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.
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.