Attenborough’s Wonder of Eggs
Directed by Beth Jones and Mike Birkhead
When Sir David Attenborough is quoted in the press as saying the thing keeping him awake at night is your brother’s book on eggs, there’s only one thing, as a natural history filmmaker, to do: ask him if he’d like to make that book into a programme. So that’s what Mike did. And David said yes.
The book, by Mike’s brother Professor Tim Birkhead, a leading ornithologist and Professor of Behaviour and Evolution, was called The Most Perfect Thing: Inside (and Outside) a Bird’s Egg and Attenborough had described it as “magnificent”. How could Mike and I make a programme that could ever live up to that? Tim’s book took the reader from the shell to the yolk telling extraordinary stories about eggs from one end of the world to the other. But whereas he could cross continents in a single sentence, we had to be more focused: blue and great tits in Oxfordshire; swans in Dorset and guillemots in Wales would be our way into the story of the egg.
Luckily, working with an expert – a brilliant and trusted one at that – helps to get you access. As well as our three natural history locations (Tim had been studying at one of them – Skomer in Wales – for over forty years), we wanted to film closely with the Natural History Museum and Tim’s work with Douglas Russell, the curator responsible for their egg collection, made this possible. That Mike and I had filmed there recently – for Attenborough’s Big Birds - helped, but if we hadn’t been working with Tim, then many of the extraordinary eggs – from bird of paradise to nightingale – would probably never have been brought out of the collection for us to film. Tim and Douglas also allowed us to film the first ever scan of a great auk egg. And Douglas painstakingly laid out the greatest variety of eggs ever shown in one place before and allowed our cameraman, George Woodcock, to film it. But only if we all held our breath. You have to break a few eggs to make an omelette, said no memeber of the crew, ever.
And so filming split, roughly, into two blocks: as spring turned to summer, George and fellow cameraman Benjamin Sadd filmed beautiful, joyous, sunshine-soaked rushes of tits, swans and guillemots nesting. Meanwhile, in cloistered museum basements and dark, shuttered labs, we filmed shots that could help to unpack the science of eggs as elegantly as Tim had done in his book. The aim was to make a programme that would interest Tim and his eminent colleagues as much as intrigue and entertain a less-specialised audience and over the course of the year we filmed eggs in the wild, eggs in labs, eggs with David, eggs with Tim, eggs in the UK, eggs in the USA, single eggs, clutches of eggs…no wonder then that, in the run up to an earlier-than-planned broadcast (to coincide with Easter) Mike and I, along with production manager Cherry Dorrett, editor Richard Wilkinson and graphics guru Mick Connaire, helped along by series editor Roger Webb were, as Attenborough had been all those months ago, kept awake at night by…eggs. They are, after all, as Tim posits in the book, perhaps the most perfect thing in the universe. And that’s something worth losing a little sleep over.