BBC Earth

John Downer's Biography

Following an early interest in wildlife, John Downer studied Zoology at Swansea University. He combined this knowledge with a passion for photography. He started his professional career in the BBC Natural History Unit in 1981. Many of the innovative and award-winning programmes he made at that time pioneered many of the techniques that are now used in Natural History programmes today.

He made his name with the ground-breaking film “In-flight Movie” which invented many revolutionary ways to film flying birds.

This was followed by his first series “Supersense” that looked at the incredible senses of animals. This achieved a UK audience of 13.5 million and won numerous awards. This generated interest from the commercial and feature film world and he left the Natural history Unit to direct commercials and write a screenplay, which was subsequently bought by Island Pictures.

Under his own Independent company, John Downer Productions, he made the video “Digging in the Dirt” for Peter Gabriel, which immediately won a Grammy for its innovative techniques.

As well as making over 10 high budget commercials including campaigns for Peugeot and BMW, John made two hugely successful series: Supernatural and Weird Nature for the BBC and Discovery. These pushed the boundaries of what was possible in wildlife films and both won many awards including an EMMY nomination for Best Director.

John also developed the highly successful “Spy” wildlife brand, which used remote camera technology to take the audience into the animal’s world. These programmes consistently gained the highest approval ratings for any programmes on the BBC in the years they were transmitted. “Elephants – Spy in the Herd” was followed by “Bears – Spy in the Woods” and then the hugely successful Tigers – Spy in the Jungle. These programmes soon became global hits reaching over 100 million viewers.

The “Spy” technology was upgraded to High definition for “Pride” a feature length drama featuring talking lions for the BBC, ProSeiben and A&E. This EMMY nominated drama featured the voices of Kate Winslet, Helen Mirren, Robbie Coltrane and many other A-list stars.

John followed these successes with the innovative 2-part series “Swarm” and he also directed a video for Massive Attack (Psyche).

Over the 2010 Christmas period Polar Bear – Spy on the Ice went out to an audience of 5.5 million people in the UK to huge acclaim. Among other awards, the Royal Television Society Craft & Design gave it an award for the most innovative programme across the whole of British Television for the year.

The 2012 series, Earthflight (AKA Winged Planet), used many new techniques to film birds from the air as they travel across the world. Among many awards, this acclaimed six-part extravaganza for the BBC recently won an Emmy for its innovative photography. It was shown in its entirety on PBS in late summer 2013.

In 2013, the 3-part Spy adventure - Penguins: Spy in the Huddle went out just after Christmas to an extraordinary UK audience of over 9 million.

Earthflight 3D, a 90’ special, was completed towards the end of 2013 and shown on 3Net and Arte over the Christmas period.

On the 2nd of January the 2-part Dolphin Spy in the Huddle went out on the BBC to an audience of over 7 million and huge critical acclaim.

At the 2014 Wildscreen Panda Awards, John Downer was awarded the Outstanding Achievement Award.

On the 21st January 2015, Pets Wild at Heart was shown on the BBC and achieved a consolidated average figure of 4.2M on the first programme and 4.5M on the second.