‘I missed my son’s birth film­ing At­ten­bor­ough’s new fam­ily se­ries’

BBC cam­era­man ab­sent for child’s first seven months while shoot­ing Sir David’s Dy­nas­ties pro­duc­tion

The Sunday Telegraph - - News - By Anita Singh ARTS AND EN­TER­TAIN­MENT ED­I­TOR

FAC­ING tigers in the jun­gles of In­dia, trekking 1,000 miles through the blis­ter­ing heat of Sene­gal in search of chim­panzees and liv­ing with painted wolves on the banks of the Zam­bezi, the mak­ers of the BBC’s new nat­u­ral his­tory se­ries faced plenty of chal­lenges.

But one of the team en­dured more than most. Lind­say McCrae, a cam­era­man with the BBC Nat­u­ral His­tory Unit, missed the birth of his first child and did not meet him un­til he was seven months old.

McCrae had to fol­low all of baby Wal­ter’s early milestones in pho­tos and via FaceTime from the Antarc­tic base where he was film­ing for Dy­nas­ties, the BBC One se­ries pre­sented by Sir David At­ten­bor­ough which be­gins on Nov 11.

Re­mark­ably, McCrae’s wife, Becky, gave her bless­ing for him to leave dur­ing the preg­nancy and not re­turn for 11 months, know­ing how much the job meant to him. For eight of those months he was un­able to leave re­gard­less of any emer­gency back home, as se­vere weather con­di­tions mean no flights go in or out.

He kept the preg­nancy se­cret from bosses un­til he was on the last plane to Antarc­tica, wor­ried that they would make him stay at home.

“We found out Becky was preg­nant in Au­gust and I went in De­cem­ber. We met while work­ing king in TV, and one of the first st things she said to me – be­fore we got to­gether – was to ask, ‘What’s the he thing you want nt to film the most?’ And I said em­peror r pen­guins. So o she knew how w im­por­tant the e op­por­tu­nity was,” said d McCrae, 28.

“We were com­pletely com­mit­ted to hav­ing kids and even though I’d known two years be­fore that I was go­ing to Antarc­tica, we thought we would try for a baby and see what hap­pened. hap­pene

“I didn’t tell any­body at the BBC. There is ob­vi­ously a men men­tal as­pect to be­ing out there for so lon long and they co could have said, ‘N ‘No, we can’t send you you, just in case you lose the plot.’ I didn didn’t want to jeop­ar­dise my chance of goi go­ing, so I waited un un­til the last plane to took off, then I ph phoned the prod duc­ers and told th them.”

The cou­ple had a scan days be­fore McCrae left, at which they found out the baby would be a boy. Four months later, Becky went into labour.

“I spoke to her briefly and she said, ‘Just go out and film, there’s noth­ing you can do’,” McCrae re­called. “Later that day I got a ra­dio call telling me to come back to the sta­tion, and within half an hour Wal­ter had been born.

“I phoned and I could hear Wal­ter scream­ing away. It is a very sur­real thing to ex­pe­ri­ence when you’re so far away.”

The team was based at a Ger­man re­search sta­tion, whose in­ter­net con­nec­tion kept McCrae in reg­u­lar con­tact with home, where Becky had moved in with her par­ents for sup­port.

He also recorded bed­time sto­ries so Wal­ter could al­ways hear his voice.

McCrae met his son for the first time in the ar­rivals hall at Heathrow Air­port. “It was in­cred­i­ble. I felt like I knew Wal­ter so well be­cause I had seen his face every day. I had seen him grow up for seven months even though it was just on a com­puter screen.

“I was slightly wor­ried that he wouldn’t know me, but I def­i­nitely wasn’t a stranger. He recog­nised me.”

With hind­sight, he said: “Had I known what I was go­ing to miss, I don’t think I would have done it. But be­cause it was a new ex­pe­ri­ence for both of us, we didn’t know what to ex­pect and that made it eas­ier. Now we’ve got an­other one on the way and I won’t be dis­ap­pear­ing for that long again.”

McCrae and the team braved tem­per­a­tures of -40F (-40C), drop­ping to -80F (-62C) with the wind chill fac­tor, to film a colony of 11,000 em­peror pen­guins in Atka Bay.

“For me, the at­trac­tion was a job that was ex­treme in every re­spect you can get,” he said. He first wrote to the BBC when he was 12, telling of his pas­sion for wildlife, and was filmed watch­ing badgers near his home in the Lake Dis­trict for an episode of Spring­watch. He kept in touch, and af­ter leav­ing school was taken on as a run­ner. A year later, he be­came the BBC’s youngest wildlife cam­era­man.

His com­mit­ment to the job earned praise from Sir David, who said that McCrae had filmed the per­fect footage of a pen­guin chick hatch­ing.

“It’s not so much what it says about the an­i­mals – it’s what it says about his ded­i­ca­tion,” he said.

Wal­ter is now 18 months old and the cou­ple’s sec­ond child is due in April.

McCrae said: “I’ve been chal­lenged with be­ing in the same hemi­sphere this time.”

Sir David At­ten­bor­ough has been do­ing him­self out of a job. For the BBC’s lat­est block­buster wildlife se­ries Dy­nas­ties, he wanted the nar­ra­tion kept to a min­i­mum – even though he is the nar­ra­tor.

“Un­jus­ti­fi­able an­thro­po­mor­phism is the dan­ger,” he says. “You have to be very care­ful when you’re writ­ing it that every time you say an an­i­mal ‘is jeal­ous’, you are ab­so­lutely sure there is sci­en­tific ev­i­dence to make sure what you’re say­ing is cor­rect. And I think we did that here.”

Dy­nas­ties is a new five-part se­ries start­ing next Sun­day which, each week, takes one of the most cel­e­brated and en­dan­gered an­i­mals on the planet and de­votes an en­tire hour to fol­low­ing a sin­gle group in de­tail. It fo­cuses on crit­i­cal mo­ments in the lives of the an­i­mals and their fam­i­lies: a chim­panzee leader (called David, co­in­ci­den­tally) bat­tling for his po­si­tion and his life on the edge of the Sa­hara; a dy­nasty of thou­sands of em­peror pen­guins gather­ing on the frozen wastes of Antarc­tica; a pow­er­ful li­on­ess, aban­doned by her male pro­tec­tors, shield­ing her fam­ily against the dan­gers of the African sa­van­nah; a feud be­tween a mother and daugh­ter painted wolf on the flood­plains of Zim­babwe; and a ti­gress in the jun­gles of In­dia at­tempt­ing to raise her fam­ily un­der ever grow­ing pres­sure from her ri­vals and hu­man­ity.

“Never be­fore have we pre­sented a land­mark se­ries with such pow­er­ful sto­ry­telling – about fam­i­lies, lead­ers and he­roes,” says ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer Mike Gun­ton. “Never be­fore e has a land­mark show of­fered the viewer ewer the op­por­tu­nity to fol­low the lives of an­i­mals in such de­tail, each ach fight­ing against over­whelm­ing g odds for their own sur­vival and the fu­ture of their fam­i­lies. These se are some of the most dra­matic c and in­tense sto­ries of their kind ever told.”

Ob­vi­ously, the man in charge of the se­ries is s en­ti­tled to a lit­tle hy­per­bole, but ut Dy­nas­ties cer­tainly rep­re­sents a turn urn of the wheel from the BBC’s ’s most re­cent Nat­u­ral His­tory ry se­ries. Rather than be­ing a se­quence-led ed show, high­light­ing ht­ing cer­tain jaw­drop­ping be­hav­iours from in­di­vid­ual ual an­i­mals and then mov­ing on, Dy­nas­ties tells longer sto­ries over time. In a me­dia age that val­ues GIFable, must-see mo­ments, Dy­nas­ties is slower and sub­tler.

“The power of fam­ily is some­thing that we never re­ally have a chance to de­scribe be­cause it’s a com­pli­cated, more in-depth story that takes time to tell,” says Gun­ton. He is aware that Dy­nas­ties’ more con­tem­pla­tive mood and lin­ger­ing shots – a good deal of the first episode cen­tres ce on the al­pha chimp’s twitch­ing toes to – runs against the grab-and-go tenor te of much cur­rent tele­vi­sion.

“I wasn’t sure whether it would be ac­cepted. Char­lotte Moore M [the BBC’s head of con­tent] said, s ‘This is risky but we’ll go with it’. No one was more sur­prised than me.” Dy­nas­ties comes at a ti time when money is tight at the th BBC. “We do not be­lieve what w we cur­rently do is sus­tain­able with the re­sources r we have,” have the cor­po­ra­tion’s corpo di­rec­tor-gen­eral direc Tony Hall told the Royal R Tele­vi­sion Tele So­ci­ety Soc con­fer­ence con in Lon­don Lo last month. m Yet, if there th are to be b cut­backs, they are un­likely to af­fect the big At­ten­bor­ough shows. The cor­po­ra­tion has al­ready given the green light to a num­ber of se­ries it plans to roll out over the com­ing years. At­ten­bor­ough says the fact that these se­ries have be­come the jewel in the crown of the cor­po­ra­tion has been hard earned.

“I think it’s some­thing to be proud of. My mem­ory goes back a long time – the first Nat­u­ral His­tory film I made was 1954. Then, when tele­vi­sion was quite young, no­body else in the world was tak­ing nat­u­ral his­tory se­ri­ously. A few years later, it was sug­gested that we start a nat­u­ral his­tory unit, by two re­mark­able pro­duc­ers from BBC Bris­tol. The BBC gave them full back­ing and es­tab­lished the NHU for­mally. It was the first in the world. Through thick and thin, the BBC has backed it. There has never been any ques­tion about a lack of sup­port.”

Next year, Net­flix will re­lease its own blue-chip nat­u­ral his­tory se­ries,

Our Planet. But such projects would be unimag­in­able if the BBC had not blazed a trail, says At­ten­bor­ough. “Slowly, we con­vinced other or­gan­i­sa­tions in other coun­tries that the au­di­ence was in­ter­ested in this. It’s an amaz­ing thing – the Amer­i­cans for a long time thought that the only an­i­mals any viewer wanted to see were lions and gi­raffes and stuff in east Africa – with a par­tic­u­lar em­pha­sis on, ‘Let’s tie ’em up and bring ’em back home alive’. The no­tion that you could get as big an au­di­ence for an in­sect as you could for a lion was re­garded as lu­di­crous.”

He points to a com­pe­ti­tion run by the NHU in the Six­ties to try to get the film-mak­ers in­ter­ested in this new tele­vi­sual field. “The win­ner was a film about a wood wasp par­a­sitis­ing an­other in­sect. It went out in the same week as a space shot pro­gramme. It got a sim­i­lar au­di­ence. The BBC noted that – not a lot of other peo­ple did. It’s back­ing of nat­u­ral his­tory has been un­wa­ver­ing for 65 years.” It’s telling that when you ask At­ten­bor­ough for his favourite mo­ment from the new se­ries, he points to a scene born of un­wa­ver­ing ded­i­ca­tion.

“The thing that im­pressed me was in the em­peror pen­guin film. We’ve made lots of pro­grammes over the years about pen­guins, but in this one the cam­era­man was there for nine months. You may have seen a shot of a pen­guin look­ing at an egg on its feet, but never one filmed as per­fectly as here. It is a se­ries of per­fect shots. I sup­pose if you had to pick one then it’s the fact that the cam­era­man was there when the very first chip came in the egg that was sit­ting on daddy’s feet. He had to be there a long time to get that – the temp­ta­tion to go for a cup of cof­fee must have been great but he was out there and he got it.”

The suc­cess of Blue Planet II, the BBC’s most re­cent “big ticket” se­ries, was mea­sured in more than rat­ings. Its shock­ing footage of the plas­tic in our oceans has led to gen­uine change, with Michael Gove, the En­vi­ron­ment Sec­re­tary, for one, cit­ing the se­ries di­rectly as a fac­tor in his in­tro­duc­tion of new reg­u­la­tion. At­ten­bor­ough is not one for fin­ger-wag­ging – “I’ve al­ways felt that show-and-tell is the cor­rect way” – but he says that Dy­nas­ties does comes with an en­vi­ron­men­tal mes­sage of its own.

“When you think of the range of this se­ries, go­ing from the South Pole to west Africa, the com­mon worry is space. We have to al­low an­i­mals space. The telling im­ages are long shots show­ing the en­croach­ment of hu­man pop­u­la­tion. The big un­spo­ken fac­tor is the ac­cep­tance that an­i­mals are un­der pres­sure.”

At­ten­bor­ough, 92, has seen too much to of­fer glib so­lu­tions.

“It’s a very dif­fi­cult thing to deal with – men, women and chil­dren need space too. Look at tigers in In­dia. Tigers eat hu­man chil­dren, they hunt them, they do. So peo­ple liv­ing along­side tigers have got a very, very tough prob­lem. They have to be very strongly con­vinced that tigers have a right to live.”

Solv­ing the prob­lem, he says, is a job for the politi­cians. “Our job is to raise peo­ple’s pas­sion and be­lief and de­sire to recog­nise that an­i­mals have a right to some sort of space.”

Dy­nas­ties starts on Nov 11 at 8.30pm on BBC One

‘A cam­era­man caught the mo­ment when the first chip ap­pears in a pen­guin’s egg’

Lind­say McCrae be­comes ac­quainted with baby Wal­ter, below, af­ter miss­ing his birth while film­ing for Dy­nas­ties, whose spec­tac­u­lar footage in­cludes chimps at play in Sene­gal

A tiger filmed in In­dia’s Band­hav­garh Na­tional Park for the new se­ries

Sur­viv­ing: painted wolves are among the grip­ping fam­ily sto­ries in the new se­ries nar­rated by Sir David, below

Lunch time: a fe­male chim­panzee in Sene­gal feeds on ter­mites, above. Top right, sixweek-old pen­guin chicks hud­dle to­gether for warmth in Antarc­tica

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