I am glad to hear that six new ‘Secrets of Nature’ are nearly complete and will be released before long. They are the best films of their kind ever made, and no other short British films have been so widely successful… But the greatest triumph of this new series is that the nightingale has made its first talkie. This shyest of birds had to be followed into the depths of a Hertfordshire wood; weeks were spent on discovering a favourite tree and further weeks on overcoming its occupant’s suspicion of microphone and camera. At last its liquid notes were recorded, and ‘as though a window gave upon a sylvan scene’ audiences all over the world will be able to hear an English Nightingale in an English wood. Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer, 4 February 1932.
This quote, from a contemporary film critic, is characteristic of the association between the Secrets and a pastoral, idyllic sense of rural Englishness which was repeatedly evoked by commentators. The nightingale, afterall, was emblematic of this vision of rural England, inextricable in the eyes of many from romanticism and poetry – in this case, the critic chose to quote from T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land.
The film in question, The Nightingale (1932), played on these associations. The film opens with a shot of Oxford, showing the Magdalen College’s tower, the road beneath busy with cars crossing Magdalen bridge into the centre of town. Oxford, we are told, is a ‘centre’ of learning and of the motorcar industry – a reference to the Morris Motors factory which was sited down the road in Cowley. But the city is ‘less well-known as a centre of the country where nightingales are found in England’. This was a recurrent device from the Secrets series, which often drew comparisons between urban and rural environments, and indicated how interesting plants or animals could often be found on a city’s doorstep.
The rest of the film shows footage of the nightingale in a wood outside Oxford. The narrator tells us that the nightingale is like the robbin in appearance and similar in size. But instead of the robin’s red chest, the nightingale is brown with a chestnut-red tail. Contrary to popular belief, it sings both day and night, and prefers dense and shady parts of the wood.
The nightingale’s nest, buried deep in bracken and built using layers of leaves, is also shown, packed with four shiny eggs. In a more unusual technique, used to demonstrate the large quantity of material needed to make the nest, the leaves collected from one nest are seen gradually falling onto a table, with a white sheet for background. Later, we see nightingale chicks with wide mouths clamouring for food, whose hunger is satisfied by the two adult birds racing across the wood to catch caterpillars to feed them. As in many other Secrets of this type, the birds are heavily anthropomorphised: “both parents are kept busy bringing food for the family”.
This intimate portrayal of the nightingale’s life and habits required the skills for an expert bird photographer. As the article quoted above pointed out, nightingales are very shy birds, and filming them requires an enourmous amount of patience, not to mention an intimate knowledge of their behaviour. Oliver Pike, one of the series’ principal cameramen and a pioneer of bird photography, demonstrated his practically unmatched expertise in this film. In his 1932 book The Nightingale: Its Story and Its Song and Other Familiar Songbirds, Pike made a similar claim about the presence of nightingales around Oxford to that made in the film: “I have seen more nightingales close to the city of Oxford than in any other part of England.” According to The Ecologist, this is no longer the case: “Indeed there are probably more environmental film-makers than nightingales around Oxford today.”
The film includes field recordings of the nightingale’s song. In Secrets of Nature (1934), Mary Field wrote that animal sounds were rarely included in films, noting that when they were, they were often produced by ‘animal imitators’ rather than captured in the wild. However, clearly in a film about a bird like the nightingale, the bird’s actual call had to be featured. Most likely, the birdsong recordings were not synchronised with the original footage – we don’t know if the recordings are of the same birds, or even if they were made in the same wood.
But capturing the bird’s call was clearly a necessity. In 1924, the BBC had performed an unusual ‘stunt’, in which the cellist Beatrice Harrison had peformed a ‘duet’ alongside a nightingale live on air. The stunt was repeated every year in what became known as ‘nightingale week’, a tradition which was still being practiced in 1932 when The Nightingale was released. If radio could do it, film, which had only very recently adopted sound, had to prove its mettle too. In order to capture these sounds, the Secrets team would likely have sought out the help of a specialist. If the film had been made a few years later, we might have suspected Ludwig Koch, the famous recorder of birdsong who collaborated with Julian Huxley and Max Nicholson. But given it was made in 1932, one possibility is that they requested help from the BBC’s sound engineers.
At the end of the film, the nightingale is shown ‘dancing’ to music by the series’ principal composer, W. E. Hodgson, in a scene reminiscent of the Disney cartoons which were often billed alongisde Secrets of Nature films. Incidentally, Disney’s True Life Advetures, a series of live-action documentaries from the 1950s, would adopt a similar technique of superimposing music onto images of real-life animals. In Secrets of Nature (1934), Mary Field tells us how the idea for this shot came about:
The picture had been prepared to include only a small section of the scene showing the bird jumping on the bough. Commentator and orchestra were both well-rehearsed and we were just about ready to synchronize and were waiting for the red light and for the recorder’s command to ‘Turn ’em over.’ Suddenly Hodgson remarked, ‘the bird looked as if he was dancing at the end, didn’t he?’ Everyone was interested. The film was put through again and, sure enough, the nightingale was dancing. Quickly Hodgson dashed to his library for suitable music that would fit the movement; the film was hurried off to the cutting room and the two scenes of the dancing action were hastily lengthened and cross-cut to give a rhythm.
The shot of the ‘dancing’ nightingale was the subject of a cartoon in Punch, which no doubt would have served as good publicity for the series, and also serves as another indication of how widely screened the Secrets films were.
“Glimpses of the little bird, with mate and young, and well recorded song. A first-class ‘Secrets of Nature’ picture.” The Bioscope, 30 March 1932.
“The commentary and photography are excellent.” Kinematograph Weekly, 24 March 1932