With its Pythonesque, illuminated manuscript title sequence and blaring trumpet theme, one might be forgiven for thinking that Terry Gilliam had a hand in creating the BBC's Fabulous Animals series.
Aimed at the under-11s as half-term viewing fodder, the series featured an earnest and still youthful-looking David Attenborough zipping through a panoply of monster stories covering everything from mammoths locked in ice to Bigfoot.
For each episode, a largely studio-bound Attenborough inhabited a set resembling the back room of a museum. The desks and tables were littered with worse-for-wear antiquarian books on monsters from Attenborough’s own collection and a variety of plastic dinosaurs, creating the illusion that this was Attenborough’s own study, or a close facsimile thereof. It was an illusion that foundered somewhat when, inter alia, the set gained a tank of live eels or was decorated with Battle for the Planet of the Apes and Dr Who and the Daleks movie posters in order to illustrate whatever point the man we would have given our right arms to have as our science teacher was making.
1 Here be Monsters
Topics include the discovery by Belgian colliers of 30 complete Iguanodon skeletons, the 1901 expedition to Northern Siberia to find frozen mammoths and the search for the giant ground sloth of Patagonia.
Highlight: Attenborough doesn’t dismiss the possibility of an 'elephants’ graveyard" nor does he rule out the survival of mammoths in Siberia.
2 Mermaids and other Marvels of the Sea
Attenborough tells in detail the story of the church-attending Mermaid of Zennor in Cornwall and touches on the giant squid, the Gloucester Sea Serpent, the HMS Daedalus sea serpent sighting and the Loch Ness Monster.
Highlight: Attenborough points out that the life cycle of the eel was not understood until the 1920s; in 1933, George Spicer and his wife saw the "Loch Ness monster" cross a road and plunge into the loch – could this have been a gigantic eel travelling across land just as ordinary eels do during the "eel fair?"
3 Dragons and Serpents
Attenborough introduces rare footage of the flying lizard of Borneo and the Paradise tree snake (which also flies, rather alarmingly). In addition, he tells the story of how St Hilda at Whitby Abbey turned an infestation of snakes to stone and caused their heads to drop off (and shows us the ammonites that were the origin of the myth).
Highlight: Footage of Attenborough’s 1956 journey to Komodo to trap a Komodo Dragon. Three blokes in a jungle try to trap a hungry and irritable ten-foot- (3m-) long reptile in a makeshift cage made from tree branches. This could be the nearest to Jurassic Park that anyone has ever got.
4 Winged Creatures
A quick blitz through the story of Sinbad and the Roc; then cue more archive footage of Attenborough, this time wandering through a dried-up river bed in Madagascar looking for fragments of Aepyornis eggs. He thinks the locals have him pegged as a "harmless lunatic" but one boy with an eye on the cash reward brings him several massive egg fragments which Attenborough tapes together to make a complete egg. Back in the study set, Attenborough reveals the perfectly restored rugby ball-sized egg to be his most prized possession.
Highlight: Attenborough tells of his horror of vampire bats and how he had to scare one away by throwing his boot at it.
5 Horns of Magic
Attenborough explores the tales of Mithraic bull worship, Fairy Cattle and visits the wild cattle of Chillingham – vicious white beasts living in an isolated, walled-off enclosure. Their keeper says they would not hesitate to attack a man if one were to approach them.
Highlight: Attenborough wonders if the origins of the unicorn myth lie in a "simple" operation to transfer a horn bud to the forehead of an animal, as practised by ancient peoples unknown.
6 Man or Beast
Attenborough explains that early reports of baboons indicated that they were partly human and could read and write! He believes that the entry in his antiquarian monster encyclopædia for a dog-faced man was probably inspired by the Indris giant lemur.
Highlight: Footage of Roger Patterson being interviewed, followed by his famous Bigfoot film sequence. Showing an uncharacteristic cynicism, Attenborough concludes that Patterson was the victim of a hoax. However, the yeti is a different matter: we are assured that a real unknown animal is the cause of these reports – it’s definitely not a hoax.
The Fabulous Animals series has not been broadcast since the 1970s and has never been available on commercial video or DVD. However, small groups of cryptozoology students have been known to gather in silent reverence when ancient, snowy, off-air copies are shown around a mate’s house.
The series was accompanied by a book, which you have a slim chance of obtaining via e-Bay or obsessive visits to your local charity shop.