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Oct 16 2012

Obituary for Jeffery Boswall

Natural history and wildlife film-maker Jeffery Boswall passes away

Natural history and wildlife film-maker Jeffery Boswall died on 15th August 2012 after losing a fight with cancer.

Jeffery Hugh Richard Boswall was born in Brighton in 1931 to Richard and Elizabeth Boswall. Richard was a grocer and property owner, but he died when Jeffery was just 9 years old. Elizabeth was left to bring up their three children.

Jeffery regarded himself as a feral child, but attended church and was even an alter boy, on one occasion knocking himself out whilst waving the incense burner!

When Jeffery was 13, he was taken by a friend from the same church to see the bird life on the river Adur, at Shoreham-by-Sea. This visit would set the course for his future that centred around this new ornithological interest.

At 16, Jeffery took a job with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds as assistant warden on Skokholm Island, off the Pembrokeshire coast. Within months, his first article in the journal British Birds was published.

In his 20's Jeffery was active in the Young Conservative movement. He was a political activist and saw a possible career for himself as a Member of Parliament, serving as Chairman of one of the Brighton constituencies. He was known at Conservative Central Office, knew many of the important politicians of his day and was, at one time, one of the Party’s top fund-raisers. Jeffery gave up formal politics when he joined the BBC but remained a member of the Carlton Club throughout his life. He was also a member of the United and Cecil Club - dining only.

In 1951 for National Service, Jeffery joined the army and was commissioned as an officer in the Corps of Royal Engineers. It was an experience that helped to mould his approach to his work, the precision, discipline and sense of comradeship helped to bring structure to his thoughts. Later in life he concluded that the army had made him. He left the Territorial Army in 1966.

In 1954 Jeffery read ''Human Society in Ethics and Politics'' by Bertrand Russell. He said, "It was like a huge weight had been lifted from my shoulders". Jeffery was relentlessly logical and the book changed the way he viewed Christianity, any religion in fact, and he became an atheist and humanist.

In 1958, a year after it was formed, he joined the BBC's Natural History Unit, in Bristol, as an assistant radio producer working on "The Naturalist and Birds in Britain". Four years later, he started directing "Animal Magic" and, in 1964, he switched permanently to television. The popular children's series ''Animal Magic'', which began in 1962, gave him his first TV experience as a producer and director after working in radio. The series' presenter Johnny Morris - dressed as a zoo-keeper for the filmed inserts - had a gentle, humorous style and put words into animals' mouths by mimicking what he envisaged them to be saying. Gerald Durrell was also a presenter of the early programmes. Experience as an officer in the territorial army meant that he planned productions like a military operation. In an interview for television filmed in his retirement, Jeffery reflected that he was actually better at organising and planning films than the subsequent process of making them.

Jeffery then worked on ''Look'' presented by Peter Scott, the renowned conservationist and leader of ornithological expeditions worldwide. One of the episodes he produced for the wildlife series was "The Private Life of the Kingfisher” (1966), it was the Natural History Unit's first programme to be broadcast in colour. It was filmed by Ron Eastman for over a year on the river Test in Hampshire, it featured remarkable pictures of the hunter birds mating, performing spectacular dives and feeding their young with whole fish. It won the silver medal at the Moscow film festival.

Also in 1966 Jeffery was commissioned to make a recruiting film for the army and was sent to Ethiopia. This became perhaps the second most important event in his life, it sparked a life-long interest in the country, its people and wildlife.

After ''Look ended'', Jeffery commissioned other ''Private Life'' documentaries (1969-75); the subjects of these single-species studies included the starling, fox, cuckoo and wild duck.

Jeffery ventured in front of the camera when Alan Moorehead had to pull out of presenting "Wildlife Safari to Ethiopia" (1970). He spent six months filming in the Horn of Africa with the camera operator Douglas Fisher to bring previously un-filmed animals and plants into viewers' homes. In 1971 he received the Haile Selasie gold medal for his services to the people of Ethiopia. In time he presented similar programmes on Argentina (1973), Mexico (1976) and Thailand (1979). Jeffery would say in retirement that his Ethiopian series was arguably his best.

Jeffery chaired the British Kinematograph Sound and Television Society's international symposiums for wildlife film-makers from 1976 to 1991.

One of Jeffery's later films for the BBC, which he narrated and produced, was "Animal Olympians" (1980), contrasting the beauty, endurance and power of creatures with human athletes. It was a fun documentary showing, for instance, sprinters being outrun by cheetahs and swimmers proving no match for seals.

In 1987, Jeffery returned to the RSPB as head of its film and video unit. He produced various short documentaries, including "For Love of Birds" - The Story of the RSPB 1889-1989, to mark the charity's centenary.

In a 1988 paper, The Moral Pivots of Wildlife Film-making, he raised awareness of the issue of ethics of wildlife film-making. He devised two commandments; “Though shalt not harm the animals [that you film]”, and ''Though shalt not deceive the audience [in the wildlife films you show]''. It is a subject that still raises questions in today's wildlife film-making industry, but many film-makers today seem to abide by these same two rules.
In 1992, Jeffery left the RSPB to become a senior lecturer on a wildlife film-making courses at the University of Derby. It was a part of his career that he especially enjoyed, commenting on the student's diverse approach to study, their ability for free thinking, and the interesting results of their practical (film-making) course work. Later, he lectured widely across the country on weekend or week-long courses, and on cruises, and sat on many international film festival competition juries.

During his "retirement", Jeffery studied to become a qualified humanist celebrant, he conducted non-religious weddings and funeral meetings.

Although he had a full and fulfilled life, if Jeffery had one regret it might have been that he did not get more exposure in front of the camera. He once told a friend: "David Attenborough is the presenter of a lifetime – why did it have to be my lifetime?" Jeffery seemed to be a natural performer, he could hold an audience in his hand, leading them through the complexities of bird song, make thanks to after dinner speakers that sometimes out-shone the speakers themselves, and could ad-lib in times of seeming crisis. At a wedding, when the musicians failed to arrive on time for the service, a quick-thinking Jeffery cajoled the assembled guests into humming "Here comes the bride".

Although some colleagues found him prickly and abrupt, he was widely seen as an eccentric, larger-than-life character with whom it was possible to have a professional disagreement while continuing to be a friend.

In 1961, he married Pamela Watson, who died in 2002. He is survived by their sons, Peregrine, Julian and Rupert.

Derek Kilkenny-Blake