Home TV by Decade TV Shows - 1950s Zoo Quest

Zoo Quest

1 9 5 3 – 1 9 6 3 (UK)

Certainly the most important natural history programme of its time, Zoo Quest is arguably the father of the entire genre.

Its use of remote overseas locations that showed animals in their natural habits was a first for TV. Just as importantly, it launched the career of David Attenborough as a wildlife presenter.


The programme resulted from an invitation by Jack Lester, curator of London Zoo’s reptile house, for Attenborough and a BBC film crew to accompany him team on a trip to Sierra Leone to capture snakes.

The mission was at first thought impractical due to the extremely bulky 35mm film cameras used by the BBC. Attenborough and his team, however, decided to take lighter 16mm equipment instead, much to the disapproval of the Corporation’s management, who viewed the film standard with disdain.

Attenborough’s initial proposal, dated 31 July 1953, set out his vision of the show; “If the Corporation were to join the Zoo in the organisation of the expedition, there could be compiled four to six 30-minute programmes consisting mostly of film but introduced by Lester in the studio.” He suggested a budget of £900.

The show’s choice of far away locations was not without problems. Frustrated by bureaucratic red tape on a trip to Indonesia, Attenborough wrote to a colleague: “How I wish I were doing Party Politicals in London.”


But the difficulties faced in making the programmes proved worth it. Audience research showed that viewers were captivated by Attenborough’s 16mm films.

Lester died in 1956, leaving a slightly reluctant Attenborough to handle the studio introductions as well. Despite his dislike for the job, he quickly became the BBC’s face of natural history.

The programme came to an end in 1963, principally thanks to a shift of opinion among natural history experts against the capture of wild animals and their transfer to captivity. Attenborough, who agreed with the new orthodoxy, called time on Zoo Quest.