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World of Adventure
If your children have started taking a fervent interest in beasts and bugs of late, then Steve Backshall is probably the cause.
Through his daring adventures on the BAFTA-winning CBBC wildlife show Deadly 60, the ever-enthusiastic 39-yearold has become a huge hit with the under-tens. His appeal can be put down partly to his willingness to get up close and personal with snow leopards and tarantulas. But it also has a lot to do with his zeal for his subject – a passion that started long before he got the CBBC gig.
Backshall grew up on a smallholding in Surrey filled with animals and pets. His days were spent climbing trees and catching beetles, milking goats and collecting chicken eggs.
“My parents were totally obsessed with the outdoors and animals and pretty much insisted my sister and I spent our whole childhoods outside.”
His parents both worked for an airline, and family holidays were spent in India and Africa, giving Backshall his taste for travel.
Having been exposed to exotic lands at an early age, when he became an independent traveller, nothing fazed him, he says.
He began his career researching and writing the Indonesian editions of the Rough Guide travel books before he moved into fronting nature documentary shows including Lost Land Of The Volcano, Expedition Alaska and The Really Wild Show.
Being a TV presenter was never on his agenda, he says, he just wanted to travel and work with wildlife. He was originally more interested in print and, indeed, has penned several books on his travels.
Most recently he has written the first of a four-part fiction series for children.
But since moving into TV, he has been grateful to have the practical background he does. “I think it’s essential.
People do work in television and just read scripts the real experts have written for them, but that can’t last. Sooner or later you’d get found out.
Particularly when you go on the road and have thousands of people asking you wildlife questions.”
Tiger Wars is the first in Backshall’s children’s fiction series The Falcon Chronicles.
“I’d had an idea for a chasestyle thriller in mind for nearly a decade,” he says.
“An expedition into the remote kingdom of Bhutan gave me the inspiration for the setting and context.
“The second book isn’t quite finished but begins deep in the forests of Borneo. Our heroes are still on the run but have managed to escape the attentions of the Clan who have been hunting them down. But then the action kicks off all over again!”
As with Deadly 60, a conservation message runs through the books, although Backshall says he isn’t bothered if it goes over the heads of many readers. “The 20% who do take something from it will hopefully want to make a difference.”
Anecdotal evidence suggests Backshall’s message is getting across in his TV programmes.
“It seems to be having a great effect,”
he says. “You can’t hammer the message home too hard or they’ll switch off but as long as the message comes in a sugarsweet coating of action and adventure, they’ll gobble it up!”
That has always been his tactic, to reel viewers in with the story and then subtly suggest they explore the other issues that go with it. And never to talk down to children.
That, he says, is the killer.
“There’s no quicker way to alienate a young audience than to talk to them as if they are a young audience.”
He would love to see more children get better acquainted with the natural world but appreciates it’s not always an easy job. He’s strongly in favour of forest schools, which offer an outdoor education to children from all backgrounds.
“If they can take kids for a morning every month or so, that’s a good start. Even innercity kids could be trundled out to the woods for their first ever wildlife experience.”
Backshall considers himself lucky to have found a career he adores but he will admit he has worked hard for it. Aside from the challenges presented by some of the places he has journeyed to – New Guinea, with its difficult terrain and tribal violence, was one of the most tricky – it is a lifestyle that requires total devotion.
“Unless you’re prepared to sacrifice everything, you’re not going to get anywhere,”
he has said.
It is also physically tough.
Backshall has been stung and bitten by numerous animals.
He had to have stitches after a caiman crocodile clamped its jaws around his leg while he was wading through water in Argentina and, when taking part in a coming-of-age ritual in the Brazilian Amazon, he allowed himself to be bitten by 400 bullet ants. Not that it bothers him. “Considering how demanding, active and physical the job is, the crew and I have sustained remarkably few injuries. It just goes to show that animals really don’t mean us any harm.” One of his most serious injuries took place here in the UK in 2008, when he fell ten metres on to a rock while climbing in the Forest of Dean. Even now, he still suffers problems from the fall.
But he will never be deterred from his passion. He still hankers to travel to Antarctica – “It’s been a bit too expensive for any of the programmes I’ve worked on in the past. Fingers crossed!” – and would like to spend more time studying chimpanzees, one of the creatures that fascinates him most. “Their lives are so complex, their communication so advanced.
They use tools and they have a sinister side to their nature. It’s a bit like looking through a mirror darkly.”
Doesn’t coming home to his quiet rural idyll in Buckinghamshire seem terribly dull after the places he travels to?
“I love coming home. All the wild things we have in this country are massively underrated and very precious to me. I still have much to learn about British wildlife, and still see behaviour, bugs or hear bird songs that I don’t recognise.
“It’s still exciting even after a lifetime living here.”
* A Wild Life – An Audience With Steve Backshall is at Brighton Dome Concert Hall, Church Street, today at 2.30pm and 7.30pm. Call 01273 709709.
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