Hugh Falkus: OBITUARY

David Burnett
Monday 01 April 1996 23:02
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In 1984 Hugh Falkus published Salmon Fishing, the book that has become the bible for a generation of anglers. Together with his earlier Sea Trout Fishing (1962), this has brought the adventure of gamefishing into the lives of thousands of enthusiasts. Falkus's fishing books, which also include Freshwater Fishing (co-written with Fred Buller, 1975), have been in print non-stop since they were published and seem set to remain in print for ever. They are the fruit of many years of hard fishing, long observation and keen experiment.

Falkus was a hunter who studied his prey with unflagging zeal. He worked harder, longer, more intensively, than any angling writer I have known, and took great pains over every page. He would sit up half the night to make one perfect sentence. Between huge draughts of whisky he applied the most formidable concentration. He would often fish all night and work all day, leaving his companions pole-axed.

In a career of non-stop action, he was first a Spitfire pilot in the Second World War. Shot down over France and imprisoned for four years, he was a constant menace to his jailers and in one camp famously captured and casseroled the Kommandant's favourite cat. After the war, he found work as an actor and scriptwriter at the BBC. He began making films with the BBC Natural History Unit and achieved an important success with Signals for Survival (1968), a documentary made with the Nobel prizewinning behaviourist Niko Tinbergen about communication between sea-gulls. This superb film won the Italia Prize the following year and was Falkus's proudest achievement. The prizewinner's certificate occupied a prime site, above his desk, in the study of his Cumbrian home.

Falkus's wildlife films included Tender Trap (1974), about carnivorous plants, The Riddle of the Rook (1973), and The Signreaders (1964). When the BBC Natural History Unit eventually roved further afield in its quest for new films than Falkus was willing to travel, he switched to a more autobiographical mode with his Self-Portrait of a Happy Man (1976), filmed in the Esk valley, where he lived for 40 years. This he followed with Salmo the Leaper (1977) and his last film, set in Scotland, Highland Story (1979).

Falkus's films are crafted with great skill. Once, during the making of Salmo the Leaper, I happened to be on the river bank with the camera crew when Falkus was setting up a short sequence showing the passage of a spinning lure through the water. The cameraman was submerged, filming the lure as it was cast in front of him. After an hour of this I got bored and wandered away upstream. Returning two hours later, I found the team in the same position and the unfortunate sunken cameraman still at his task. That scene lasts a few seconds in the finished film, but Falkus had to get it just right.

I met him in 1976, following publication of the revised edition of Sea Trout Fishing. In the text of this most inspiring of all fishing books, he referred to the value of what he called "nature detective work" in understanding animal behaviour. I suggested there might be a book in that idea, and in 1978 Nature Detective appeared. I took Falkus to the studios at Pebble Mill in Birmingham for a live television appearance. In the course of his interview, with the timing of a born showman, he suddenly brought from his pocket the wing of a tawny owl and explained how the feathers were constructed to allow the bird to glide silently upon its prey. Then he produced the foot of a peregrine falcon and showed its killer thumb talon to the camera. After he had overrun by several minutes, the producer managed to switch to the next item, but no, there burst out all round the studio loud and prolonged applause from the audience as Falkus strode to the anteroom. In there, the telephones started ringing. Who was the man with the owl's wing, and where could one get his book? It was his first hit. With the proceeds he built a sumptuous garage.

Apart from fishing, he was a great wildfowler, having started as a boy on the Essex marshes with his father as instructor. He wrote a charming book about his boyhood, The Stolen Years (1965), which evokes the joys of his youth spent roaming mudflats, reedbeds and shorelines, hunting, fishing and sailing. In his final period, he taught fly-casting, becoming the top instructor in the country for those who could stand the pace. His last book, Speycasting (1994), is the result of his experience as a teacher. He was already ill and often in pain while the book was in preparation, but stuck to the job with immense courage.

Hugh Edward Lance Falkus, fisherman, naturalist, writer, film-maker: born 15 May 1917; married 1939 Doris Walter (one son, one daughter, and one son deceased: marriage dissolved), 1951 Diana Vaughan (deceased), thirdly Lady Margaret Vane- Tempest-Stewart (marriage dissolved), 1957 Kathleen Armstrong; died Ravenglass, Cumbria 30 March 1996.

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