I would be hard pressed to say which narrator of National Geographic television specials was the best. It is therefore fortunate that no one has ever pressed me on the subject.
National Geographic Specials began in 1965. From them I learned about fishes and forests and people and places. But before the narration was the theme music. I learned just now that it was written by film composer Elmer Bernstein, and I whacked myself on the head because of course it was written by Elmer Bernstein. Listen to the National Geographic music and tell me it doesn’t bring to mind music from The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape, The Ten Commandments, True Grit, Animal House, Airplane! and Marlboro commercials, all of which is Elmer Bernstein music.
There have been 15 narrators of National Geographic Specials, but the most prolific by far was Alexander Scourby. He voiced 16 shows between 1966 and 1985, including one of my favorite Geographic specials, Yankee Sails Across Europe (1967). That was during a brief period when exclamation marks appear to have experienced something of a vogue, judging by “Alaska!” and “Grizzly!” from 1967 and “Hippo!” in 1969, all of them Scourby specials. There was never another National Geographic Special with an exclamation mark after “Hippo!”
Here is a Scourby sample.
I would have bet money that, after Scourby, the narrators with the most National Geographic credits were Richard Basehart and E.G. Marshall, but if I had done so I would have lost my money. No, it was Leslie Nielsen, with his 10 specials between 1971 and 1980, who comes in at Number Two. Here he describes “The Violent Earth” (1973).
Joseph Campanella narrated eight specials between 1968 and 1991. There were “Reptiles & Amphibians” (1968) and “Holland Against the Sea” (1970), and “The Great Mojave Desert” (1971). Campanella built a respectable National Geographic oeuvre without exclamation marks.
Basehart and Marshall are still nowhere to be found.
Richard Kiley voiced five National Geographic Specials between 1976 and 1990, including “Australia’s Twilight of the Dreamtime” (1988). Here is “Those Wonderful Dogs” (1989).
The first National Geographic host was Orson Welles, who narrated five specials in the 1965-66 season. The first was “Americans on Everest,” followed by “Savage World of the Coral Jungle,”
“Miss Goodall and the Wild Chimpanzees,” “The Voyage of the Brigantine Yankee” and “The World of Jacques-Yves Cousteau.”
E.G. Marshall narrated only four specials, from 1980 to 1983, including “Egypt: Quest for Eternity” (1982) and “Dive to the Edge of Creation” (1980). One can’t help but note the enduring power of “Gorilla” (1981) even without the exclamation mark.
Here is “Born of Fire” from 1983.
Richard Basehart somehow narrated only two National Geographic Specials, “This Britain: Heritage of the Sea” (1975) and “Egypt: Quest for Eternity” (1982).
Ed. Note: Careful readers will note that “Egypt: Quest for Eternity” appears to have had two narrators, when of course it did not. The clayrussell.com fact-checking department relied too heavily on IMDB, which we now know is rife with inaccuracy, at least where National Geographic Specials are concerned. Not only did E.G. Marshall not narrate “Egypt: Quest for Eternity,” he narrated several other specials that IMDB did not bother to mention. One of them was “Gorilla” (1981, no exclamation mark).
E.G. Marshall’s full list of Geographic credits appears on the TV Guide website, where we learned that he narrated not four but seven specials.
A still newer development in our investigation emerged when we discovered two more E.G. Marshall National Geographic credits on Filmreference.com: “Elephant” (1989, no exclamation mark) and “The Explorers: A Century of Discovery,” (1988).
We are leaving the rest of our article unaltered, despite the knowledge that additional errors might appear in it because of our overconfident reliance on IMDB. We apologize for the confusion but hope the experience will serve as a reminder that you have to check and recheck pretty much everything you see on the internet.
Hal Holbrook narrated two specials, including “The Animals Nobody Loved” in 1976. James Stewart narrated “Yukon Passage” in 1977.
James Whitmore narrated “Love Those Trains” in 1984.
Robert Foxworth narrated “In the Shadow of Vesuvius” in 1987. To my ear, Foxworth’s dulcet tone recalls the Scourby era.
Michael Carroll narrated “Whales in Crisis” (2004). It is not known whether he was hired because of his acting work on Jingle Hell (2000), or whether his National Geographic narration led to his future appearance in Psycho Writer or his 2010 narration job on Tyrannosaurus Sex.
Gavin MacFadyen, star of the 2004 feature Beg!, narrated “Civil War Gold.” And there was Dominic Frisby, perhaps best known for his acting work in the Tittybangbang series and as Snuffkin in Moomins on the Riviera narrating “Saxon Gold” (2011).
Miranda Richardson, forever Mrs. Tweedy in the hearts of Chicken Run fans, and Mrs. Fang in Jacob Two Two Meets the Hooded Fang, and Rita Skeeter in Harry Potter & the Goblet of Fire, narrated “Operation Orangutan.”
It is still hard to believe that Richard Basehart narrated only two National Geographic specials.
But he didn’t. Further fact-checking revealed that Richard Basehart narrated “Secrets of the Wild Panda” (1983) and “The Invisible World” (1979).
It dismays us terribly to have to doubt our work, but we are at the moment too dissipated to do anything more about it.