Nature-lovers: red in tooth and claw

'Unlike migratory directors and cameramen, the scriptwriter has to suffer his cold native climate'
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The Independent Online

I met a man on the train to Bristol the other day, who said that he was a scriptwriter for wildlife films on television, meaning, I suppose, that he wrote the words that we heard while looking at the gazelles or the baby elephants on the screen.

I met a man on the train to Bristol the other day, who said that he was a scriptwriter for wildlife films on television, meaning, I suppose, that he wrote the words that we heard while looking at the gazelles or the baby elephants on the screen.

I asked him if it was a hard life. He thought for a moment, then said, quite slowly: "In the good times, life seems easy for the wildlife scriptwriter. With the sun shining and his cubs playing happily within earshot, you might be forgiven for thinking that he has no worries. But hard times are never far off for the writer of wildlife commentaries. He does not know when the work may dry up and the phone cease to ring, and it is a rare scriptwriter who has not known the dark days when there is nothing coming in and his brood look to him piteously for the next meal."

As you can imagine, I found his strange mode of speech somewhat offputting. He did not look at me as he spoke, and he spoke as if I were not there, only some unknown and far-off audience. But I decided to try again and asked him if the pictures always came first in a wildlife film, or if the writer was ever allowed to dictate the choice of material. He smiled slightly and said in a melancholy voice: "In the long ecological chain of which the wildlife scriptwriter is a link, he plays but a lowly part. He is subservient to the needs of the producer, the director, the editor, even of the eccentric and quaintly behaved music-composer, all of whom must feed at the watering-hole before he has his turn. He is lucky if they leave him a space.

"And yet the scriptwriter, too, has his vital part to play, for without the scriptwriter there would be no way in which the cameraman's artful pictures could be linked or any sense could be made out of them. Of course, when the prizes are handed out, it is not the scriptwriter who gets the fat, juicy steaks; it is the predatory cameraman and the parasitical presenter and the all-powerful producer and the director who share the major spoils."

His eyes flashed for a moment, and I thought he actually growled.

"And do you actually get to go on any of these trips?" I said. "When we see all those lovely pictures of jaguars in the jungle or monkeys clambering over Indian temples and we hear your words describing them, have you actually witnessed what you are describing at first hand?"

A look of indescribable pain came over his face, and he said: "Unlike the migratory cameraman or director, the scriptwriter alone is condemned to stay and suffer his cold, rainy native climate. Not for him the tropical refuge..."

"All right, all right, I get the point," I said, before asking: "Have you ever met David Attenborough?"

"The king of the jungle, courteous and kindly, is but seldom seen abroad. His face may be known to millions, but in reality he is a shy, retiring creature..."

"OK," I interrupted. "So you haven't met him."

I was beginning to get the hang of it. Let the man start speaking and, when you'd got the point, cut him off if you could before he got into his stride.

"And you are off to Bristol?" I said.

"Now is the time when my instincts make me migrate to the Wildscreen Festival in Bristol," he said. "The wildlife scriptwriter is essentially a lone creature, keeping far from other writers and preferring to operate in his own way.

"Indeed, his way of life is now threatened by presenters who like to write their own scripts. But once every two years, when the sun is waning, there comes the urge to put on his warm winter clothing and go to Bristol, where he may meet others of his own kind, gather at the same watering-holes and maybe mate with them, even if only recreationally..."

The words started to jumble in my head. I looked out of the window. It was getting dark, but I still had another hour of this before Bristol.

"Getting dark," I said.

"On these long winter evenings," he said, "it is small wonder that the wildlife scriptwriter often sits among the boxes of his old scripts, wondering if he will ever eat as well again..."

"If you don't shut up, I shall rend you limb from limb and leave you lifeless in the empty savannah, for the wild dogs to find and devour," I said; and, to my surprise, he did.

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