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Dinosaurs of The Isle of Wight - Live From Dinosaur Island

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Sunday 10 June, 2001 saw the start of a new television series on BBC2 - Live From Dinosaur Island, a live broadcast of Britain's biggest dinosaur hunt. In six days, the palaeontological team hunted for at least five different species of dinosaur in five different sites on the south-west coast of the island. The programmes were 60 minutes each, being broadcast on Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Friday, with an 'omnibus' edition on Sunday. It was also 'narrowcast' live on the web at the BBC's dinosaur site.

The Presenters

The presenters for Live From Dinosaur Island were, sadly, disappointing.

Bill Oddie

The main presenter of the series was Bill Oddie. Despite being a great bird enthusiast and able to present bird programmes in a way second only to David Attenborough, he was arguably the worst presenter for Live From Dinosaur Island, and the most disappointing. This was mainly due to his strange obsessions, which failed to contribute to the programme. The first (a blatant insult to Islanders) was his habit of continually repeating 'The Isle of Wight is not called Isle of Wight anymore, it's now "Dinosaur Island". I want to change the Isle of Wight's name to "Dinosaur Island".' This attitude continued throughout the week with him not bothering to learn the names of where he was, saying 'This cliff...' instead of 'Culver Cliff', and phrases such as 'Sorry folks in the Isle of Wight, but I hope your cliff falls down.'

His other obsession was the Hypsilophodon bone that he discovered, and mentioned in every episode of the programme. This, however, was forgivable, as it was an important discovery and showed the enthusiasm he had for the subject. If only he was able to use that enthusiasm for remembering not only the name of where he was, but also the names of the eminent scientists around him.

The Other Presenters

Adam Hart-Davis is a presenter who has an endless child-like enthusiasm for his work, yet sadly this sometimes comes across as him acting childishly, or his treating the audience as children. Yet he was able to keep things going neatly, and kept the pace, asking appropriate questions at appropriate times. Sadly, he insisted on asking questions that even a two-year-old would think obvious.

One of the first things Edwina Silver said on Live From Dinosaur Island was 'I hope my Mum isn't watching', which seemed to show her attitude throughout the week. She gave the impression that she was a presenter there because all the other presenters were male and they'd better have a woman to ensure it wasn't sexist, but other than that seemed lost throughout the entire week. Unlike Bill Oddie and Adam Hart-Davis, she didn't do anything annoying, but she didn't seem to do anything at all.

Edwina Silver was not the only one to suffer from inaction, as Simon King rarely seemed to do anything either, except try to argue with the scientists that Neovenator had binocular vision when the skull clearly indicated that it didn't1. This was because his main experience with predators was with lions, and he felt that a dinosaur could not possibly have done something which a lion does not.

The Scientists

The stars of the show were without doubt the scientists involved, who were able to present the show well despite the interference of the presenters. Steve Hutt, of the Isle of Wight Museum of Geology, in particular stole the show, dominating every second he was in. He knew the dinosaurs, the area and the facts, what the audience wanted to know, how to tell them and keep them hungry for more. In many ways seeing the dinosaurs themselves was of secondary interest compared to Steve Hutt.

Another important scientist was Dr David M Martill of the University of Portsmouth. He was one of the scientific advisors for Walking With Dinosaurs, and dominated the search for Hypsilophodons and presented evidence on what the Isle of Wight was like 120 million years ago. Other scientists and experts included Dr Phil Manning, Dr Mike Barker, Dr Jon Radley, Nigel Larkins, and Robert Coram. Professor Ed Jarzembowski, an amber expert, in particular was sadly underused. Despite making a brief appearance in only three of the episodes, his discoveries were among the most memorable of the entire programme.

The Television Series

Live From Dinosaur Island is not available on video, and sadly is unlikely to be released. If you missed it, here is a summary of what happened in each episode.

Episode One - The Presenter Menace

The first episode of Live From Dinosaur Island began with Bill Oddie being airlifted to the excavation site in a Westland's Sea King coastguard helicopter. After giving us a brief rundown of what to expect, we were introduced to Edwina Silver and Dr Phil Manning at Site One.

Site One was continuing the dig where an Iguanodon bernissartensis tibia had been found. At the start of the programme another Iguanodon limb-bone had just been unearthed. 'We're very over-excited here' Edwina Silver told us, while Dr Phil informed her that she '..would like an Iguanodon... the local collectors have a great name for them, they call them pigs.'

We were introduced to Simon King and Steve Hutt at Site Two, where the remains of a Neovenator were being hunted. After being shown how the dig site was uncovered, with a giant 22-ton JCB eating into the cliff to expose the rocks and exposing ribs, vertebrae and Iguanodon teeth, a possible Neovenator skull was uncovered.

Site Three consisted of Dr Dave Martill and Bill Oddie searching for Hypsilophodon, and Dave shared his theory that there were 5,000 Hypsilophodon skeletons to be found in the cliffs, although so far they had only discovered fossilised wood, a shark's fin spine and turtle bones. Bill Oddie then found a bone which was to haunt the viewer for the rest of the series; it was the first Hypsilophodon bone discovered on the dig.

We were then introduced to Robert Coram and his Hypsilophodon collection, and Nick Chase's dinosaur collection, including Neovenator remains, and Iguanodon and crocodile skulls.

After that, the programme returned to Site Two, where we were shown which bones of Neovenator had been discovered, how large and fast it would have been, and that a possible Neovenator skull and a claw had been discovered. These however had to go back to the lab, with the skull fragments having been encased in plaster first.

Then came this episode's low point; Adam Hart-Davis went on a mission to turn his dinner into a fossil, and we were treated with a five-minute mini-documentary on how he wanted the leg of a chicken he was eating to be a fossil discovered by the BBC in a few million years, before illustrating the best way to ensure it happened. Luckily this was followed by the high points of the programme - a history of the discovery of Iguanodons, including the Crystal Palace dinosaurs.

It was at this point that the Iguanodon limb-bone was removed from the cliff. The programme came to a conclusion with a discussion on amber, with Martin Simpson informing us that Baltic amber, as used in jewellery, was only 40 million years old, yet the amber discovered on the Isle of Wight was 130 million years old, and was therefore the oldest amber in the world that contains insects2. Despite Adam Hart-Davis' belief that the plot of 'Jurassic Park' was true, this was one of the highlights of the series as Professor Ed Jarzembowski showed us the first beetle in Amber discovered in Europe - so well preserved that even the hairs on its legs were evident. The presenters, sadly, were not impressed; Bill Oddie merely boasted that his legs were hairier.

Episode One ended with the hope that the Neovenator remains they were searching for had been discovered - all that remained was the final confirmation from the lab.

Episode Two - A Neo Hope

Episode Two opened with Bill Oddie opening Site Four, a site searching for a Brachiosaur - the biggest dinosaur in Europe. Site One reported that the large bone discovered in Episode One had been confirmed by the lab to be an Iguanodon tibia. At Site Two, Steve Hutt showed the jaws of Neovenator.

We were then shown the events of ten years earlier when many of the remains of the Brachiosaur being searched for at Site Four were first discovered by Steve Hutt, including the story of how the Dinosaur Farm came into existence, as well as how the cliff which had covered the site had been demolished by a JCB in order to uncover the dig site. In the uncovering process fish vertebrae, crocodile teeth and muscles were discovered.

At Site One, a Baryonx tooth and fossil wood had been discovered. We were shown clips of Iguanodons from 'Walking With Dinosaurs', followed by a video of Bill Oddie being informed by Jon Radley that the chalk of Culver Cliff was 80 - 90 million years old, the sandstone was 110-115 million years old, but the clay was 120 million years old. Site Two had also uncovered fossilised wood - in this case, a whole layer of a fossilised wood jam with many remains washed down from as far away as Cornwall. The skull fragments recovered the day before were still being worked on by Nigel Larkin, but a Neovenator tooth and a possible Neovenator brain case had been discovered. More work was needed before it would be certain that the Neovenator skull had been found. In the meantime, Steve Hutt showed Simon King some Neovenator vertebra and explained that the shape of the vertebra meant that Neovenator had a unique way of walking. This was because the vertebrae fitted together in such a way as to allow horizontal movement, but very little vertical movement.

In the lab, we were shown a globe of ancient earth, as well as a computer-generated model created by Paul Valdes of what the weather would have been like. Adam Hart-Davis was also shown the similarities between birds of prey and crocodiles, as well as between modern crocodiles and the prehistoric crocodile remains found on the Isle of Wight. Fern spores were also analysed, as well as remains of Monkey-Puzzle trees.

At Site Three, the fact that the bone found by Bill Oddie was a Hypsilophodon bone was confirmed, but luckily before he could dwell on that for too long the highlight of episode two came; an informative biography on the life of Reverend William Fox, one of Britain's greatest dinosaur hunters who was responsible for discovering Hypsilophodon foxii, Polacanthus foxii and Eucameratus foxii, all of which are named after him.

The programme then concluded with the analysis of the Iguanodon limb bone, and on Site Two's discovery of a rib and a gastrolith3. It was also announced that the beautiful layer of fossilised wood discovered at Site Two would be bashed through in order to search for dinosaur bones beneath.

Episode Three - The Amber Strikes Back

The third episode showed the progress made on the third and fourth days of the dinosaur hunt, and began with Simon King presenting the opening of Site Five - which hopefully contained the remains of Eotyrannus, a tyranosaurid. At Site One, meanwhile, we were shown how the dig had moved further into the cliff without finding any more bones, and, after more discoveries at the bottom of the cliff, the dig was renewed higher up the face.

We were then introduced to Eotyrannus' discoverer, Gavin Leng, and informed of how it had been discovered, as well as being shown a model Steve Hutt had made of an Eotyrannus head. A block containing what appeared to be Eotyrannus leg bones were sent back to the lab for further study.

Back at the lab the block was taken to St Mary's Hospital for scanning as it was too delicate for prolonged hammering. This revealed an Eotyrannus metatarsal.

At Site Three, the Hypsilophodon site, evidence on what the area was like 120 million years ago was being uncovered. A prehistoric shoreline with ripples preserved had been unearthed, as well as a possible 'mud volcano'. It was at this point that Bill Oddie lost his temper and started shouting and cursing at a distant micro-light flying along the cliffs which was barely audible for the viewers at home. What was audible was Bill Oddie shouting when Dr Dave Martill was trying to explain how the evidence fitted together. He felt that the site had previously been a dry river bed which had suddenly suffered from a flash flood which had covered and drowned the Hypsilophodons, not only in water, but more likely in rivers of flowing mud in which all life would sink, unable to swim, to be buried without a trace. This was confirmed by Jon Radley who, in the lab, had analysed angular sand grains.

Robert Coram informed us of the history of Hypsilophodon palaeontology, including the theory that Hypsilophodon had been thought by the Victorians to be monkey-like dinosaurs, able to swing in the trees. He then demonstrated the flaws in this belief, mainly in the shape of the claws.

Iguanodons then dominated the next section of the programme. After being shown clips of Iguanodons from Walking With Dinosaurs, Simon King went on an Iguanodon footprint hunt along the south-west shore of the Island, and uncovered several. We were then shown how a dinosaur would have made a footprint using mud in a wheelbarrow and a replica dinosaur leg, to illustrate how an Iguanodon would walk. Bob Nichols, an artist, even painted an Iguanodon in the lab.

At Site Two, meanwhile, we were informed of how the skull bones had been discovered inside the block and were being analysed. Steve Hutt tried to explain to Simon King how a Neovenator would have hunted, but Simon King disagreed with him, despite his main experience being with modern animals.

Site Four had failed to uncover any large Brachiosaur bones, and so a search for micro-vertebrates began in order to uncover what other life existed in the area around the prehistoric lake shore. Small theropod and pterosaur bones were uncovered as well as a Neovenator tooth, as well as shark, crocodile and fish teeth. In order to make up for the lack of a Brachiosaur, Nigel George started work on a sculpture of the remains that Steve Hutt had found in 1991.

In the lab the brief highlight of the show arrived; Danny Azur and Professor Ed Jarzembowski showed us more amber that had been uncovered. Not only had a 125 million year old spider's web been uncovered, but a new species of parasitic wasp had been discovered. The highlight was a perfectly preserved female mosquito - the first ever found. Sadly, this was not shown for very long as Site One interrupted with news that the module they had discovered did not contain bone, that they had not discovered any fossils in their new dig site, yet an Iguanodon femur had been found at the bottom of the cliff.

The programme then concluded with Standing With Dinosaurs as Keith Fallen started to create a computer 3D image of an Eotyrannus.

Episode Four - Return Of The Oddie

Episode Four began with Bill Oddie informing us that over the week they had uncovered a clear picture of what the Island was like 120 million years ago, with each site describing what they had found recently.

At Site One, the hole in the side of the cliff was being filled in as no more bones had been found. However, a new site had been opened up on the bottom of the cliff on the beach, a site which was a large log-jam fossil bed containing several exciting Iguanodon fossils. So far, a large, 40 ft crocodile's dermal armour scute had been found as well as the Iguanodon remains. The total so far was 125, including six Baryonx teeth, four Neovenator teeth, two pterosaur teeth and several dinosaur limbs. Edwina Silver was also told how to tell the difference between wood and bone.

The problem with the site was that it was on the beach, and liable to flood, especially on one of the highest tides of the year, such as the one expected midway through the broadcast. The highlight came just after Edwina Silver explained how they had built three impenetrable lines of defence which the tide could not possibly break; a large wave came into shore and broke through the first two barriers.

Site Three was under a foot or two of water, the freak tide not only burying the work they had done, but also claiming cameras and cables. In the meantime, back at the lab, Robert Coram showed us another Hypsilophodon skeleton. Bill Oddie's bone was, once more, discussed in detail - by Bill Oddie. Bill Oddie also summarised what had been learnt about the environment.

In the Lab, Adam Hart-Davis was confused as it seemed that the paleobotanists had found evidence that suggested the Island was in the middle of a desert environment, while the other scientists all agreed the evidence suggested a swamp-like climate. Adam Hart-Davis then met a chemist who tested shells by releasing carbon through reactions with acid, and concluded that the shells appeared to be from ponds in the middle of deserts. Adam Hart-Davis then boasted that he believed chemists as he had studied chemistry, and that the chemist's conclusion was, therefore, correct. The possibility that both interpretations may be correct, with one set of evidence being one million years older than the other, in which time the climate may have altered, apparently did not occur to him.

Bill Oddie then introduced what was one of the highlights of the entire series; a description of all the dinosaurs discovered on the Island. This not only included clips from Walking With Dinosaurs, but also dinosaur skeletons and other pictures, with Polacanthus, Iguanodon, Baryonyx, Sauropods, crocodiles, pterosaurs, icthyosaurs, etc, all being mentioned.

At Site Two, Simon King boasted how he had discovered the largest prehistoric crocodile tooth ever discovered on the Island. They had also found fossilised beetle dung, amber with a leaf preserved inside showing cell structure. They concluded that, although they had not found the Neovenator forelimbs hoped for, they had found what may well have been a Neovenator claw, toe and skull. They also mentioned that a prefabricated skeleton of Neovenator would be on display at the Dinosaur Island museum, to be opening soon.

In the lab, Nigel George made a sculpture of Noevenator, altering the design in order to give Neovenator binocular vision, something which, although most predators today share, appears to have been rare amongst dinosaurs. Despite the overwhelming evidence that Neovenator did not have binocular vision, Simon King refused to listen to Steve Hutt, thinking he knew best. Despite this inaccuracy, the sculpture looked impressive.

At Site Four, no Brachiosaur remains had been found in the week. As Dr. Mike Barker said, 'with the best will in the world it is a bit hard to keep [the diggers] interested in pond muscles.' Bill Oddie felt that brachiosaur bones would be discovered if the diggers had a group hug.

The new beach level at Site One had continued to disclose several exciting finds. Iguanodon tail and neck vertebrae had been found. The trouble was the sea had broken through all three of the site's impenetrable barriers and had flooded the site completely, with the palaeontologists spending more time trying to remove the water with their hard hats than uncovering the fossils.

Bill Oddie then appeared in a video explaining how to find fossils, before reciting a pathetic poem describing what the Island was like 120 million years ago. It involved his reading a word and then being shown a stock-footage clip on that theme, followed by another word, and another, and another, in a disjointed, and often contradictory fashion. The way Bill Oddie recited it sounded more like he was checking off items on a shopping list.

In the lab we were given a final look at the mural, and informed that 18 new species of insect had been discovered during the week, including a beautifully preserved snipe fly. Live From Dinosaur Island then ended with everyone at the various sites waving goodbye, as the camera zoomed out.

The Highlights Episode

There was also an omnibus episode, but that merely showed highlights from the other four episodes, and nothing new.

Some Of The Stupidest Things The Presenters Said

  • Adam Hart-Davis, about a clearly dead Hypsilophodon skeleton: 'What you're saying is this dinosaur wasn't somebody's lunch but actually survived...'
  • Dr Phil Manning: 'This is the first time this bone has been groped by palaeontologists.'
  • Edwina Silver: 'Wow! Gosh! That is so, so heavy I can't tell you how heavy it is.'
  • 'I'm about to fall off the cliff I'm so happy!'
  • 'Wobbly wobbly wobbly goes the screen, wah, wah, wah.'
  • 'Doin' the dino-wiggle.'
  • 'No grass! It hadn't been invented then.'
  • 'No ducks? They hadn't been invented then.'
  • Adam Hart-Davis, about a clearly dead Hypsilophodon skeleton: 'Sleeping or dying?'
  • 'This Neovenator site is dinosaur soup.'
  • 'Oh, blimey, it's more like kid's telly every minute.'

The Conclusion

So, from an Isle of Wight point of view, how effective was the 'Live From Dinosaur Island' series?

First and foremost, it did encourage and promote the Island's tourist industry, and advertise the Island in what was often a positive light, despite Bill Oddie's insistence that it was called 'Dinosaur Island'. Admittedly the Island-Line trains have pictures of dinosaurs on the sides, yet dinosaurs represent only a very small percentage of the Island's history, geography, exports and interests. The most sceptical of Islanders muttered that the BBC had planned their 'Live From Dinosaur Island' to end one day early, on Friday, 15 June. On Saturday, 16 June, the Hoya Round-The-Island Race took place, and the BBC cameras distributed along the south coast on the Dinosaur Dig sites would have been in a perfect position to record this historic race involving 1,700 yachts, one of which set a new round-the-Island record of three hours and eight minutes, while a new monohull record was achieved by the Cowes-based GBR Challenge team. Having the programme broadcast with such a historic event in the background would have been unforgettable.

Apart from the fact that there are few places in Europe which share the Island's reputation for dinosaurs, The Isle of Wight was rarely mentioned. It almost seemed as if 'Dinosaur Island' was somewhere else. The Island's museum, 'Dinosaur Isle', was mentioned only once. Perhaps the worst came when the presenters took the Eotyrannus metatarsal to St Mary's hospital. St Mary's hospital on the Island is unique4, yet all that the BBC team showed of this magnificent building was a signpost and an automatic door5.

The main drawback of the programme was due to the very nature of the series. As it was a live programme, all the fossils discovered had just been discovered. Although it was exciting to be there at the exact moment of their discovery, it was also frustrating. Exciting fossil finds were discovered, yet they were often either buried inside a large chunk of rock and unable to be seen, or had not been prepared enough to view properly, or even identify. The vast majority of fossils found needed to undergo a few months of preparatory treatment and further study. The conclusion of the series was 'We have found lots of exciting fossils, but we can't tell you what they might be, as we need a few months to prepare and research them.' What is needed, therefore, is an update programme that shows us how the fossils discovered have been prepared.

This would draw the programme to a satisfactory close, something which the four episodes and the omnibus programme failed to do. Hopefully this Update Episode would not involve the presenters, only the experts.

The Website

The Live From Dinosaur Island website, on the other hand, is both useful and intelligent. It is, alas, often somewhat difficult to navigate, with many of the most informative pages being difficult to find immediately. It is definitely worth spending a few hours browsing.

The Aftermath

Islanders have had a mixed reaction to 'Live From Dinosaur Island'. It is certain that it has helped the Isle of Wight economy and played a part in encouraging people to come to the Island for dinosaurs, as the popularity of the new Dinosaur Isle museum has shown. The 200-strong BBC crew that stayed on the Island also helped the Island economy and kept several hotels full. Yet other people have been considering the long-term picture.

Although the BBC have claimed that they had full consultation with agencies including English Nature, Crown Estates, the National Trust and the Isle of Wight council, there has been cause for concern. A spokesman said:

The production made every effort to restore the sites to their natural state and an inspection by English Nature on June 18 confirmed this had been done.

Yet Helen Slade, the Island's Area Of Outstanding Natural Beauty Officer, said:

We found out about the BBC's intention rather late in the day. My primary concern is the fact that insufficient time had been given by the BBC for the council to properly evaluate what the impact of such a dig would have on the coast.

We certainly did not anticipate diggers and pneumatic drills being used.

The scale of BBC digging on a delicate Heritage Coast, Site of Special Scientific Interest as well as an official Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty may have contributed to erosion. The local view, as expressed by Mrs Underwood, was:

To use big machinery against fragile cliffs is crass. People around here are likening it to rape and pillage of the countryside. The BBC was very much like a bull at a gate.

Another concern was that the programme would encourage a stream of inexperienced dinosaur hunters who would not only damage the cliffs but put their lives, and those of others, in danger after seeing the professionals at work. The Isle of Wight Council's Senior Planning Officer has said:

We were concerned there were various operations undertaken that may have required planning permission and that we would have liked earlier notification so we could have considered any planning issues.

Dinosaurs Of The Isle Of Wight

1Few large theropods except Tyrannosaurids had binocular vision (forward-facing eyes).2Jurassic Park, therefore, would have to change its name to 'Early Cretaceous Park' as no mosquitoes from the Jurassic have been discovered.3A sauropod stomach stone.4Built in 1991 and designed to be highly energy-efficient at a cost of approximately £75 million, its unique Stainless Steel and zinc titanium-based fabric outer skin leaves St Mary's a picturesque, and shiny, modern hospital.5Although at least they did not show the Koan, the Island's curse.

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