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Zoo Quest (1954-61)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Zoo Quest (1954-61)
BBC, tx. 21/12/1954-63, 30 mins, black and white
Production CompanyBBC
ProducerDavid Attenborough
PhotographyCharles Lagus

Presenters: David Attenborough, Jack Lester

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David Attenborough travels the world in search of rare species.

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Certainly the most important natural history programme of its time, Zoo Quest is arguably the father of the entire genre. Its use of remote overseas locations that showed animals in their natural habits was a first for TV. Just as importantly, it launched the career of David Attenborough as a wildlife presenter.

The programme resulted from an invitation by Jack Lester, curator of London Zoo's reptile house, for Attenborough and a BBC film crew to accompany him team on a trip to Sierra Leone to capture snakes. The mission was at first thought impractical due to the extremely bulky 35mm film cameras used by the BBC. Attenborough and his team, however, decided to take lighter 16mm equipment instead, much to the disapproval of the Corporation's management, who viewed the film standard with disdain.

Attenborough's initial proposal, dated 31 July 1953, set out his vision of the show. "If the Corporation were to join the Zoo in the organisation of the expedition, there could be compiled four to six 30-minute programmes consisting mostly of film but introduced by Lester in the studio." He suggested a budget of £900.

The show's choice of far away locations was not without problems. Frustrated by bureaucratic red tape on a trip to Indonesia, Attenborough wrote to a colleague: "How I wish I were doing Party Politicals in London." But the difficulties faced in making the programmes proved worth it. Audience research showed that viewers were captivated by Attenborough's 16mm films.

Lester died in 1956, leaving a slightly reluctant Attenborough to handle the studio introductions as well. Despite his dislike for the job, he quickly became the BBC's face of natural history, a position that was cemented by the broadcast of Zoo Quest for a Dragon (1956).

This third series followed Attenborough and his team to Borneo as they tried to find the Komodo Dragon - a massive lizard then known only to locals. The footage of the camera crew finally locating one of the elusive giants provided television with one of its early landmark moments. However, the team returned without their quarry due to problems getting an animal export permit.

The programme came to an end in 1963, principally thanks to a shift of opinion among natural history experts against the capture of wild animals and their transfer to captivity. Attenborough, who agreed with the new orthodoxy, called time on Zoo Quest.

Anthony Clark

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Video Clips
1. Reaching Komodo island (2:53)
2. Building a trap (2:26)
3. Dragon tricked (2:05)
Dragons of Komodo: Complete episode (30:34)
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