Wednesday, 4 May 2016


Many of you won’t know [and probably don’t want to] that before I made ‘A Passion for Angling’ with Bob James and Chris Yates I was a cameraman at the BBC’s London Film Studios at Ealing. I spent nine years there before fulfilling my ambition of making wildlife films for a living but loved every minute of it because I worked on a huge range of programmes, including some of the best the Beeb have ever made.

I was lucky enough to work on several successful series, including Z Cars and Dr.Who, classic dramas such as David Copperfield and Little Women, comedies such as Porridge and having been trained in music, got to work on many music programmes, including a trilogy of films by Barrie Gavin to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth. Another highlight was working on Jonathan Miller's remarkable interpretation of 'Alice in Wonderland' and also had the privilege of working on some of Ken Russell’s inspiring TV Features, including Isadora Duncan and Delius. I learn't a lot about making films at the Beeb and will always be grateful.

New Guinea is covered with dense jungle

Due to my passion for the natural world I worked on anything involving wildlife [and walking!] and in 1971 I was selected from fifty Film Unit cameramen to be David Attenborough’s cameraman on an extraordinary expedition to New Guinea looking for natives that had never seen white man.

David was Head of Television at the time, the ‘biggest cheese’ in TV and I was told that some of the cameramen were surprised and jealous that I was chosen because I was comparatively junior to many of my colleagues. However, I was summoned by David to his office at London’s TV Centre and after a searching interview was accepted by him as being ‘suitable’ for his needs. Being a rugby player I was super fit, a keen birder and walker too and apart from being a ‘promising’ cameraman, these were deemed important qualities for the challenges ahead.

In our conversation, it became clear that David was taking the expedition very seriously and ever the professional, had been training in Richmond Park for three weeks. Upon returning to Ealing I was summoned to the Head of the Film Unit’s office and was told in no uncertain terms by the head, Jack Mewitt “you’d better do a good job Miles as the future of the film unit depends on it”. No pressure then! He also suggested that I try to curb what he thought were David's excessive use of hand gestures but a junior cameraman telling the Head of Television how to perform ain't going to happen is it.

We were to be making three one hour films, one on the discovery and exploration of New Guinea [as recently as the 1930's] which included an interview with one of the explorers who had been speared in the thigh by one of the locals! Another film was to be about the remarkable art and culture of the native people but the main reason for going to the other side of the world was an expedition into the Central Highlands looking for natives that had never been contacted by the outside world.

we would be searching just to the north of the central highlands - not exactly walking country
It would be a David Livingstone style walk because no white man had ever been into this bit of the interior. There were no roads, no tracks and certainly no map, hence the title of the film “A Blank On the Map”. But aerial surveys had revealed signs that people actually lived there, the tell tales of tiny clearings in the dense jungle.

an amusing Christmas card from Laurie

New Guinea was administered by the Australian Government so upon landing in the colonial style frontier town of Port Moresby, we went to see the patrol leader Laurie Bragge, a young and alarmingly fit looking Australian.

Us soft bellied pommies had already been warned and wound up by the local lads, telling us that the walk would be ‘real bad’, so we asked Laurie just how bad and he said in his authoritative drawl, “well, every patrol that I’ve been on, someone’s died”! David, our sound recordist Ian Sansam and I looked at each other with alarm, convinced it would be one of us.

the sketch shows our journey by boat, canoe and on foot
The expedition up country started with a flight to Wewak on the Pacific coast, then a little plane into the grass strip at Ambunti, not so much a one horse town as half a donkey. It lay alongside the majestic Sepik River which would give us access to the mountains where the natives lived. It would also provide the many porters we needed to carry our equipment and supplies for the three or more weeks walk.

a treasure from paradise

While Laurie made preparations, we ventured downriver to film some of the wonderful local art in the valleys villages. Beautiful masks, carefully carved and colourful spears, bows, arrows and ceremonial shields were common and when we ventured into the vast marshlands of Chambri Lakes, the locals living in houses on stilts made colourful pottery which they traded for salt and cloth. 

pottery was an important product - probably still is

I’ll never forget the multitudes of wildfowl, huge flocks taking off as we explored the marshes in a small boat though all the wildlife of the area was stunning.
a blue-crowned pigeon, similar to the one we eat

the butterflies are BIG - stunning too
celebrating the country's diversity

Also memorable was the village drummers, a hollowed out tree trunk providing the instrument on which eight drummers hammered with remarkable accuracy, including rhythm changes and syncopation. They were really sophisticated and had us all tapping along as we filmed.

I only brought home little pots

[David bought some huge pots from the villagers in Chambri Lakes and  lots of other artistic pieces on our travels … and he kindly allowed me space for my small collection in his two large shipping crates. We often wonder if he will open a museum as he has a stunning collection of artefacts from around the world].

a lovely face mask gift from David
We also ventured into a marsh where David thought we might find a rare bird-of-paradise but we were soon driven out by clouds of twin engined mosquitoes. We welled up with bites and it was then I decided to grow a beard to provide some protection. It seemed it wouldn’t be the head-hunters that could be our undoing but malaria.

some of the most exotic birds in the world
this is the species we filmed
Birds-of-paradise are one of David’s passions so early one morning, guided by a local, we climbed high into the hills to find a lek in tall trees. We had to hurry as we needed to be there as the sunrise hit the bare branches of the display trees. In those days our gear was hardly adequate but we did film the males’ exotic displays as they swung upside down while screaming for attention from the shy females. Their beautiful yellow plumes are coveted by the locals to adorn exotic head dresses for their ‘sing sings’, colourful dancing, singing and drumming parties - exciting to film.

shame this isn't in colour © David Attenborough
It was soon time to depart on our expedition with dozens of porters, so we set off down the impressive Sepik River in two large boats before transferring to dug out canoes to head up a tributary that would lead us into the mountains. It soon became too shallow and rocky, so the search would be on foot, guided only by poor quality aerial photographs and a compass.

Laurie's primitive radio for emergencies

The jungle was dense, requiring frequent slashing with machetes to force a way through. It was also steep and even precipitous in places and required strenuous climbing, especially through the mud. I filmed what I could, running back and forth to cover the journey but on one memorable occasion the patrol were using a shallow river to wade upstream. I filmed them all pass me, took a moment to check the camera and then realised I had lost them, not knowing where they had left the water and in which direction. A brief moment of panic washed over me before I found a slightly broken twig and was able to follow and catch them up.

Our staggering progress led us up to eight thousand feet, crossing numerous river gorges, one particularly deep one requiring a liana bridge to be constructed. Some we nervously crossed by walking over slippery tree trunks felled to provide a bridge and it didn’t go un-noticed that if we fell off, we’d be dead.

Another fast flowing river could only be crossed by wading … fine for the long legged locals but for this short-ass cameraman, not ideal. I got swept away and with white water rapids just below, decided to duck under the water and grab a rock to avoid going any further. Luckily, one of the porters saw me and dragged me out. Luckily I wasn’t carrying one of our cameras, though I did drown my light meter, so from then on I had to guess the exposures when filming.

It wasn’t the only time we got wet. The climate was ‘tropical’, warm during the day, cold enough at night for pneumonia and mosquitoes and leaches constantly attacked us. Worst of all were the late afternoon downpours, so heavy that everything was soaked and there was no way of drying out. The worst bit of the expedition was at dawn, having to pull on wet pants … but you’ll be glad we didn’t film that bit.

We didn’t have tents, roles of canvas stretched between poles providing shelter and a bed. The priority at the end of the days walk was to cut straight poles with your machete so your bed was reasonably flat. Like I suggested, it was true David Livingstone stuff … and the food wasn’t a lot better, Australian army rations in tiny little tins … and when we attempted to make an air drop with more supplies, the first pass over-shot and much of our precious food was lost down a ravine.

impressive birds and hoped for dinner
We tried to shoot some of the local wildlife, only for food of course, missing an ostrich like cassowary which, weighing up to one hundred pounds would have solved our food shortages in one shot. We did nail a Victoria ground pigeon, a large bird adorned with a beautiful three inch high blue and white fanned crest, but when hacked into small pieces with a machete and boiled among some forest leaves, it was a big disappointment, the shatered bones being particularly unpalatable.

this is the species we did eat - I still have the plumes in an envelope somewhere
As for the natives we were looking for, we followed a very subtle trail they had left through the dense bush, a bent twig or leaf being the only signs except where they had slept the night. Here a couple of large leaves on which they had slept and a few smouldering ashes were obvious. They didn’t want to leave any signs because they were stone-age head- hunters and didn’t want to be followed and get the chop. We had two police with us, armed with rifles. They were on their way to arrest a local who had lived up to the area's reputation for head hunting - trouble over a woman apparently!

It was exciting as we seemed to be getting closer each day and suddenly we came across a clearing and there they were, tending their crops. Upon seeing us, the men ran to their stilted thatched hut, grabbed some spears and other weapons and dived into the dense forest.

Laurie decided that we needed to avoid frightening them, so left the porters and others hidden while he and David led the way to the house. Ian and I followed, filming and recording whatever might happen. I was acutely aware that as I filmed Laurie and David removing the fortified door on the balcony of the house, behind me were several 'head-hunters' armed with spears, bows and arrows. I imagined, like in the ‘Strongbow’ advert, the arrows plunging into my back.

Nothing happened of course and we were disappointed that no women or children had been left behind to film, just the smouldering embers of a fire.  However, I won’t spoil the rest of the story because you can see what happened when David presents the complete film on :
BBC 2 on Saturday May 7th at 6.30pm

Suffice to say that we did survive to film the locals and retreat out of the mountains and it was with some delight to see the surprised faces of our doubters when us soft 'pommies' returned to Port Moresby several weeks later, still more or less intact.

We were in good shape considering the rigours. I had lost two stone [I could do with an expedition like that now] … and we were all suffering from tropical ulcers, those deep and poisonous wounds in our skin caused by disagreements with trees and rocks. I also had a bug that had burrowed into my leg but we had brought home a memorable film, a piece of history that is unlikely to be repeated.

the moment of truth - David, Ian and I filming the locals bringing us food
exchanging food for salt, an essential ingredient in presserving their food, especailly wild pig
David returned to his office in the highest echelons of television and Ian and I returned to the exotic world of Dr.Who. Some years later I left the BBC to join the RSPB’s Film Unit, fulfilling my dream to be a full time wildlife film-maker. David had beaten me to it by a couple of years, leaving the Beeb to return to the wilds for good, his first project being the remarkable landmark series “Life on Earth” and here our paths crossed again. I had just gone freelance [or self-unemployed if I wasn’t good enough] and my very first commission was on David’s series and the very last bit of filming to be done, to film a lion hunt in the Ngorongoro Crater. They had tried to film this sequence a couple of times before and failed but our trip went remarkably well and we had several kills in the can within a few days. The series was a stunning success and the rest, as they say, is history.

we tried not to fall off

‘Life on Earth’ was the first of the many blockbuster series that David has presented, some of which I filmed sequences for, notably ‘The Life of Plants’ where David and I found ourselves climbing together again, up Mt.Kinabalu in Borneo to film the largest pitcher plant in the world. We also hung onto ropes to film epiphytes, orchids and the like in 200ft high trees.

David’s repertoire of films is as remarkable for it’s variety as for it’s number, including films about fossils, tribal art and Darwin but it’s for his mammoth wildlife output that he is best recognised and admired. We in the profession have been lucky to be a part of his team but above all to be so well represented over so many years.

He’s a marvellous ambassador for us all and more than that, a champion for wildlife throughout the world. It is difficult to imagine that anyone will ever come close to achieving what he has for the natural world, inspiring us with the endless diversity of life on our planet and doing so much to encourage us to conserve it. So on his 90th Birthday on May 8th we can only hope and pray that he lives for at least another ten years so he can continue his life’s work.

If you want to view our adventures it’s called “A Blank on the Map” – Saturday BBC2 at 6.30pm.

that famous gorilla sequence in 'Life on Earth'
PS : a celebration of David’s life will be showing on the 8th May, at 7pm on BBC1. 

Also showing are three other one hour specials from his extensive repertoire, along with a compilation of his early success, ‘Zoo Quest’. 
a charming chimp moment in 'Zoo Quest'

Hopefully the BBC will show again his wonderful film on birds-of-paradise soon : “Attenborough in Paradise”. 

You can read more about David's many adventures in his book 'Life on Air', published in 2002. It's full of splendid stories and covers some of the early days of television. You probably didn't know that David was responsible for coming up with the idea of 'Match of the Day'. Quite a good call on his part!


  1. Hugh your articles are immense, would love to go for a beer with you and listen to some of your stories ;) Love from all of us at CarpCritic

  2. Only found this post recently. I watched the film online (Daily Motion). Utterly superb. I found it strangely moving when you meet the tribesmen. You need to write a book Hugh. You've made and helped to make so many great films. Not just A Passion For Angling (which is still brilliant). You could have a chapter for each of your various filming expeditions. Include lots of photos and stills etc.

  3. This brought back the memories - we were in Ambunti when David Attenborough and his entourage arrived, on their way to the May river area. They stayed in Ambunti for a short time while waiting for someone else - or some supplies - to arrive. I can't remember which. I was filling in at the government office for a week, handling the sending and receiving of telegrams. We had traveled up the Sepik River to Ambunti so that my husband and a colleague could visit the May River area at around the same time. Very early days for contact with the people there.