Maurice Melzak, documentary maker and community conservationist
He was passionate, highly intelligent and committed: Sleep With Me author Joanna Briscoe's remembers the life and work of Highgate film-maker and bee-keeper.
15 September, 2017 — By Joanna Briscoe
FROM looking after honey bees in Highgate Cemetery to directing acclaimed TV documentaries on subjects as diverse as street pigeons and crime scene investigators, film-maker and wildlife expert Maurice Melzak leaves behind a rich and varied legacy.
Maurice, who has died aged 65, was born on February 6, 1952, in Aylesbury, the son of east European Jewish refugees. He spent his childhood in the countryside near there, where his love of nature was formed.
Maurice moved to Israel with his family at the age of 18, learned to speak Hebrew, then studied marine biology at Queen Mary College, London. He started his career as an independent film-maker, zoologist and conservationist by researching documentaries for experts such as David Attenborough and Gerald Durrell.
Examples of Maurice’s work include a QED on street pigeons, an Encounters film on rabies, and an Equinox film on aquariums. Josie’s Journey, about the survivor of an infamous attack, was shown on BBC1.
He moved to Swains Lane in Highgate, overlooking the cemetery, many years ago. It suited him. As a community-minded conservationist, he was passionate about the area and its abundance of nature. His garden was a beautifully planned and nurtured haven, home to a tame robin that came into his kitchen for food.
Not only did Maurice forge a dedicated connection with Highgate Cemetery, advising on conservation and wildlife, but also secured a grant and put up hundreds of bat and bird boxes that provided homes for species, including tawny owls, sparrow hawks and nuthatches. He was on the committee of the Friends of Waterlow Park, where he helped regenerate the ponds, introduce wild flower meadows and reduce invasive species.
His Homes for People, Homes for Birds project was featured on Springwatch, and he created Petstreet, a successful social networking site for pet owners. He made many films about the extraordinary relationship between people and animals.
Passionate, highly intelligent and committed, he found happiness in his hobbies and community work. An acute observer of human life, sitting back quietly but taking it all in, he was often to be found walking across the Heath with his dog Roxy, spotting the wildlife.
Maurice was a one-off. Not given to small talk, impatient with much social etiquette, he could seem like a loner, yet had a big circle of close friends. He was at his very best one-to-one: underneath his reticence, an incredibly warm, loving and sensitive person was there to be discovered. He had a brilliant mind, with an acute intelligence and memory, and his initial awkwardness could melt into real affection and humour.
He said what he thought, and his friends could have a very real and direct form of communication with him. Even when ill in his last years, he asked after others, and was concerned by others’ suffering.
When Maurice couldn’t work full-time because of his illness, he did voluntary filming, for the Women’s Equality Party among others, and wrote about his beekeeping. The delicious honey from his bees, Highgate Cemetery honey, bore a “Workers Unite” label, with a picture of Karl Marx, and this was typical of his humour. The honey is sold in the cemetery shop.
In his last weeks, being brilliantly cared for by Marie Curie Hospice in Hampstead, he was surrounded by friends. Even the receptionists took to commenting on the stream of visitors. In particular, his sister Sheila Melzak, close cousin Geraldine Maidment and great friend Cassie Meyer put in constant hours of help, support and love. He is survived by Sheila, by many friends, and by his much-loved honey bees.