Skip to main content
BFI logo











Screenonline banner
Private Life of the Gannets, The (1934)


Main image of Private Life of the Gannets, The (1934)
15 min, black and white
Production CompanyLondon Film Productions
ProducerJulian Huxley
AssistantRonald Lockley
PhotographyOsmond Borradaile
EditorPhilip Charlot
CommentatorJulian Huxley

The life and habits of a nesting colony of gannets off the coast of Pembrokeshire.

Show full synopsis

The Private Life of the Gannets was allegedly named to establish in the cinema audience a mental link between its producer, Alexander Korda, and his Oscar-winning feature of 1933, The Private Life of Henry VIII. Whether this strategy was responsible for propelling this austerely simple nature film in the direction of the Oscar committee it's hard to say. Regardless, the film won the award for best short film in 1937.

The film records the life and habits of a nesting colony off the coast of Pembrokeshire in Wales, on the small uninhabited island of Grassholm. Filmed by Julian Huxley (who also spoke the commentary) with Henry VIII cameraman Osmond Borradaile, the film was probably inspired to a greater degree by the work of Ronald Lockley, who had been living on the otherwise uninhabited island of Skolholm not far from Grassholm, and had been observing the habits of migratory birds for some time.

As a highly respected biologist, Huxley was the star attraction in the line-up, although he gave Lockley his due in the credits. Huxley wrote and narrated and lent his scientific gravitas to the endeavour - like David Attenborough, he had a natural talent for popularising scientific subjects. The film did well in its day, but has since been criticised for pandering too much to the world of entertainment at the cost to its scientific credibility - a charge rarely levelled at Attenborough.

Derek Bousé, the most important writer on the subject of wildlife film in recent years, expresses some disappointment with the genre's early years:

Few revealed a gift for popularisation such as that of [Raymond L] Ditmars, [Mary] Field or [F. Percy] Smith. The most significant exception was Alexander Korda's Private Life of the Gannets.... Despite the combined forces of Julian Huxley and Korda however, it did not deliver. Emblematic of its failure to explore and reveal the gannets' family and social systems is a passage in which Huxley offers a surprisingly careless interpretation (given his advanced knowledge of ritualised bird behaviour) of a male gannet's display as merely a case of its being 'overcome by emotion'. His conclusion typifies the capitulation to cinematic entertainment in many early wildlife films.

Bousé is right of course, although the film probably did more good than harm in publicising an essentially rigorous model for the wildlife film in the future.

Bryony Dixon

Click titles to see or read more

Video Clips
Complete film (14:24)
Glimpses of Bird Life (1910)
Early Natural History Filmmaking