If I can achieve something dramatic by speaking out, to hell with the consequences
Tipped as Sir David Attenborough’s eventual successor, wildlife presenter Steve Backshall insists he’d willingly risk his career if he felt strongly enough. But right now, it’s more important to inspire a new generation of nature enthusiasts
HE’S been charged by a killer elephant, spat at by a deadly cobra, stalked by a crocodile and hunted by a pack of hungry komodo dragons. So when it comes to showdowns with TV bosses, wildlife presenter Steve Backshall isn’t easily tamed. The double BAFTA winner and star of the Deadly wildlife documentaries watched with interest when Match of the Day host and fellow BBC mainstay Gary Lineker got into hot water earlier this year over political opinions posted on social media.
“If there ever comes a time that I feel I can achieve something dramatic by doing just that, then I will and to hell with the career and the consequences,” he tells the Daily Express. “But, at present, I feel I have more to achieve by being a part of the BBC family than I have by alienating myself and stepping outside of it.”
The likeable 50-year-old, who started his TV career in the late 1990s, admits he’s “an opinionated person”, but adds: “I am aware that I still do some work – if not the majority of my work anymore – for a public service broadcaster, and it’s important that I don’t get too political and that I don’t rattle too many cages.”
Although Backshall’s social media feed is far less political than some of his colleagues – and you certainly won’t find any overt criticism of the Government’s immigration policy, which in Lineker’s case sparked an almighty row – he concedes that, as both men are high-profile, selfemployed broadcasters, they’re in a similar boat.
“Compared to Gary, I’m way down the BBC ladder, though, and I’ve been quite careful throughout my career,” he explains.
“I have made a conscious decision to focus my social media posts on wildlife-related content. But, oh my God! I would very much like his bank balance, that’s for sure.” Backshall was born in Bagshot, Surrey, and grew up surrounded by rescue animals on his parents’ smallholding.
After graduating from the University of Exeter in English and theatre studies, he first worked as a travel guide author.
By 2004 he was presenting The Really Wild Show on the BBC.
Twenty years on and he’s now supporting the BBC’s top-dog naturalist Sir David Attenborough.
The two worked on the recent launch of the BBC’s brand-new Earth Experience, at a new venue in London’s Earls Court. Backshall explains how the immersive audio-visual show features narration from Attenborough alongside the most dramatic footage and music from the TV series Seven Worlds, One Planet, projected on multiple digital screens.
“The screens are all angled in different ways so that once you’re in amongst it, it almost feels like you’re there,” he adds.
“And in some cases, it’s actually more immersive than being there in the flesh.
“For example, you have a bumble bee dart frog hopping past you. In the wild, that is the size of your fingernail, but here it’s the size of a double-decker bus, so the jaw-dropping perfection that is in this teeny tiny little creature is, all of a sudden, vast in front of you. It’s really overwhelming.”
Backshall is fronting the project’s educational aspect and hopes it will inspire a new generation of wildlife enthusiasts in the way that Sir David once inspired him.
“When school groups visit, they’ll be able to understand how the animals they’re seeing fit into the environments they’re in, the part they play, and the challenges they face.”
Although Backshall didn’t collaborate directly with Sir David on the venture, the pair have become close over the decades.
“There are so many superlatives bandied around about him,” Backshall says of television’s naturalist pioneer. “But I think the thing is he is first and foremost a storyteller. “He could have been a storyteller in pretty much any area he chose.
“He’s probably more into palaeontology than actual wildlife and, if he’d chosen to, he could have made his entire career just about dinosaurs.
“Or he could have talked about history. He could have read the phone book and he would still have people entranced.
“He is a genius raconteur and has the ability to conjure stories out of nothing.”
As an example, Backshall recalls the time he and Sir David were discussing a rugby match that had just taken place. The older man was reliving the denouement of the game. “It was like listening to the finest commentator of all time retelling the story of a try being scored,” he remembers.
“You just sit there and go, ‘Wow I could sit and listen to him for the rest of my life talking about anything’.”
When Sir David finally retires from wildlife presenting – and he is very close to his 97th birthday – Backshall’s role on TV is likely to grow further. However, as he admits: “I could never get close to what [Sir David]
does and nor would I try. I do watch videos of him and study how he does it but, at the same time, you have to be careful not to try too hard to mimic him because you’ll get caught very, very quickly if you do that.
“The second you stop being yourself and start being a simulacrum of Sir David is the second everyone will scream, ‘Oi! Look what he’s doing! He’s copying Sir David!’.”
ABROADCASTING landscape without Sir David is difficult to imagine. The master’s role is one that Backshall believes will never truly be filled. “I have no idea how we can think about continuing after the era of Attenborough,” he says. “His legacy is extraordinary. Having now done the Wild Isles series, every single element of whole organism biology has been ticked off: birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, bugs, the continents, frozen, the seas…
“And yet he still manages to innovate, still manages to create the finest natural history content in the world, and he is an extraordinary ambassador for this country.”
Backshall says there will never be another era when one person dominates nature coverage so completely in the way Sir David has over the last seven decades.
“Generations have grown up knowing that voice, trusting that voice,” he adds. “He is seen as one of the most trusted figures in the world. You hear his voice, and you know what you’re hearing is the truth.
“It is evidence-based and it’s coming from the right place. And I think that makes a big difference. He will never, and can never, be replaced.”
As well as wildlife, Backshall has had some eyebrow-raising encounters with humans too. None more so than a recent meeting on The One Show with the Duchess of York, Sarah Ferguson.
“She was absolutely hilarious,” he smiles. “I’m not someone who spends an awful lot of time thinking about the royals but every time I have spent some proper time – not just shaking hands – but actually had a proper chat with them, I’ve always been really impressed. And I have to say she was amazing.”
It turns out Fergie knew all about him and his wife of six years, 36-year-old Olympic gold medallist rower Helen Glover, and the names and ages of their children (Logan, four, and two-year-old twins, Kit and Willow).
“The guys at The One Show, who obviously have A-list celebrities coming through there all the time, their jaws were on the floor.”
And it wasn’t just the Backshalls that Fergie had swotted up on.
“She was also stalking the other presenters,” Backshall jokes.
“She’d brought personal gifts for all of them, and she chatted about Helen and her journey to the Olympics as if they were old friends. She was just absolutely delightful.” Backshall’s wife recently confirmed she’ll be competing for Great Britain in next year’s Paris Olympic Games.
She already has gold medals from the London and Rio Olympics.
“It’s very much a team effort,” he says. “With three young kids, it’s going to be a real balancing act over the next year or so, but it’s working OK so far.
“I’ve got a good amount of time off so I’m not going to do any travel. I can cover things like her regattas and training camps over the summer. But it’ll be so worth it.
“Just the thought that we could be in Paris with our three kids, waiting and watching to see mummy race in the Olympics, would be unbelievable.”
Until then, Backshall plans to concentrate on his role as parent and loyal husband. Having three children under the age of five means there’s little time for anything else.
“When we get to the end of the day, and the kids are down, and Helen and I both sit there in our pyjamas, I will massage her aching feet and we will play a board game,” he reveals with a smile.
“That is as rock and roll as my life gets.”