection – which was the accepted practice at the time. Although the programme was structured around the quest for the animal, it also featured film of other wildlife in the area and of the local people and their customs. Attenborough introduced each programme from the studio and then narrated the film his team had shot on location. The series was the most popular wildlife programme of its time in Britain and established Attenborough’s career as a nature documentary presenter.