Let me start this week with an admittedly hard quiz question: in 1954, how did the sudden illness of Jack Lester, head of London Zoo’s reptile house, transform British television? The answer is that his reluctant stand-in as the presenter of BBC’s Zoo Quest was the show’s director, David Attenborough.
Offhand, it’s not easy to think of many people whose 90th birthday could overshadow the Queen’s, but this month Attenborough’s is coming pretty close. The latest tribute was David Attenborough’s Zoo Quest in Colour (BBC4, Tuesday), which dedicated an appropriate 90 minutes to his first TV hit. As the title indicates, the big coup here was that the archive clips were no longer in grainy black-and-white. The bad news for anti-colourising purists, though, was that this didn’t mean they could get down to some serious head-shaking. Of course, more than ten years before colour television came to Britain (and, by my reckoning, at least 30 before seaside B&Bs stopped proudly offering ‘Colour TV’ as an enticement), Zoo Quest was broadcast in black and white. Nonetheless, much of it was shot on colour stock, which apparently produced sharper images. So no trickery — or, if you prefer, treachery — was involved in showing us the undeniably stunning footage we now saw.
Naturally, a few things have changed since Attenborough was a blond hunk with an almost Putinian fondness for taking his shirt off. These days, for example, wildlife presenters don’t tend to steal the animals they find in tropical jungles and take them back home. There was also something inescapably pre-Suez about the way Attenborough and his cameraman Charles Lagus exchanged their jackets and ties for safari suits, headed to the colonies and got the natives to do much of the heavy lifting. And, as both of them wonderingly pointed out on Tuesday, it’s hard to imagine the 21st-century BBC allowing two young blokes to go off on entirely unsupervised quests for whatever they fancied questing for, making their own travel arrangements as they went along. In the series set in Asia, the two sailed from Bali to Komodo with the only boat captain available — who, as it turned out, was a gun-runner who’d never been to Komodo before, didn’t know where it was and couldn’t read a map. (Think an Indonesian version of Captain Redbeard Rum from Blackadder II.)
And yet, it was still clear that even in that long-lost era, Attenborough was already establishing the conventions of virtually all wildlife documentaries ever since: the presenter often in shot, sometimes playing with the animals and always bursting with infectious enthusiasm at everything from termites to crocodiles. Above all, he already seemed to have perfected his own neat trick of coming across like a gentleman amateur — while also being utterly media-savvy.
And still with animals (contrived-link alert), the advance publicity interviews for BBC1’s new comedy-drama Love, Nina had a particularly large elephant in the room. Nobody mentioned the fact that one of the most appealing aspects of the book it’s based on has mysteriously disappeared.
As you probably know, a couple of years ago, Nina Stibbe scored an unexpected bestseller with a collection of the letters she’d written to her sister in the early Eighties about moving from Leicester to become a live-in nanny for Mary-Kay Wilmers, the editor of the London Review of Books — at a house where Alan Bennett, Michael Frayn, Claire Tomalin and Jonathan Miller were regular visitors. But now, in Nick Hornby’s adaptation, all the real-life people have been replaced by fictional ones.
The result inevitably suffers from being stripped of its chance to bring us any of the book’s high-class gossip. Instead, what we get is a straightforward and fairly predictable clash of cultures, with Faye Marsay’s Nina representing the no-nonsense provinces and Helena Bonham Carter leading a group of generic north London intellectuals as her employer George.
In fact, ‘clash’ is perhaps overstating the level of conflict involved — because in Friday’s first episode the programme appeared equally smitten with all the characters, however annoying some may seem to the rest of us. (Exhibit A: the pompous Scottish poet Malcolm. Exhibit B: George’s two precocious sons.)
As a piece of social history, the show does have its moments — not least the suggestion that what north London does today, other parts of Britain do a decade or so after tomorrow. Early on, for instance, George announced her Nina-shocking bohemianism by not having a carpet, making tea in individual cups and encouraging her children to express themselves without any bourgeois hang-ups about good manners (all developments, I can confirm, that have now reached even south London). As a piece of entertainment, however, it doesn’t always avoid crossing the line that divides gentle comedy from the kind that could simply do with more jokes.