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Flying by the seat of my pants on live TV


A lucky accident turns me into a TV presenter
Desmond Morris Writer
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After a number of years of this, I had a lucky accident. I was in the library and I was in... I don't know why, but I opened a particular volume almost at...  I was... I was bored, I couldn't find the reference I was looking for and I just pulled out a volume and I looked at it. And it was one of those lucky moments when it fell open at a paper written about a chimpanzee called Alpha in the Yerkes Center in America who had started making drawings. And what's more, when she had a pencil and scribbled these little drawings, they weren't random; the scribbles were actually visually organised. The man who was doing the study unfortunately died before he could publish it and it was published after his death and it was rather a fragmentary paper. But I saw that and I thought: this is extraordinary because here, my two loves come together. I'm obsessed with animals, I'm obsessed with art, and here's an animal that is making visually controlled lines on a piece of paper.

So I went to Tinbergen and I said, look, I want to study chimpanzees, I must have... And he said, you can't have chimpanzees here in the zoology department! We are not equipped for it. So I said, oh, what can I do? And he said, well, you'll have to go to the zoo – it's the only place where they've got chimpanzees. So I went off to the zoo and asked if I could do research there. And they said, well, I'm sorry, we haven't got a research appointment at the zoo, but...now wait a minute. And the director of the zoo looked through his desk and he got a piece of paper. He said, here, Granada Television want to start a television and film unit at the zoo – would that interest you? Have you made any films? And I said, yes, I have made a couple of films. I didn't mention they were surrealist films. But I had made two films and they'd won some amateur awards. So anyway, he said, well, would that interest you? So I said, yes, because I just had to get to the zoo to study my chimpanzees.

So I did an audition and it worked and I got the job. And suddenly I was... my wife and I packed up our belongings and moved to London and within a matter of days, to my horror, I was on television. This wasn't my intention at all. I had gone there to make animal films about animal behaviour. But they said would you mind doing a little programme on television? And I said, well, I'm not... I don't know, I'm not... I don't know anything about television. And they said, well, nor do we because Granada hasn't gone on the air yet. It was very early days and I went on the air with Granada in 1956, when ITV was just starting. BBC were furious because they'd had a monopoly, of course, up to this point and did everything they wanted to do their way. And suddenly there was this upstart ITV coming along and giving viewers an alternative choice. There were now two programmes. Think of it – two whole programmes on television! And David Attenborough was doing Zoo Quest on the BBC and I was doing Zootime on ITV, and we were supposed to be rivals. And we were told by our bosses that we must never meet. We thought this was ridiculous. Of course, we soon got together and became friends, have been friends ever since.

And it was the same for David. He said, I didn't want to be in front of the camera. My presenter died and I had to take over. He'd been filming with... he was behind the camera originally, you see. He'd been filming this reptile expert who'd... who jumped into a pond and got some hideous tropical disease and had died. And so David... they said, well, you'll have to do it. And he said, well, I don't want to get in front of the camera. But he did. And I said, well, I don't want to get in front of the camera. They said, but you... look, you must do this because you've got the whole of the zoo there. So David and I were both thrust – in the 1950s – thrust in front of the television cameras to present programmes and it wasn't what either of us intended. But we both started to enjoy it after a while. It was all live; there were no videotape in those days. It was BV – before video. And it was very exciting because it was... you know, once you're on the air with animals, that was it. David was actually travelling around the world making films, using celluloid – but there was no videotape – and I was at the zoo doing live programmes and getting myself into all sorts of trouble.

Born in Wiltshire, UK in 1928, Desmond Morris had a strong interest in natural history from his boyhood. Later, as an undergraduate, he studied zoology, and after obtaining a First Class Honours Degree from the University of Birmingham, he moved to the Oxford University Zoology Department where he began his research into animal behaviour for his doctorate thesis. In 1957, having moved to London, Morris famously organised an exhibition at the ICA of art work created by Congo the chimpanzee. Morris's engagement with the visual arts remains strong and he has often exhibited many of his own paintings since 1950 when his paintings went on show alongside those of the surrealist painter, Jean MirĂ³. 1950 was also the year when Morris began his career in TV creating and presenting Zootime and Life in the Animal World. Soon after this, he began work on a book that has proved a huge best-seller, The Naked Ape. Focusing on human behaviour, it was the first in a series of books in which the author observes humans primarily as a species of animal. Today, Desmond Morris has lost none of his inquisitiveness and continues to observe and write about what he sees in the world around him.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is an independent documentary producer who has made a number of films about science and scientists for BBC TV, Channel Four, and PBS.

Tags: ITV, Zoo Time, David Attenborough

Duration: 5 minutes

Date story recorded: June 2014

Date story went live: 06 November 2014