David Cobham obituary | Environment

David Cobham is best remembered for his classic films on British wildlife, including the 1979 cinema feature Tarka the Otter and his 1972 TV programme The Vanishing Hedgerows, the first explicitly environmental film broadcast by the BBC.

Cobham, who has died aged 87, made The Vanishing Hedgerows for the corporation’s prestigious strand The World About Us. Presented by the author Henry Williamson, it was a powerful elegy to Britain’s disappearing farmland wildlife, with shocking scenes showing the fatal effects of pesticides on birds.

Cobham shared with Williamson an ambition to film the author’s best-known book, Tarka the Otter, but after Williamson’s first script came in at 400,000 words, the idea was shelved for several years. In 1979, Cobham resurrected the film, for which he wrote the screenplay. Narrated by Peter Ustinov, Tarka the Otter was a critical and popular success, and in 2005 was voted one of the 100 greatest family films of all time in a Channel 4 poll.

In later life, Cobham moved from documenting nature to protecting it, campaigning to save Britain’s birds of prey from persecution both with the Hawk and Owl Trust and through his books.

He was born at Boynton Hall, the family home of his maternal grandparents, near Bridlington, east Yorkshire. His mother, Elizabeth (known as Betty), came from a family of landed gentry, the Stricklands; his father, Jack, was a vicar, and the family later moved to a parish near York. David’s interest in birds began as a child, when a barn owl flew up to his window and perched right in front of him. From 1943 until 1948 he boarded at Stowe school in Buckinghamshire, becoming head boy and running the school’s natural history society.

In 1951, after doing his national service, he went to Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, to read natural sciences. He soon became friends with the future poet laureate Ted Hughes; it was at one of Cobham’s parties that Hughes met Sylvia Plath.

Cobham was a fine cricketer, briefly playing for Yorkshire, opening the bowling with Fred Trueman, and becoming a player member of the MCC. He also had artistic ambitions, but having been turned down as a cartoonist for Disney, he and a fellow naturalist, John Buxton, decided to make a film about foxes in Norfolk. When a storm blew down the enclosure and the animals escaped, that project came to an abrupt end.

2979 - David Cobham obituary | Environment



Tarka the Otter (1979) was narrated by Peter Ustinov and was a critical and popular success. Photograph: Alamy

Cobham joined Pearl & Dean making cinema commercials, and in 1959 got his first break as a documentary director. For the next decade he made public information films before being commissioned, at a meeting with David Attenborough at the BBC, to make The Goshawk (1968), one of the first wildlife films shown in colour.

Soon afterwards he dramatised Jack London’s short story To Build a Fire (1969), narrated by Orson Welles. Because of Welles’s globetrotting lifestyle, Cobham had to chase him around the world to record the voiceover, eventually tracking him down to Los Angeles.

Cobham worked with the BBC natural history unit for four years from 1970. After leaving the BBC, he teamed up with Richard Mabey to make The Unofficial Countryside (1975), also for The World About Us. Based on Mabey’s book, this told the story of the hidden corners of our cities, where wildlife finds a way to survive against the odds. This was a timely and relevant antidote to the more traditional wildlife films of the time.

He also made The Private Life of the Barn Owl (1977) for Wildlife on One. After the broadcast, the teenage Chris Packham wrote asking if he could adopt two captive owls featured in the programme. Cobham duly obliged.

For the remainder of his career Cobham mainly directed children’s television series, many of which featured wildlife. Programmes included Brendon Chase (1980), an adaptation of the children’s novel by BB, Woof! (1989-97), featuring a young boy who transforms into a dog, and Bernard’s Watch (1997-2001), in which the title character can stop time with a magical pocket watch. He won an Emmy and a British comedy award for Woof!, and a Bafta in 1976 for his film on the polar explorer Roald Amundsen for the BBC series The Explorers.

For the past two decades he devoted his efforts to the plight of Britain’s birds of prey, which are still being illegally persecuted. He was co-founder in 1969 and a vice-president of the Hawk and Owl Trust, and was rightly proud of the trust reserve he set up at Sculthorpe Moor, near his Norfolk home, which has featured on the BBC’s Springwatch.

A Sparrowhawk’s Lament (2014) was a personal account of Britain’s 15 species of raptor, which deftly melded history and natural history with Cobham’s acute observations. Last year he published Bowland Beth: The Life of an English Hen Harrier. This employed the unusual but highly effective technique of passages written from the bird’s point of view.

Enormously tall (6ft 7in), bearded and with a head of wavy hair which made him look a decade younger, Cobham was a regular presence at Norwich Cathedral – not for religious reasons, but because he had been instrumental in getting permission to build a nesting platform for peregrines on the 800-year-old spire. He delighted in watching these birds going about their day-to-day lives, in the knowledge that he had done so much to protect them.

In 1972 Cobham married Janet Wallace. They divorced in 1994, and the following year Cobham married the actor Liza Goddard, whom he had met when they worked together on an ITV wildlife series. She, her children, Thom and Sophie, and his brother, Richard, survive him.

Michael David Cobham, wildlife film-maker, author and conservationist, born 11 May 1930; died 25 March 2018