Re­mem­ber­ing David Bel­lamy

We pay trib­ute to the larg­erthan-life botanist, broad­caster and long-time BBC Wildlife con­trib­u­tor, David Bel­lamy, who sadly died in De­cem­ber, aged 86.

BBC Wildlife Magazine - - CONTENTS - By Ben Hoare

We cel­e­brate the in­spi­ra­tional ‘jolly green gi­ant’ and share fond mem­o­ries

At the height of his fame, UK tele­vi­sion’s self-styled “jolly green gi­ant” – he also used the typ­i­cally witty, self­dep­re­cat­ing moniker for his au­to­bi­og­ra­phy – was given an un­usual 50th birth­day present: a jail sen­tence. It was 1983, and David Bel­lamy had flown out for the sec­ond time to sup­port a peace­ful cam­paign by the Tas­ma­nian Wilder­ness So­ci­ety (TWS) to stop the damming of the Fraser River and as­so­ci­ated log­ging of its an­cient, uniquely rich tem­per­ate rain­for­est. His ar­rest made head­lines around the world, chang­ing the re­sult of the forth­com­ing Aus­tralian elec­tion.

BBC Wildlife’s then-edi­tor Roz Kid­man Cox re­calls that the mag­a­zine sup­ported his bat­tle with a press conference, ex­hi­bi­tion and ar­ti­cles. “David was a con­ser­va­tion hero,” she says, “and the TWS and Aus­tralian con­ser­va­tion­ists still love him. He was one of the few to cham­pion their cause, which most con­ser­va­tion

or­gan­i­sa­tions saw as too po­lit­i­cal.” As he him­self said a year ear­lier in 1982: “We’ve got to fight for it, for if we lose this area, how can we ever turn around and fight for some scrappy bit of wood­land in Bri­tain?”

Al­ways happy to get stuck in, the big­hearted bi­ol­o­gist sup­ported many other en­vi­ron­men­tal causes in an age when it was less fash­ion­able for celebri­ties to do so. As pres­i­dent of The Wildlife Trusts from 1995 to 2005, he was a huge fig­ure, rais­ing funds and aware­ness.

Na­ture writer Ni­cola Ch­ester re­mem­bers how, in 1996, Bel­lamy joined pro­test­ers fight­ing the in­fa­mous New­bury By­pass, telling her of the ab­so­lute im­por­tance of putting your body on the line for wildlife and its habi­tat. “He con­grat­u­lated me, said ‘Thank you’ and shook my hand. I think I cried.”

A wild start in life

Born in 1933, Bel­lamy en­joyed the kind of grass-stained, grubby-fin­ger­nailed, wild child­hood that is in­creas­ingly rare in mod­ern Bri­tain – roam­ing the coun­try­side hunt­ing the creepy crawlies that he would (with his trade­mark en­er­getic lisp) in­tro­duce to mil­lions of wide-eyed chil­dren through his mas­sively pop­u­lar TV pro­grammes and books be­tween the 1970s and 1990s.

Bearded, brash and bril­liant, the work­ing­class boy-made-good from Car­shal­ton proved to be TV gold, but his ca­reer first took off in 1960 as a lec­turer in botany at Durham Univer­sity. Phil Gates, who in­her­ited Bel­lamy’s post 20 years later when he fi­nally left academia to work in me­dia full-time, re­mem­bers that he was “the life and soul of the depart­ment tea room”.

Fas­ci­nated by mi­cro­scopic life, Bel­lamy had a fine col­lec­tion of an­tique mi­cro­scopes and trav­elled widely, re­gal­ing staff and stu­dents with tales of his ad­ven­tures in ex­otic places. “Once, when he re­turned from abroad,” Gates re­calls, “I found my re­search green­house full of large flower man­tids. He had come back late at night and needed some­where warm to store them!”

Af­ter ex­celling when he ap­peared on TV news re­ports about the Tor­rey Canyon oil-spill dis­as­ter in 1967, Bel­lamy was given a string of series to present. His high-rat­ing BBC shows in­cluded Life in Our Sea, Bel­lamy on Botany, Bel­lamy’s Bri­tain and Bel­lamy’s Back­yard Sa­fari, the lat­ter de­ploy­ing in­no­va­tive ( for the time) production trick­ery that shrank the sci­en­tist to slug and cen­tipede size. For 25 years, he

Bel­lamy en­joyed a grass-stained, grubby-fin­ger­nailed child­hood, roam­ing the coun­try­side hunt­ing creepy crawlies.

was a guest on just about ev­ery TV or ra­dio pro­gramme go­ing, from Blue Peter to Mul­ti­coloured Swap Shop and Desert Is­land Discs. BBC Wildlife edi­tor Paul McGuin­ness even re­mem­bers see­ing him pop up on teen school drama Grange Hill.

Game for a lark

What set Bel­lamy apart – cer­tainly from his con­tem­po­rary David At­ten­bor­ough – was his will­ing­ness to en­gage peo­ple by act­ing the fool (the lark­ing around ex­tended to a num­ber of nov­elty pop songs of du­bi­ous qual­ity, in­clud­ing the un­for­get­table Bron­tosaurus, Will You Wait for Me?). De­spite be­ing a star, he still had time for ev­ery­one.

In the mid-1980s, when 10 years old, the na­ture writer and Guardian jour­nal­ist Pa­trick Barkham took part in the film­ing of Bel­lamy’s Bu­gle. “I and my neigh­bours had to pre­tend to be a lo­cal gang with a se­cret call-sign – ‘ooh-ooh uhh-ahh’,” Barkham says. “David chased us through the Nor­folk Broads do­ing a bril­liant Bel­lamy ver­sion of it. He was loads of fun, he treated ev­ery­one like fam­ily.”

In later life, Bel­lamy courted con­tro­versy with his po­lit­i­cal views, dis­miss­ing cli­mate change as “pop­py­cock” in 2004. It may have cost him his job, though re­port­edly pro­duc­ers had also found him in­creas­ingly dif­fi­cult. But while he made his name en­ter­tain­ing view­ers from the sum­mit of vol­ca­noes, wrestling with un­der­growth or wad­ing through mud, he was at his best face-to-face. Nat­u­ral­ist and writer Amy-Jane Beer re­calls sit­ting in a rapt au­di­ence that was putty in his hands: “He spoke with­out notes or slides for an hour. We were hang­ing on his ev­ery word.”

At Durham, Bel­lamy had adored be­ing sur­rounded by young peo­ple with ques­tion­ing minds, says Phil Gates. “He didn’t miss univer­sity pol­i­tics though! My abid­ing mem­ory is of him stand­ing in a wood­land clear­ing, en­thu­si­as­ti­cally hold­ing forth on the botany of the for­est. No­body did it better.”

BEN HOARE still trea­sures his child­hood na­ture di­ary signed by David Bel­lamy.

He made his name en­ter­tain­ing view­ers from the sum­mit of vol­ca­noes, wrestling with un­der­growth or wad­ing in mud.

With wife Rose­mary on hon­ey­moon, January 1959.

With Spike Mil­li­gan and Joanna Lum­ley at a Save the Whale rally in Lon­don’s Hyde Park, 1981.

On Blue Peter with Si­mon Groom and Peter Duncan.

Bel­lamy’s pres­i­dency of the Wildlife Trusts ended fol­low­ing his con­tro­ver­sial views on cli­mate change.

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