‘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
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