‘Storytelling is one of the most universal things about the human condition’: Gillian Burke on the aims of documentary filmmaking

A portrait of Gillian Burke taken in a field of wild grasses.
Photo credit: Victoria Harrison

Gillian Burke (BSc 1995), is a biologist, presenter, public speaker, voiceover artist and writer. Gillian was born in Kenya and studied biology at Bristol before launching an incredible career as a wildlife documentarian that has taken her all over the world. She has been a co-presenter of the BBC nature series Springwatch and its spin-offs since 2017.  She also presented BBC’s Blue Planet UK with co-host Steve Brown and was recently named Vice President at The Wildlife Trusts.  

Gillian will be a panellist at our upcoming event, Bristol in Conversation: Our Natural World. Here, Gillian shares insights into her career path and the future of wildlife conservation in the UK.  

On her favourite Bristol memories 

I was a biology student, and for my third-year project I studied fluctuating asymmetry in green bottle flies. My lab partner and I were counting and measuring the rows of bristles located between the eyes. It may sound strange, but those afternoons spent in the biology lab listening to Radio One, looking down a microscope at thousands of flies’ heads are some of my favourite memories. It was like staring into another world. In the lab, we had so much fun and developed such a banter to keep ourselves sane as we spent ages doing this tedious work. 

On finding her career path 

After university, I never really had much of a plan for my career, and instead I looked for things that fit my values. I enjoyed being outdoors, so I knew I was unlikely to be happy in an office.  

I walked past the BBC Natural History Building on Whiteladies Road every day on my way to lectures, absentmindedly thinking about the Attenborough films made there. After graduating, I went to the States to care for my beloved uncle who was dying of cancer. I spent some time in the doldrums but eventually came back to Bristol, and it was only then that it occurred to me to go to the BBC. Languages gave me a bit of an edge, as I spoke German, French and Spanish. I also spoke Swahili, which I assumed would be my ticket to success as they did a lot of filming in Kenya. I did get work, but bizarrely, I’ve never worked in Kenya as a natural history filmmaker.  

On career highlights 

I’ve had many highs, and sometimes many lows, but I am most proud of winning an award that I wasn’t even named in. I was a very young researcher working on a series for the Discovery Channel called The Ultimate Guide, and the ‘Octopus’, ‘Ants’ and ‘Spiders’ episodes won an award for best research. Because researcher is perceived as a junior role, I wasn’t there for the award ceremony, but I’m super proud of it. 

I loved that job because I read science papers, dug around for stories and presented my findings to the producers. It was challenging to take dry scientific literature and turn it into something fascinating and still true to the science. Research is the job that I still love the most. It’s a shame that it’s considered an entry level role because it’s the most important job. A good researcher can find engaging stories that inspire wonder, awe, fascination and surprise, the kind of stories you want to tell friends over dinner.  

On being a documentarian 

The industry has changed so much, but we are still storytellers. Storytelling is one of the most universal things about the human condition. As a documentarian, being open-minded is key. Now more than ever, it is incredibly important to understand the people you don’t agree with. I spend a lot of time reading and watching content from the opposing side of many issues, as well as my own, because I think it balances things out. It’s important to understand why people see things so differently rather than simply rejecting their opinions and feeling resistant to the differences in perspective. 

On giving back 

I live in Cornwall and I love it here. Cornwall gave me a sense of belonging in a community. It may be surprising to hear me say that, especially as a person of colour. It’s a county that isn’t very diverse, but I feel very connected to the community I live in.  It also has a close-knit and dedicated group of conservation biologists, ecologists and volunteers. I didn’t know what I was missing before I moved here, but I’ve learnt a lot of valuable things about community. You don’t always get along, or even see eye to eye, but you can get a lot done by working together. My involvement with charities, small and large, is rooted in this place. 

Over the years that I’ve been working on the Watches, I’ve encountered many Wildlife Trusts projects around the country. In Cornwall, I’ve had the opportunity to see their work first-hand, both on landscape-scale projects but also the simple things, like seeing a volunteer out on a Saturday instead of taking the day off. Their volunteers are putting up tables and banners on a beach, waiting to show enthusiastic kids what they can find in a rock pool. Watching these kids, you can’t help but think the organisation must make a difference.  

On our changing world 

The UK has been described as one of the most nature-depleted places in the world. I hope we are nearing the bottom of the curve, and the only way is up from here. I see it as a real-life laboratory, giving us the opportunity to see how much nature can recover. Whether it’s nature rewilding projects or management and regenerative agriculture, there are many tools in the toolbox, and we need to use them all.  It takes political will to create change, and it’s important to make sure that everyone has a voice in the discussion. There are bright sparks and evidence of hope scattered around in various pockets of nature reserves and old mining sites that have regenerated. They’re very isolated stories at the moment, but they are hints of what’s possible.  

1 thought on “‘Storytelling is one of the most universal things about the human condition’: Gillian Burke on the aims of documentary filmmaking

  1. —- Gillian what a engagingly rich experience of your life during and after BU! Marvellous Thank you for sharing. Your stories be inspiring to our diaspora community youngsters amid learning some Lugha ya Kiswahili; from a confident speaker like you. Find us on https://www.kenyansinbristol.org/

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