Chapter 31

…between the Scylla of commercialism and Charybdis of stuffiness.

Saturna Island 1954–1960

Cowan filming fish for a CBC episode with TV crew,

Cowan filming fish for a CBC episode with TV crew,

Cowan filming fish for a CBC episode with TV crew, 1955-56. Photograph by Dept. of Extension Services, UBC. Image Cowan_PP_027 courtesy of University of Victoria Special Collections.
Cowan looking at fossil with Tom Connachie

Cowan looking at fossil with Tom Connachie

Cowan looking at fossil with Tom Connachie, CBC Producer, Web of Life, c. 1964. Photograph by Robert Ragsdale. Image Cowan_PP_036 courtesy of CBC Still Photo Collection/Robert Ragsdale.
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His Atlantic exposure began on Scottish expeditions in that sabbatical year. Cowan returned to Saint Andrew’s University in Perthshire in time for the annual conference of ornithologists. There he also had his first meeting with Peter Scott, which was to influence the course of the next decade of his life. As the only son of the Antarctic explorer Robert Scott (who died on his way back from the South Pole when Peter was a toddler), Peter Scott was already well known to the British public. It helped that he was also a bird artist, popular writer and lecturer on natural history. He was emerging on the scene in 1952, having founded the Severn Wildfowl Trust at Slimbridge in England six years earlier. Slimbridge was already becoming a popular destination where the public watched and learned about birds and wetlands. (Cowan stopped in there with the family on their way back to London.) That same year, Scott had started a children’s radio show on the BBC called Nature Parliament and in 1955 he would launch a television career that would make him a household name. His experiences were ripe for adaptation in Canada by Cowan.

Within two years of returning from Scotland, Cowan was presenting the idea of television shows to the ‘B’ and other wildlife scientists at the 20th North American Wildlife Conference:

I must refer here to the well-known fact that the printed word will only educate the already sympathetic and that visual materials as by television and motion pictures or the demonstration of a personal approach are the only ones likely to make inroads on the very large group of apathetic or unsympathetic in the populace….92

Cowan’s series won awards all over the world. The Vancouver International Film Festival recognized him several years in a row. He also won the 1962 top award in the network classification for adult instruction program from the US Institute for Education by Radio and Television; the Golden Prize in the United Arab Republic’s second International Television Festival; even a glowing tribute from the Canadian Medical Association for producing a series that informed people “about how to live more happily because they were living in better health.”93 CBC sold Web of Life to Britain’s Granada TV network for $200,000 in 1960 (over $1.6-million in 2014 according to the Bank of Canada’s inflation calculator webpage), which at the time was the biggest export sale in CBC history. They did indeed make a lot of money on him. “Purchase of the Web of Life series followed an excellent audience reaction in Britain to the Living Sea.”94

Vancouver columnist Harold Weir also had rave reviews for the series:

The real McCoy… or perhaps the real McTaggart would be a better way of putting it… The Living Sea didn’t purport to be an exhaustive course in marine biology; it was a skillfully, cheerfully, interestingly and almost breezily imparted compendium of useful and picturesque information. With a quick and unforced wit, an obvious love of his own subject and an equally obvious depth of knowledge, all the more attractive for being lightly sketched on... Dr. Cowan's success on the program has been due to two factors. First, his lively informality, and second his ability to keep the thing between the Scylla of commercialism and the Charybdis of stuffiness.95

Cowan described it generously as “the first Suzuki film.” Although it would be more accurate to say Suzuki was “the second Cowan.” Suzuki later admitted that there was an intellectual legacy that he was late in acknowledging.


92 Cowan, “The Challenge We Take,” in Transactions of the Twentieth North American Wildlife Conference, March 14–16, 1955. (Washington: Wildlife Management Institute, 1955).663-665.

93 “Looking After Our Health,” The Globe and Mail, February 11, 1960.

94 The Globe and Mail, “CBC Sells TV Shows for $200,000 to UK,” February 23, 1960, B22.

95 Harold Weir, “Culture without Pain,” Vancouver Sun, July 12, 1957.

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