Realms of the Russian Bear, with Dr John Sparks

After 6 years as head of the BBC's world-acclaimed Natural History Unit, John Sparks spent 5 years trekking the most extreme and beautiful landscapes of the vast USSR creating the epic series, Realms of the Russian Bear


Realms of the Russian Bear won Jury Special Award for Best Series at Wildscreen, and Best Series at The Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival, the Oscar and Bafta of the natural history film world.

He crossed one-sixth of the planet and eleven time zones, through the land of 100,000 bears, the deserts of the south-west where marmots abound ("Zey make good fur hats!"); the mountains of Tajikistan; Lake Baikal with its mysterious freshwater seals; the Taiga birch forest where lemmings nibble under the snow; and Kamchatka, further east than Japan and inhabited by tigers.

In this talk, John revisits some of the many challenges of making this ambitious series which, for the first time, presented a comprehensive picture of the wildlife of the Soviet Union.

This was only made possible by the elevation of Mikhail Gorbachev to the post of General Secretary of the Communist Party who opened a window of opportunity for the BBC's Natural History Unit to gain access to vast territories which had been mostly closed to foreigners.

John Sparks worked very closely with Nikolai Drozdov who presented the series -- a fantastically entertaining Russian zoologist and a communicator in the Attenborough league but arguably more amusing! Drozdov is incredibly famous in Russia and has himself made many extraordinary natural history programs for Russian television.

Neverthless, obstructive bureaucracy, non-availability of provisions such as food, vodka soaked interpreters, Aeroflot helicopter pilots without reliable maps and Russian mechanics who all but destroyed a nearly new Landrover were but some of the difficulties that the teams had to face almost daily in their quest. In many places, they were the first westerners for years to visit the beautiful and often spectacular wild places of the Soviet Empire - especially Kamchatka and the sensitive border areas with China and Afghanistan.

With the help of clips specially released by the BBC and graphics the like of which Ebenezer has never seen, John will tell the story of how this extraordinary series was made. One of the pathfinders of the BBC's phenomenally successful Natural History Unit, John's films have not only given immense pleasure but have radically altered our sense of the planet and our place within it.

We are immensely privileged to get an insight into how these films actually get made; an extraordinary mixture of scientific know-how, brilliant observation and really exciting good old fashioned derring-do.


John Sparks

John spent 35 years with the BBC's Natural History Unit, running it for six years.

After his Ph.D in bird behaviour, he worked with the renowned ethologist and author Desmond Morris as a Research Fellow at London Zoo. When Desmond heard the BBC Natural History Unit needed help researching a show on man's relationship with animals, he immediately suggested John.

Amongst credits too numerous to list here, John produced Reefwatch, Nature of Australia, The Discovery of Animal Behaviour, and 5 of David Attenborough’s groundbreaking series, Life On Earth (1979), including Life in the Trees, where he directed Attenborough's famous gorilla encounter, one of the iconic moments of the televisual age.

In a glittering career, John's only regret is narrowly missing the Order of Lenin! Just as John completed his last filming trip, invited by Gorbachev to launch the film at the Kremlin, the tanks rolled into Moscow with Boris Yeltsin: Gorbachev was out, so was the Kremlin launch... and shortly, the Soviet Union fell apart!

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2013Martin Keeley