Wednesday 22 January 2020

Obituary: David Bellamy

Botanist who with his muffled delivery and arm-waving enthusiasm was a natural star of television

CULT FIGURE: David Bellamy
CULT FIGURE: David Bellamy

David Bellamy, who died last Wednesday aged 86, did for botany and ecology what David Attenborough did for biology, but his refusal to stick to the politically correct environmental script meant that he was not universally loved by his fellow campaigners.

Bellamy was an academic for 20 years before he hit television screens. His chance came in 1967, when the supertanker Torrey Canyon foundered off Cornwall, disgorging a slick of oil. The BBC invited Bellamy to talk about marine pollution.

With his lumbering Wild Man of the Woods looks, arm-waving enthusiasm and muffled nasal drawl, Bellamy was a television natural.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s the BBC's "Bouncing Botanist" was a television regular.

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He hosted numerous shows (Bellamy's Backyard Safari; Bellamy's Seaside Safari; Bellamy on Botany - to name a few). He was a regular on Blue Peter and even had a hit record with Brontosaurus, Will You Wait For Me?

At the height of his popularity Bellamy appeared in advertisements promoting baked beans and carpets and found time to write numerous books.

He was serious about environmentalism. In 1983 his incarceration in an Australian prison for trying to obstruct (successfully in the end) the building of a dam on a Tasmanian river brought him international recognition.

He launched campaigns to clean up beaches, curb peat extraction, save the rainforests and stop pollution of coastal waters.

As time went on Bellamy strayed from the path of "environmental correctness", speaking out in favour of hunting and suggesting that it would be reasonable to build a monorail on the Galapagos Islands. But it was a series of contentious public statements about man-made global warming - namely his belief that it is "poppycock" - that put Bellamy on a collision course with the green consensus.

His television career effectively came to an end after a 1996 appearance on Blue Peter when he dismissed wind farms as little more than green totemism.

Then in 2005 he had a bruising spat with the environmental journalist George Monbiot who found that, in claiming that 555 of the 625 glaciers monitored by the World Glacier Monitoring Service in Zurich, Switzerland, were "not shrinking but in fact growing", Bellamy had misquoted an original source which said that 55pc of the 625 glaciers were growing, not 555.

Even the corrected statistic was suspect, Monbiot argued, coming as it did from a magazine published by a convicted fraudster who had previously claimed that the royal family was running an international drugs syndicate.

In the green movement, at least, it seemed that Monbiot had the better of the argument, one keen-eyed hack noting that Bellamy's name had been removed from the letterheads of several environmental charities, including Plantlife International (which Bellamy co-founded in 1989) and the Royal Society of Wildlife, of which he served as president for 20 years.

David James Bellamy was born on January 18, 1933, at Carshalton, Surrey. His father, Thomas, was a pharmacist at Boots who had begun his career when chemists made potions out of real plants and brought David up to love botany.

Bellamy was not a huge success at school. He failed his mathematics O-level (five times) and, aged 14, ended up in hospital with concussion after attempting to make fireworks out of the innards of an unexploded doodlebug. His hearing never recovered from the explosion.

After leaving school he did odd jobs and ended up as a lab technician in Surrey where friends persuaded him to go to college.

He studied botany at Chelsea College of Science and Technology then took a PhD at Bedford College. By the age of 27 he was a junior lecturer at Durham University. There, his ebullient energy and fruity diction made him a cult figure. When a local radio station held a competition for people to mimic his distinctive accent, Bellamy rang in himself - and lost.

He was the author of some 40 books and numerous scientific papers. His autobiography, was published in 2002. He was appointed OBE in 1994. Bellamy married Rosemary Froy in 1959. After the birth of a son they adopted three girls and a boy.

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