Obituary: Dieter Plage
Wednesday 07 April 1993
DIETER PLAGE, who has been killed tragically in an accident in the Indonesian forest, was one of the most brilliant and artistic wildlife photographers in the world. There are only about half a dozen in his class, who stand well above the huge field of enthusiasts who have all emerged since the start of television. Even if the medium brought no other benefits, it created this new profession whose wildlife programmes have at least made the human race aware of nature, of which it is merely a somewhat destructive part, and taught millions to respect, for the sake of their own survival, the rest of the natural world. Plage played a spectacular role in this crusade.
Of those wildlife photographers at the peak, one could never say who is best, or second or third, because they are all exceptional individualists. Allowing for their all being expert technicians with their equipment, they have very different approaches and style, different ways of presenting the broad canvas or the most intricate aspects, and widely varied methods of operating in the wilderness. The result is that their film footage, like painting, is individualist and readily recognisable.
Dieter Plage was, in his own way, a pioneer of style. A dashing, fine-looking man, who seemed as supremely adapted in the wilderness as a tiger or a lion, he brought something novel and exciting to Anglia Television's Survival series when he joined the club over 25 years ago. Rather than just film straight natural history in an orthodox fashion, he conceived and covered great stories about people and wildlife in a dramatic manner which enthralled the viewers. He was in every sense an action man. Who will forget his breath-taking sequences of the warden in Zaire with the massive male gorilla; the spine-chilling gaze of the tiger in Nepal peering at him from outside through the slit in his hide; the huge elephant in Kenya bundling him and Ian Douglas-
Hamilton backwards in their Land Rover?
In a feature film where big animals in action are presented for dramatic effect by non-naturalists, it is easily perceived by anyone with experience that the sequences are contrived and phoney. But in a wildlife series integrity is paramount and sequences have to be proof against even the most behaviourist of boffins.
Dieter Plage was a superb naturalist, but an amateur, whose observations outdoors are often more useful than indoor qualifications. He was a German, brought up near Frankfurt, with an easy English manner. He caught the attention of the famous director of Frankfurt Zoo Professor Bernard Grzimek, who had his own wildlife series on German television and spotted Plage's promise with a camera and sent him to see me in London. We took Plage on for the Survival series and he became a treasured friend of everyone, as well as a wonderful operator.
Plage had a profound understanding and sympathy with the creatures he filmed. He saw them as individuals, too, not just as species, so that behaviour, reactions and moods became familiar features and totally absorbed him during projects. He always described wildlife behaviour with expansive gestures, roars of laughter and genuine sympathy and understanding, as if he were describing family or friends. And this came through vividly to the viewers, thanks to the writing of his great friend, Colin Willock, who as a very knowledgeable and colourful journalist was exactly the right mix for Plage's sometimes tempestuous ambitions.
Their joint endeavours brought drama and excitement to the ITV screen from the Sixties, something that had never been expected of natural-history programmes before. The most notable, which attracted big audiences all over the world, included Gorilla in 1974, introduced by David Niven; Orphans of the Forest, about the threatened orang-utans in 1975, introduced by Peter Ustinov; and Tiger] Tiger], introduced by Kenneth More, in 1977.
More recently Plage started to write and produce his own shows and revealed considerable talent, with two new films in association with his lifelong friend the German wildlife artist Wolfgang Weber, filmed in numerous parts of the world.
Dieter Plage was very much a diplomat and established warm relations with game departments, wardens and authorities in many countries in all continents, a vital attribute for all film and television operators. Often he had to repair with tact and wisdom the damage left by others before him. Conservationists will be grieving everywhere after this tragic accident. But all are especially distraught for his English wife, Mary, who always sustained him in the wilderness with patience and courage. She was once glimpsed in one of his celebrated Survival films quietly doing the washing in a forest stream, observed with interest by a fine tiger only a stone's throw beyond her.
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