How did footage from David Attenborough's first major nature documentary series come to be on Prime on Sunday night in brilliant colour, more than 60 years after it was first broadcast in black and white by the BBC? It's a funny story.

The first few series of Zoo Quest were shot on colour negatives after "a bit of a row" between Attenborough and his employer.

"I was insistent that we had to use 16mm film [because] we couldn't take the very big [35mm] cameras into the bush in Africa," he explained in the first half of the two-part special.

"But the head of films at the BBC thought 16mm was beneath contempt."


Eventually a compromise was reached: "The film department said all right, but if you use 16mm you have to shoot it on colour negative because that will give you better definition."

Read more: The natural wonder that is David Attenborough

This saga was seemingly forgotten about until 2015, when an archivist at the BBC's Natural History Unit was looking at the original film reels and noticed they were, in fact, colour. Like a lot of great Attenborough moments, there was a touch of serendipity about the discovery and the film's subsequent restoration.

David Attenborough and cameraman Charles Lagus.
David Attenborough and cameraman Charles Lagus.

The newly-restored footage that made it into the 2016 special was spectacular, thanks in no small part to the original cameraman Charles Lagus.

"When it went out it was only in black and white and it looked pretty miserable," he laughed.

Now it looked deep, bright and vivid, at last doing justice to his innovative camerawork.

The old footage was one thing, the story behind it quite another. The special was essentially a "making of", not just of Zoo Quest but the modern television nature documentary as we know it today.

The first Zoo Quest expedition in 1954 took Attenborough, Lagus and London Zoo reptile curator Jack Lester to West Africa. Their mission was not only to capture rare animals on film - some for the first time - but to also capture and bring them back to the zoo.


"Nobody thought much about conservation or really considered that animals might be driven to extinction," said Attenborough. "Of course these days you would never dream of doing it."

Unburdened by modern concepts such as conservation, postcolonialism or health and safety, the three men created a popular six-part television series from their travels, employing all sorts of ingenious production methods along the way.

David Attenborough in pursuit of a giant anteater in the Rupununi Savanna, British Guiana, in 1955.
David Attenborough in pursuit of a giant anteater in the Rupununi Savanna, British Guiana, in 1955.

How's this for a pub quiz question: What was the first animal filmed in the wild for a David Attenborough series? Answer: the weaver bird, a black and yellow finch native to Sierra Leone.

"They strip the leaves from their tree," the young Attenborough narrated with trademark poetic concision, "tear them into long ribbons and weave them into beautiful, intricate nests."

It turns out many of the characteristics that have made Attenborough's work so enduringly popular were there right from the start - the infectious sense of wonder, the humour, the uncanny knack for being in the right place at the right time. In Zoo Quest In Colour you could easily see the blueprint for the next 60 years of the genre.

David Attenborough de-bogging a jeep in Java, 1956
David Attenborough de-bogging a jeep in Java, 1956

In one incredible scene filmed in Guyana, a young, athletic Attenborough, decked out in khaki, chases down a giant anteater and dives to grab on to its tail. It was like watching The Crocodile Hunter, a good forty years before Steve Irwin ever set foot in front of a camera.

The anteater, like many of the animals encountered on Zoo Quest, eventually ended up at London Zoo.

"It did very well, Attenborough remembered. "Lived for quite a long time."