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1 June 2015updated 02 Jun 2015 10:11am

Culture vultures: which species have changed the way we portray the natural world in film and literature?

BBC Radio 4 and the Natural History Museum join forces in a weekly series called Natural Histories to tell the story of 25 species that changed the world.

By Tosin Thompson

The Natural History Museum and BBC Radio 4 have collaborated to produce a new weekly series called Natural Histories, which begins this week. Produced by the BBC’s award-winning Natural History Unit, which forms the centrepiece of the collaboration, and presented by wildlife expert Brett Westwood, the half-hour episodes will tell the stories of 25 species that have managed to change the way we see the world and our culture – from Damien Hirst and Anton Chekhov to Harry Potter and Tarzan.

The immediate challenge such a project faces is the ability to convey natural history, inherently a visual and colourful subject, on the radio. The programme makers manage to overcome this through the use of well-orchestrated audio theatrics, from voiceover acting to the sound of grunting apes, thus engaging the listener’s imagination.

The first episode of Natural HistoriesMonkeys and Apes – begins with Max Steiner’s 1933 soundtrack score from King Kong, hinting at the cultural premise surrounding big apes and their leading roles in Hollywood. Hollywood has long typecast gorillas as formidable creatures. But Westwood dispels this myth by presenting an archived clip from Life on Earth (1979) of David Attenborough playing with young gorillas in the forest of Rwanda – the gorillas were seen as friendly and peaceable. You could argue that Attenborough’s encounter is one of the reasons why movies like Mighty Joe Young (1998) and Gorillas in the Mist (1988), and stories of friendly big apes came into being.

Following this, Westwood gives the listeners a truthful reminder about how malleable our judgements are on the natural world, and how that in turn is reflected in our culture.

What is particularly good about the first episode, and what the BBC has been doing particularly well, is that it doesn’t assume the listeners are familiar with the subject matter. Westwood starts with the basics by clearly stating the objective of the series, followed by what the episode is about, what the definitions of apes and monkeys are, as well as spelling out their differences.

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Fittingly, Richard Sabin, Vertebrates Collection Manager at the Natural History Museum, presents the skin of Jerry the pipe-smoking, gin-swilling Mandrill, recounting his adventurous tale, and musing on the endangered species. He tells me: “This series will take you on an inspiring journey through the lives of some of nature’s most extraordinary species. From the Thames whale that was stranded in the river Thames in 2006, to ‘Happy Jerry’, a gin drinking and pipe smoking baboon whose mischievous character entertained visitors at the old Surrey Zoological Gardens, you’ll explore the incredible impact of nature on our current and historical culture.”

The episode makes it clear that the interconnectivity between man and nature is in dire need of repair. As we’re slowly chipping away at our ignorance of the natural world, we are also chipping away at our notions of supremacy above the natural world. But, unfortunately, the centuries-long damage we have inflicted on our closest relatives on Earth, monkeys and apes, is on the brink of non-repair. To some (like poachers), they are still seen as objects, placed on Earth for the wants of man. If we lose our relatives, we lose our forests and we essentially lose ourselves. “Their salvation is our salvation”. 

Natural Histories will begin on Radio 4 tomorrow at 11am.

The first ten episodes of Natural Histories, including the NHM species/specimens featured, are as follows:

Episode 1: Monkeys and Apes (2 June) – Jerry the Mandrill

Episode 2: Sharks (9 June) – Great white shark jaw

Episode 3: Butterflies (16 June) – Golden birdwing butterfly collected by Wallace

Episode 4: Giant Squid (23 June) – Giant squid

Episode 5: Lions (30 June) – Barbary lion skull

Episode 6: Burbot (7 July) – Burbot

Episode 7: Nightshades (14 July) – Mandrake herbarium page

Episode 8: Coral (21 July) – Darwin corals

Episode 9: Dinosaurs (28 July) – Diplodocus

Episode 10: Meteorites (4 August) – Mars meteorite