THE WILDLIFE ROAD­SHOW

Colin Stafford-John­son, doc­u­men­tary maker and na­ture lover, is com­ing to a theatre near you

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - OUTDOORS - Ar­minta Wal­lace

Colin Stafford-John­son sits in the lobby of the Radis­son Blu ho­tel in Dublin 8, look­ing as re­laxed as he does when he’s sit­ting in a cur­rach on the telly, pad­dling up Ire­land’s At­lantic coast. Last month, the se­ries in which he did just that – Wild Ire­land: The Edge of the World – was nom­i­nated for an award at one of the world’s top wildlife film fes­ti­vals, Jack­son Hole in Wy­oming. “We were beaten by Sir David,” he says, with a smile and a gen­tle shrug. “What can you do?”

In the world of wildlife doc­u­men­tary mak­ing, if you’re in the same com­pe­ti­tion as David At­ten­bor­ough you’re do­ing pretty well. Th­ese days, Stafford-John­son is mov­ing into ever more ex­alted telly ter­ri­tory. Next year he’ll be film­ing the North Amer­i­can sec­tion of a new BBC se­ries, First Year on Earth, in which he will track the first 12 months of a black bear cub and a sea otter pup.

Be­fore that, how­ever, he’s hit­ting the road with a 15-venue live tour of Ire­land, bring­ing tales of his wildlife trav­els to the­atres around the coun­try. “It’s a bit daunt­ing,” he says. “But I’m look­ing for­ward to it. I like meet­ing peo­ple.”

Un­spoiled marsh

Stafford-John­son grew up in Cabin­teely, Co Dublin – which isn’t, I sug­gest, very wild at all. “Ah, but you see, it was then,” he de­clares. His fa­ther, Bar­ney John­son, was Ire­land’s first TV gar­dener, and their house and gar­den cen­tre backed on to an area of un­spoiled marsh and river. “My broth­ers and I used to spend our time catch­ing min­nows and frogs and newts. We had barn owls there in those days.”

When the fam­ily ac­quired a cot­tage in Wick­low, his world opened up into wild- ness. “The whole place was over­grown. My broth­ers and I made our way through the weeds and I’ll never for­get the feel­ing of open­ing the old wooden gate, which we had to force be­cause it hadn’t been opened in a long time. Out­side that gate was the Devil’s Glen – and that was our play­ground. In all the years we were there, we hardly met a sin­gle soul.”

When he fin­ished school, Stafford-John­son signed up for a general sci­ence de­gree at Maynooth. In the pub one night, a wildlife doc­u­men­tary – David At­ten­bor­ough’s Liv­ing Planet, as it hap­pens – came on the telly. “I thought, ‘What am I do­ing here?’ I was 19.”

Bi­o­log­i­cal imag­ing

He quit col­lege and back­packed around the world – cross­ing New Guinea on foot and work­ing in a gold­mine in Tas­ma­nia, among other ad­ven­tures – be­fore go­ing to the UK to study bi­o­log­i­cal imag­ing.

When he got the chance to go to India to film tigers for the BBC’s Nat­u­ral World strand, Stafford-John­son seemed to be head­ing for a suc­cess­ful ca­reer as a cam­era­man. Were it not for two Ir­ish in­de­pen­dent pro­duc­ers – Gil­lian Marsh, of gmarshtv, and John Mur­ray of Cross­ing the Line films – both of whom spot­ted his po­ten­tial as a pre­sen­ter, he might never have switched to the other side of the lens.

He has worked closely with both com­pa­nies ever since, and in­sists the suc­cess of Liv­ing the Wildlife, which ran for eight con­sec­u­tive sea­sons on RTÉ, and Ire­land’s Wild River: The Mighty Shan­non, which took the top prizes at both Jack­son Hole and its UK equiv­a­lent, Wild­screen, two years ago, is down to the tal­ents of their re­spec­tive pro­duc­tion and edit­ing teams.

But Stafford-John­son’s un­der­stated pre­sent­ing style, and his po­etic way with words, also play a key role in es­tab­lish­ing the dis­tinc­tive tone of th­ese par­tic­u­lar films.

When it all comes to­gether it makes for some un­for­get­table se­quences. A kingfisher dive- bomb­ing into a river. Wide-an­gle shots of starling mur­mu­ra­tions. Or the scene in Wild Ire­land in which Stafford-John­son sits calmly in his cur­rach while blue sharks cir­cle – equally calmly – be­neath. “Un­less they break the sur­face, you’d never know they were there,” he says.

Must-see ex­pe­ri­ences

What are his must- see Ir­ish wildlife ex­pe­ri­ences? “If you’ve never seen a bask­ing shark, you def­i­nitely need to do that. And we’ve got lots of hump­back whales, fin whales, minkes. The Ir­ish Whale and Dol­phin Group have a great web­site where you can find out what’s go­ing on.”

For many of us, Dalkey Is­land might be a more ac­ces­si­ble op­tion. “Go swim­ming with the seals. It’s like the Gala­pa­gos,” he says. “You’ve seals ly­ing on top of you, par­tic­u­larly the younger ones – they just lit­er­ally come up to you and hold you. And you’re float­ing out in Dublin Bay hold­ing on to a seal. It’s as cool a wildlife ex­pe­ri­ence as you’ll get any­where.”

Stafford-John­son isn’t a man for polemic – still, he gets dis­tressed by the un­avoid­able top­ics of habi­tat loss and cli­mate change.

“Since I left school 30 years ago, Ire­land has fun­da­men­tally changed. The ecol­ogy in much of ru­ral Ire­land is to­tally de­stroyed. That’s the re­al­ity,” he says.

“Drive across Ire­land on a July night and you don’t have to wipe an in­sect off your wind­screen. If you had done that drive in the ’70s, you’d al­most have to get out and clean your wind­screen half­way.”

You’ve seals ly­ing on top of you, par­tic­u­larly the younger ones – they just lit­er­ally come up to you and hold you. And you’re float­ing out in Dublin Bay hold­ing on to a seal. It’s as cool a wildlife ex­pe­ri­ence as you’ll get any­where

Liv­ing the Wild Life with Colin Stafford-John­son be­gins at the Mer­maid Arts Cen­tre, Bray, on Novem­ber 1st and will be at the Town Hall Theatre, Gal­way (Novem­ber 6th); INEC Kil­lar­ney (Novem­ber 7th); St Michael’s Theatre, New Ross (Novem­ber 8th); Glór, En­nis (Novem­ber 9th); The Garage Theatre, Mon­aghan (Novem­ber 11th); Ev­ery­man, Cork (Novem­ber 14th); River­bank Arts Cen­tre, New­bridge (Novem­ber 15th); Axis, Bal­ly­mun (Novem­ber 16th); Town Hall, West­port (Novem­ber 17th); Vis­ual, Car­low (Novem­ber 18th); The Al­ley Theatre, Stra­bane (Novem­ber 20th); Hawk’s Well, Sligo (Novem­ber 21st); and the Theatre Royal, Water­ford (Novem­ber 22nd)

Colin Stafford-John­son: “Since I left school 30 years ago, Ire­land has fun­da­men­tally changed. The ecol­ogy in much of ru­ral Ire­land is to­tally de­stroyed. That’s the re­al­ity”

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Ireland

© PressReader. All rights reserved.