Eric Simms: Ornithologist who presented 'The Countryside Programme' on the BBC for nearly 40 years
Tuesday 09 June 2009
Eric Simms was for nearly 40 years a familiar voice as the presenter of BBC radio's The Countryside Programme. He produced or presented more than 7,000 radio programmes and made about 700 appearances on television. Simms was above all a devoted field ornithologist and a noted amateur authority on bird migration. He championed the familiar birds of town and street, especially the blackbird (whose song he chose for his appearance on Desert Island Discs), and was also an apologist for that much reviled bird, the street pigeon, whose canniness and adaptability he much admired.
Simms was also a pioneer wildlife sound recordist, lugging the cumbersome equipment and cables of the early 1950s (weighing around 190lb) to London parks and woods to record birdsong and other natural sounds for the BBC. Among his breakthroughs were the sound of badgers scuffling and growling underground and the first recorded interchange between a parent bird and its unborn chick. He was the first person to record wildlife on magnetic tape, and pioneered the use of portable tape recorders, radio links and hydrophones in the field. He was also able to slow down the songs of birds so that the individual notes could be clearly heard and measured.
Apart from producing, editing and presenting nature and educational programmes, Simms was the author of 20 books on birds, ranging from Bird Migrants (1952), his ground-breaking first book, to his last, Larks, Pipits and Wagtails, published in 1992 when he was over 70. Birds of Town and Suburb (1975), based on 30 years' observation of familiar birds near home led to Simms being dubbed the Gilbert White of Dollis Hill. Equally well-received was his Public Life of the Street Pigeon (1979) in which he reviewed the long history of pigeons and man, and analysed how they manage to thrive in a wholly man-made environment. Simms wrote speedily and generally completed well ahead of his deadlines. He attributed this to a good memory and the pleasure he took in letting his thoughts flow without impediment. His books reveal Simms's polymathic interests, which ranged far beyond bird biology to embrace aviation, history, architecture, literature, music and art.
Eric Simms was a Londoner, born in Kensington, the son of a gardener. He was educated at Latymer Upper School, where he boxed, played tennis and rowed. Like his two elder brothers, he went up to Oxford where he read medieval history at Merton College (his sister went to Cambridge). He joined the university air squadron, and, after being called up in 1941, and air training in Canada and the United States, became a bomb aimer and second pilot in Lancasters in 626 Squadron. He survived 27 raids over heavily defended targets in Germany, including the experience of being hit by the bomb of the aircraft overhead. In 1944 he won the Distinguished Flying Cross for "the skill and determination which have been an inspiration to the crews with which he flies".
In 1943 he married Thelma Jackson, an officer in the WAAF. "We knew the score", he recalled. Bomber pilots did not expect to survive their first tour, and ever afterwards Simms felt that every new day was a bonus. The war gave them both an added zest for life.
After being demobbed, Simms graduated and took a diploma in education. For a while he was an English teacher at Stratford-upon-Avon high school, continuing his bird studies on estuaries and reservoirs in his spare time. In 1951 he joined the BBC, replacing the legendary German-born Ludwig Koch as the corporation's wildlife sound recordist and resident naturalist. Over the years Simms recorded the songs of most resident birds, publishing them together as a sound guide in 1973. Simms would recognise his recordings in television dramas and documentaries, such as the unlikely sound of bee-eaters on a film about the Yorkshire Moors. The collared dove in a BBC adaptation of The Barchester Chronicles was one of the first ever seen in Britain, recorded by Simms at Gratewell Hall, near Scunthorpe.
Although he was offered the plum job of archivist of the film and record library at the newly founded BBC Natural History Unit in Bristol in 1957, Simms preferred to remain in London. Instead he became a production assistant, and later producer, on the Schools Television Service, making environmental programmes.
In 1967, Simms left the BBC to become a freelance producer and author. A stream of books about individual birds, or groups of birds followed, as well as studies of urban birds and their environment that places him as a pioneer urban ecologist. Simms contributed four titles to Collins' New Naturalist library. One of them, British Warblers, was under-printed and now sells for upwards of £1,000. There was also an autobiography, Birds of the Air (1976). He was intending to follow it up with a volume to be called "Before I Go" revealing, among other things, "the truth about the BBC".
The Simms moved to South Witham, Lincolnshire in 1980 where Simms threw himself into a new project, a suburban nature reserve along the edge of a slip-road leading to the A1. He devoted about 50 hours a month to cutting back scrub and pulling up ragwort and other invasive plants to create a haven for 29 species of butterfly and 250 kinds of wild flowers, including the rare wasp orchid. There were so many cowslips in the spring that Simms had to maintain a watch to safeguard them from pilferers.
Simms's study was a virtual personal museum, where could be found his carefully preserved school cap and RAF uniform, fossils and skins, bark and brass rubbings, a sketch by his friend Peter Scott (which Simms rescued from the wastepaper basket), and other souvenirs surrounding the old-fashioned sit-up typewriter.
Simms served for a while as a magistrate in London. He was on the Council of the RSPB for 10 years, on the advisory panel of the World Wildlife Fund and the Royal Parks Advisory Committee. He was a founder member of the Welsh Harp (Brent Reservoir) conservation group, and helped to save that area from development to become a haven for migratory birds.
Eric Arthur Simms, naturalist and broadcaster: born London 24 August 1921; married 1943 Thelma Jackson (died 2001; one son, one daughter); died Lincoln 1 March 2009.
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