The view from behind the lens
According to David Attenborough, wildlife cameraman Doug Allan is among the most gifted of his kind – here he tells of a life working in the wilderness and of a passion for preserving the environment
HERE’S A TRIBUTE from someone who knows a tight spot when he sees one. “If you are going to get yourself into uncomfortable, difficult, even dangerous circumstances, try to ensure that your companion is a wildlife cameraman . . .”
It’s a policy that naturalist and film-maker David Attenborough says he has practised for many years, for “such people know how to repair car engines with bits and pieces collected from the surrounding wilderness; how to turn the most disgusting ingredients into something edible; how to laugh after being charged by a polar bear”. They also know “how to wheedle their way past the most obstructive of customs officers; and how to deal with surly, drunken soldiers carrying loaded rifles, who clearly don’t like you and with whom you don’t share a single intelligible word”.
“Doug Allan,” says Attenborough in his introduction to the cameraman’s new book, “is one of the most gifted of these exceptional people.” He remembers their first encounter as being “extremely dramatic”, but says it was probably an “everyday” experience for the Scot.
Attenborough was gazing down on the black water from the edge of sea ice in Antarctica when this head appeared, slowly rose and broke the surface. A whale? A seal? No, just a diver, who removed his mouthpiece and with a broad Scots accent explained that he wanted to make natural history films for television. “How do I start?” he asked.
It was the beginning of a professional relationship that has spanned more than 30 years, with Life in the Freezer, Arctic Kingdom, The Blue Planet, Planet Earth, Human Planet, Ocean Giantsand Frozen Planetamong the many documentaries on their respective CVs. Allan, who keeps a house near Renvyle in Co Galway, specialises in cold, and in isolation, and spent two-and-a-half years without seeing a female during one of his many stints in the Antarctic. That was, he remembers, in the pre-internet era, when contact with home was limited to 100 words by telex a month.
“I suppose I do enjoy my own company,” he says, but he also believes that being a twin gave him the “desire to be different”. His first dive was into books about frontier exploration by the likes of Jacques Cousteau and German film-maker Hans Hass, the latter having recorded the first underwater footage for the BBC in the 1950s.
On family holidays to Spain, Allan took up snorkelling, and since then he says he has only ever made three decisions in his life, following his heart as much as his head: pursuing a diving career after he graduated in marine biology; applying for a post with the British Antarctic Survey; and, after he met Attenborough in 1981, taking a film camera south. He filmed emperor penguins, submitted the results to the BBC, and left the survey in 1985 to focus on full-time camera work.
As he explains in his new book, he has always felt that the written word had a “permanence that moving pictures seldom” have. Diving and filming are “easy”, he says, whereas writing is not, and he is eager to relate the story behind the shot. For instance, viewers may guess but few may actually know that one minute on screen is the equivalent of 10 days’ work behind a camera. “It took 450 to 500 days to film each episode of Frozen Planet, so every day for two-and-a-half years there was someone out in the field somewhere,” he says.
Ethical issues are also explored in the book, and Allan follows two cardinal rules – the welfare of the animals must be paramount; and audiences must never be deceived. However, he says that “too many of those involved in wildlife film-making, and especially, dare I say, those higher up the commissioning chain – the executives for whom the viewing figures are paramount – simply don’t know enough about the animal to make a judgment on what’s reasonable to expect from the production team in the field.
“The message from the high levels, albeit subliminally, is all about bringing back the big sequence,” he writes. “I believe that if we had leadership in morality coming from them, low-quality tooth-and-claw television wouldn’t be as popular as it is now.”
It’s one of the reasons that he likes simple projects, involving small production teams, and he is fortunate to be able to choose that option, though he feels very privileged to have worked with and formed a close friendship with Attenborough. The BBC’s best-known naturalist is, he says, “quite simply unique – there will never be another like him, as he almost belongs to another era”.
Allan also admits that he yearns for a time when there was less communication, and less haste and speed for, “the slower and cheaper you travel, the more you learn and the richer your experience.
“Most expeditions are now wholly wired up, and I hope I am not just sounding like a crusty old git when I say this, but there is such a thing as too much contact.” At the same time, the internet has allowed him to spend more and more time at his Connemara home from home, where he relishes “those lovely long summer nights”.
Allan is passionate in his concern about climate change, having witnessed it at both poles. “There are 25,000 polar bears in the world, and five years ago it was forecast that two-thirds would be gone by 2050. Now I’d bring that forecast back 25 years.” What really upsets him, he says, is how environmental issues “vanish from the agenda” when there is a “blip” in the world economy.
“We’ve been in recession for five years now and there is this head-in-the-sand attitude, and a push to return to the same old economic model that caused all the destruction. Yet the planet as a whole is really asking for help in a big way – and we are not paying attention.”
Freeze Frameby Doug Allan is available from dougallan.com(£25)