Dr Wendy Darke
Doctor of Science
Friday 24 July 2015 at 4pm - Orator: Professor Innes Cuthill
The University of Bristol awards honorary degrees to those who have achieved and those who inspire. Honorary graduates are sometimes an alumnus of the university, sometimes a local girl or boy made good, frequently an influential figure on both the local and international stage. In Dr Wendy Marilyn Darke we have all these things. Brought up in Weston-super-Mare, a graduate in joint honours Geology and Zoology from this university, now Head of the BBC Natural History Unit, the world’s premiere production company for films about wildlife and the natural world.
So, why is a science graduate receiving an honorary degree in a ceremony for Faculty of Arts students? To be a path-breaking wildlife documentary maker, you have to know your science, but you also have to have creative vision. Indeed, it is notable that Wendy is receiving two honorary degrees this year: a Doctor of Science from the University of Bristol and a Doctor of Arts from the University of the West of England. Wendy Darke is a scientist with an eye for drama, something that is probably in her genes. Her mother studied Zoology and Botany, her father was Chief Examiner for Theatre Studies A level in the West Country, having studied German and Drama, at the University of Bristol.
Genes aside, how did she start off on a journey that would see her overseeing the delivery of over 1,000 programmes and running an organisation that, at any one time, may have up to 50 film crews on location across seven continents? As a little girl she loved nature; there were trips to Bristol Zoo and Longleat. But in 1979, aged 14, she watched a TV programme that would have a pivotal influence: Life on Earth. Sir David Attenborough has inspired many a young mind to take up biology; he still does, having last October opened the university’s new £56m Life Sciences Building with a call to arms to the save the planet. Back in 1979 though, there was one sequence in Life on Earth, widely accepted as the landmark nature documentary series that spoke to the young Wendy Darke: an underwater sequence on coral reefs, nature’s jewels. She turned to her mother and said, ‘that’s what I want to do’.
In 1983, the girl from Broadoak Comprehensive and Weston-super-Mare College of Further Education came to the University of Bristol to study Geology and Zoology, the only place in the country offering that joint degree. In her final year she wrote to coral reef experts all round the world, asking if there were research opportunities, and the stars aligned on a trip from Weston to Newcastle. On the train she opened a letter from the Australian Institute of Marine Science offering her research facilities to undertake a PhD in coral growth and form. It was also on that day that, at Newcastle University, she met Dr Barbara Brown, a leading expert on corals. Dr Brown told Wendy that the Science & Engineering Research Council offered PhD studentships for study overseas. Wendy applied for one, with the Australian Institute of Marine Sciences in Queensland as the host institution, and waited.
Wendy had by now graduated and was making ends meet by curating an exhibit on corals at the Bristol City Museum and working part-time at Cheddar Caves as a tour guide. Returning from work on her birthday, there was a phone call from the Science & Engineering Research Council: ‘Congratulations, you have a scholarship for a three year PhD on the corals of the Great Barrier Reef.’ Her research went well, gaining her PhD in 1991 from James Cook University on ‘Growth and growth form of the giant coral, Porites’. However, after toying with a career in research, she knew that her real gift was in science communication.
Once she has made up her mind, Wendy is determined. She banged on the door of the BBC and persuaded them to give her a trial as a researcher. From this she moved to assistant producer/director, for three years working on Land of the Tiger. With qualifications such as a media SCUBA diver, BSAC dive leader and an Australian commercial diver, Wendy was never going to be a hands-off director and it was making one of the series’ programmes, Unknown Seas, that she filmed one of those genre-defining BBC Natural History Unit sequences: sea-swimming elephants. Off the Andaman Islands, underwater with scuba, next to coral reefs, filming three elephants swimming above her, this was that 14 year-old’s dream realised. Then the moment is shattered: an underwater explosion of elephant dung turns the water from azure to brown. Film-making is not always glamorous.
Before becoming Head of the NHU, Wendy produced many high profile series: Alien Empire, Big Cat Diary, Living with Dinosaurs. She was Executive Producer for NHU Children’s Television, overseeing more than 485 programmes, including the BAFTA-award-winning Deadly 60, fronted by Steve Backshall and now a global brand, screening in over 150 countries. When Wendy took on the role as Head of the NHU she set out ‘to build life long relationships with and between people by connecting them to the wonders of the natural world’ and this is something she continues to pursue.
Wendy Darke has lived the dream. She set her heart on diving in coral reefs and studying nature, and ended up with a PhD involving diving off the Great Barrier Reef. She pursued a career in science communication then spent 10 years travelling to the most beautiful parts of the world, diving with whales and manta rays, working with Sir David Attenborough, making award-winning programmes that raised the bar for not just wildlife documentary making, but television. Marriage – she met her husband Stephen at Redland Tennis Club -- and starting a family – her two daughters are Sophie, 13, and Emma, 15 – has maybe curtailed the overseas film-making. Her life is more ‘corporate’, but she is still the same Wendy, with the same friends from school, the same passion for the outdoors, the same enthusiasm and drive. A colleague describes her as a nine year old dressed up as an executive.
She has a message for you, this year’s graduates. Whatever opportunity you see, take it. All experience is useful. Follow your heart and passion, do your best, and you will succeed. Wendy Darke has succeeded, the only female in her degree course and now the first female head of the NHU in its nearly 60-year history; the University of Bristol is proud to salute her achievements.
Mr Vice-Chancellor, I present to you Dr Wendy Marilyn Darke as eminently worthy of the degree of Doctor of Science honoris causa.