The other night I watched an episode of “The Durrells,” a new TV adaptation by Simon Nye of Gerald Durrell’s much loved book “My Family and other Animals” and very good it was too. Watching it brought back many happy memories of working with Gerry. Initially, it was a quite casual phone call from him telling me that he’d seen a film I’d made. Could I bring it over to Jersey so that he could show it to all the people who worked at his zoo, The Jersey Wildlife Preservation Trust?
I flew to Jersey and was met by Gerry himself. I handed over the can of film to him. He gave me a quick tour of the zoo. I showed my film, mumbled a few words and flew back to London. I consigned my visit to the memory bank and thought that was that. How wrong I was. About three months later there was another call from Gerry – “Would I be interested in making a fund raising film for The Jersey Wildlife Preservation Trust?”
Six months later, a cameraman, a sound recordist and myself were making a fifteen minute film for him. It was a very tight budget but Gerry was very professional, he had the story he wanted told embedded in his mind and was able to pitch it with consummate ease in front of our camera.
We made plans to make other films. The BBC were interested in two projects – on the pandas in Szechwan Province in China and another on a conservation project with the Marco Polo sheep in the Hindu Kush.
Although they didn’t get off the ground every summer I used to meet Gerry and his wife, Jacqui, in the Camargue marshes, famous for its white horses, bulls and flocks of flamingos. We’d have long lunches together. In the early seventies Gerry and I tried to set up a childrens TV series based on his book “The Donkey Rustlers.” We found all the locations on Corfu, cast the film, the money was in place only for the uncertainty caused by the “Colonels Junta” to panic our Greek co-producers into pulling out.
Nevertheless we always kept in touch and when The Hawk and Owl Trust unveiled its population survey of the Barn Owl in the British Isles – the first survey in 50 years – it seemed natural to ask Gerry and his new wife, Lee, to attend. It was a very damp day and, although he was ill and rather frail, he offered to stand outside in the drizzle to be photographed with a tame Barn Owl perched on his shoulder.
I’ll always remember how generous he was with his time, but above all, I’ll remember him for the words he spoke at the end of that fund raising film we made together extolling the conservation message of The Jersey Wildlife Preservation Trust. This was the scene Gerry was seated behind a desk, lit by a single candle. On the desk beside him were two downy bird of prey chicks. “Every year”, he said, “we spend millions of pounds on man-made things and on beautiful buildings, monuments, libraries and art galleries to house books and works of art. But in a way, isn’t the animal world God’s art gallery, aren’t the animals God’s works of art?
You can recreate an art gallery, but you can’t recreate an animal species once it has been destroyed, and to exterminate an animal species is as easy as snuffing out a candle.” Gerry’s finger is poised over the candle flame. As he snuffed it out, the chicks disappeared into darkness.
Those that destroy the creatures of our natural world to further their own ends should take note of Gerry’s wise warning.