She’s 46 and works on grown-up shows like BBC Two’s Springwatch but Michaela Strachan seems forever the fun-loving children’s TV presenter who bounded on to our screens in 1986.
It’s something to do with her exuberance, her open manner, the girlish giggling when she describes “going out” with fellow wildlife presenter Steve Backshall: “On tour! I should have said ‘on tour’! Gosh, that didn’t come out right at all!”
But perhaps it’s also because she’s never really put children’s TV behind her. Although the BBC axed The Really Wild Show in 2006 after a 20-year run, Strachan confesses she still hopes the corporation might revoke the decision.
“Oh, I really loved that show,” she sighs. “If I could have stayed for ever I would have done; I’d have done it on a Zimmer frame! Every so often I do push the BBC about it. I’m working with Chris Packham at the moment [on Springwatch] and I often think we could do an adult version of the programme. We should start a campaign, right now, in The Argus!”
Strachan was a 19-year-old working in musical theatre when she got her first gigs on Saturday morning kids’ TV, including Timmy Mallet’s Wide Awake Club. A few years later, she joined the BBC’s newly launched wildlife programme, working alongside Chris Packham and Terry Nutkins. What began as a chance break (her background was in performing arts) has turned into a life-long passion.
When the Really Wild Show ended, Strachan went on to report for BBC One’s Countryfile. She was later dropped from the popular show along with three other female presenters including Miriam O’Reilly, who successfully sued the BBC for age discrimination.
But Strachan is philosophical about the decision. “As far as I’m concerned, programmes change and the easiest way to update a show is to change the presenters.
You need change. It’s the only way things move on. Of course I was sad to leave Countryfile but I’d done it for ten years and had moved to live in South Africa… for me it wasn’t an ageism thing.”
She considers herself lucky to have been able to grow up with her audience. She has fronted a range of wildlife shows for Channel 5 and last year saw her present the 13-part series Endangered for the Africa Channel.
“Of course there are programmes you can’t do when you get to a certain age.
I couldn’t do Saturday morning kids’ shows now! But things like Autumnwatch and Winterwatch wouldn’t work with a 22-year-old. You need someone with experience and a bit of gravitas.”
When we speak, Strachan has just begun touring the stage adaptation of her first kids’ book, Really Wild Adventures, a collection of verse on pulling teeth from polar bears (something she did herself in the name of work) and attempting to out-spit a spitting cobra (ditto).
Strachan had her first child, a boy named Ollie, seven years ago with her partner Nick Chevallier. Although motherhood came late in the day – she was 39 – she says it was “absolutely” the right time for her.
“I don’t know how it would have worked before then. I was all over the place, travelling all over the world. I once did all seven continents in six months! You can’t do that when you have a family.”
The family now live in Cape Town, South Africa, with Chevallier’s three children from his previous relationship.
A self-confessed highachiever, Strachan says she has become gentler on herself as her priorities have shifted. “I don’t know how much I believe in star signs but I’m an Aries and they tend to push themselves and want to be leaders. I’m not competitive but I want to do my best.
I think your ambition calms down as you get older.
These days my main ambition is to have a balanced life.”
Now she travels only between Cape Town and the UK and makes sure any period away from her family is matched by the same period at home “being a full-on mum”.
She needs to keep a watchful eye on Ollie’s TV viewing, for one thing. “There’s too much children’s TV these days – it’s just constant. I’m always doing battle with Ollie because if he had his way, he’d watch rubbish all the time.”
Does she think kids’ TV was better in her heyday?
“I just think there’s too much of it now – too many cartoons.
There’s a lot of really good stuff out there, though. Steve Backshall’s Deadly 60 [the show which succeeded the Really Wild Show] is huge. When I toured with him I was so impressed by the kids’ knowledge about animals – all from watching his show.”
Strachan has done a lot in the past 25 years, from the weighty to the downright bizarre; why is she presenting a programme called Great British Ghosts?
The same reason she entered (and won) the world gurning championships – it sounded like fun. She no longer cares what the press says about her (“I used to care a lot, especially when I was younger”) so figures she might as well give these things a crack.
But it’s not hard to guess what she considers her proudest achievement. “It’s got to be The Really Wild Show.
That’s the programme that’s closest to my heart. It gave me such amazing opportunities to see wildlife all over the world and we touched on so many subjects. Towards the end, we’d started doing hardhitting specials I was incredibly proud of. We looked at the bear bile industry in China, the bush meat trade in Cameroon – we did documentary TV for children and you don’t see much of that these days.”
Time for a confession – I tell her I was one of her devoted childhood fans. “Oh, that makes me feel old! But it’s such a lovely thing to know people enjoyed and remember your work. The best thing is when people come up to say you inspired them. I’m doing a series in South Africa about African penguins and a few of the British volunteers say they’re here because The Really Wild Show got them into animals. You can’t ask for a better legacy.”
*Michaela Strachan’s Really Wild Adventures is at Connaught Theatre, Worthing at 1.30pm today. Call 01903 206206.