“DIDN’T your parents love you?” asked a couple of strangers when they learnt that I’d been sent away to school in 1951 to sing for my supper aged eight and a half!
I’d never thought of it that way but I now realise that starting life at King’s Ely and singing in Ely Cathedral – one of the world’s finest buildings – as a chorister was the start of my charmed life.
I threw myself into all that the school had to offer, particularly music and sport, and coming from a musical family I was destined for a career in music playing the French Horn, loaned to me by one of the kindest of teachers, Mr Amherst.
Good at horn playing though I was, I wasn’t good enough to be a top soloist like my school mate, James Bowman. In fact, I wasn’t especially good at anything which probably explains why the then Head of School, Mr Fawcett, when I passed my A Levels, wrote on my final report, “a pleasant surprise!”
What he didn’t realise was that much of my time was spent outside the school, for I had become passionate about wildlife and the surrounding Fens. Escaping our confines was tricky – my pal, Purdy Hawkes, and I creeping silently over the Headmaster’s lawn with our bikes before dawn and out of the only unlocked gate to freedom.
We’d cycle for miles, bird watching and fishing, then sneak back and get into bed before the prefects noticed we’d escaped. No one ever saw me doing any school-work, hence Mr Fawcett’s unkind comments about my academic achievements.
Inspired by the Fenland wildlife and my ten years at King’s Ely, I’d developed the courage to chase my dream of becoming a wildlife film-maker and unlike at school where I didn’t concentrate on any one thing, found that with hard work and lots of luck I was able to climb to the top of my profession and won so many awards it’s embarrassing.
These included three BAFTA’s and several EMMY’s, along with a special medal from the Royal Geographic Society for exploration in the High Arctic. I also won eleven ‘green oscars’, including a ‘Lifetime Achievement Award’, presented to me by Sir David himself. I like to think that Mr Fawcett would be pleased about how his reluctant student came good.
Ely had instilled an independent streak and the nerve to pick the so called ‘impossible’ subjects like snow leopards and mountain lions, though that comes with risks because if I didn’t deliver a good film my family wouldn’t eat. There were also several moments when I thought I might die, man-eating tigers and hungry polar bears come to mind but it’s always more exciting when filming something that might eat you!
I’ve been lucky enough to make over sixty wildlife films, the most memorable being a quest to film the elusive puma in the Andes mountains of southern Chile. After four months, I’d managed to win the trust of one particular puma and she allowed me to walk with her in the mountains and would even sleep close to me, greeting me with a quiet call. The memory still moves me to tears.
Making television programmes isn’t really a ‘proper’ job but it comes with a responsibility to heighten public awareness of the need to conserve nature and the problems us humans have created for our wildlife and in turn, ourselves.
I was warmly greeted back to King’s Ely recently and it reminded me of the privilege of growing up there and learning enough to try to improve our lives by helping the world’s wildlife survive.
Working hard was a principle instilled in me at the school and I realise now that this was the start of my charmed life and feel sure that today’s students will also enjoy rewarding lives, thanks to the magical spirit of King’s Ely.