Series title card from Zoo Quest for a Dragon
|Presented by||David Attenborough|
|Country of origin||United Kingdom|
|No. of series||7|
|No. of episodes||42|
|Running time||30 minutes|
|Production company(s)||BBC Travel & Exploration Unit|
|Picture format||Black-and-white, 4:3|
|Original run||21 December 1954– 31 May 1963|
In each series, Attenborough travelled with staff from London Zoo to a tropical country to capture an animal for the zoo's collection (the accepted practice at the time). Although the programme was structured around the quest for the animal, it also featured film of other wildlife in the area and of the local people and their customs. Attenborough introduced each programme from the studio and then narrated the film his team had shot on location. At the end of each series, the animals the team had captured were introduced in the studio, where experts from the zoo discussed them.
With the exception of the original 1954 series, (which survives as edited compilations repeated the following year) all episodes of Zoo Quest exist in the BBC Archives. The series was the most popular wildlife programme of its time in Britain, and established Attenborough's career as a nature documentary presenter.
The seed for Zoo Quest was sown when Attenborough produced and presented a three-part nature programme, The Pattern of Animals, in the early 1950s. While researching animals for this programme, he befriended Jack Lester, the curator of the reptile house at London Zoo. Lester invited Attenborough to come along and film an expedition to Sierra Leone. In addition to capturing snakes for the zoo, Lester hoped to catch a white-necked rockfowl (Picathartes gymnocephalus), which had never been kept in a European zoo before. Attenborough, whose previous programmes had been studio-bound, was eager for a chance to film animals in the wild. He also thought the quest for the bird would make a compelling central story for the series. Attenborough and Lester were soon joined by a young Czech photographer, Charles Lagus, who would serve as Attenborough's cameraman and travelling companion throughout Zoo Quest's run. The team overcame the objections of BBC management to film the trip on black and white 16mm film instead of the 35mm film that was then the Corporation's standard.
The original plan was for Lester to present the studio portion of the programme, while Attenborough produced it. However, Lester developed an unknown tropical disease soon after returning from Africa, and was able to present only one instalment before being taken into hospital. (After several recurrences of this illness — which was never identified as HIV — Lester died in 1956 at the age of 47.) Because the programme had already been scheduled, Attenborough took over the presenter's role.
The first series, called simply Zoo Quest, gained viewers with each episode, and Attenborough found himself being stopped in the street and asked 'Are you going to catch that bird or not?' Six sequels followed, each named according to its theme. For example, Zoo Quest for a Dragon featured the first-ever television footage of the Komodo dragon, while Quest for the Paradise Birds was centred on the birds of paradise of New Guinea.
Attenborough wrote a book to accompany each series except the first. The books were later reprinted in abridged form as a two-volume set in the 1980s. Lagus also wrote two books inspired by the programme: Operation Noah's Ark and Benjamin, the Zoo Quest Bear.
By the time Quest Under Capricorn was completed, Attenborough felt that the series had run its course. The practice of catching wild animals for zoos had also begun to fall out of favour as zoos became more aware of their environmental impact. (Today London Zoo only captures animals in the wild if a species is so endangered that a captive breeding programme is its only hope.) Attenborough spent the next eight years as an administrator at the BBC before returning to full-time programme-making with Eastwards with Attenborough in 1973.
Several episodes of Zoo Quest were made available online in 2007 as part of the BBC's Open Archive trial. In January 2009, the BBC Archives website published a David Attenborough collection, consisting of material from the Zoo Quest years. British web users can watch all six episodes of Zoo Quest for a Dragon online, as well as a short interview with Attenborough. There are also documents relating to the production of the series.
David Attenborough, Life on Air, BBC Books, 2002.
- Zoo Quest (1954)
- Zoo Quest to Guiana (1955) 6 episodes
- Zoo Quest to West Africa (1955) 1 episode
- Zoo Quest for a Dragon (1956) 6 episodes
- Quest for the Paradise Birds (1957) 6 episodes
- Zoo Quest in Paraguay (1959) 6 episodes
- Zoo Quest to Madagascar (1961) 5 episodes
- Quest Under Capricorn (1963)
By David Attenborough
- Zoo Quest to Guiana (1956)
- Zoo Quest for a Dragon (1957), reprinted the following year with an additional chapter of material from the Quest for the Paradise Birds series
- Zoo Quest in Paraguay (1959)
- Quest in Paradise (1960), an accompaniment to the anthropological TV series The People of Paradise
- Zoo Quest to Madagascar (1961)
- Quest Under Capricorn (1963)
- The Zoo Quest Expeditions (abridged combined volume of the first three books, 1980)
- Journeys to the Past (abridged combined volume of the next three books, 1981)
Zoo Quest for a Dragon, Quest in Paradise and Quest Under Capricorn were released as audio books between 2006 and 2008, read by Attenborough.
By Charles Lagus
- Benjamin, the Zoo Quest Bear (1957)
- Operation Noah's Ark (1960)
- Zoo Quest at BBC Programmes
- Zoo Quest at the Internet Movie Database
- BBC Archives - David Attenborough collection