INTERVIEW: Steve Backshall on new series Fierce and whether Strictly was scarier than the world’s most dangerous animals
BAFTA Award winning TV naturalist Steve Backshall is a household name and national treasure, thanks to his work in children’s television. A generation of children grew up sharing Backshall’s infectious enthusiasm for animals, and now he’s back to make his mark on adults watching ITV at prime time this Tuesday.
In Fierce, Backshall will explore the world in search of some of the planet’s fiercest animals. In six epic adventures to Guyana, Mexico, Namibia, Indonesia, Australia and South Africa, he’ll be getting up close and personal with the world’s most venomous snake, the extraordinary Komodo Dragon and even the notorious honey badger.
We were lucky enough to sit down for a chat with Backshall in London ahead of the premiere of Fierce this Tuesday at 8pm, in which we talked about Fierce, Britain’s fear of the wild and whether he thought the Strictly judges were scarier than the planet’s more fearsome animals.
We’ve seen the Fierce and it looks pretty tough. How dangerous is it filming the show, especially during the night shoots?
A lot of what I do is try to make sure that’s it’s not dangerous. I’ve been working with animals for a long, long time and I know what the limits are and I try not to push those limits. I try to stay well within them – that’s the aim. And the crews that I’m used to dealing with are very much the same – they work with wildlife too, so we know what the rules are, we know what the limits are.
I’d say a really really hefty portion of what I do is working at night because in a lot of environments that’s where everything comes to life. That’s when everything gets up and starts moving around and starts going out and hunting. There are different challenges, but not necessarily different dangers.
How dangerous is it for the actual people living in those regions themselves would you say?
This is very very difficult for a British audience to come to terms with and it’s something I really hope people get out of these programmes. We have this overpowering fear of the wild. Going to places where people live with crocodiles in the river at the bottom of their garden, where they live with the most venomous snakes, the most venomous spiders – people don’t think that way. They have a totally different view of nature and wildlife than we do, particularly living in cities.
The statistics show there is no comparison: if you go a place where there are 5-metre-long crocodiles in every river, it is nothing like as dangerous as the cars are on the streets of London. The people that live there know that. They know what the limits are, they know what the rules are, they know how to live within those limits and those rules and they see it as kind of an inevitable consequence of living where they do. It’s quite refreshing.
We meet people who have been bitten, who have been stung, and then at the end of it are just kind of like, ok well I’ll make sure I don’t do that again. They don’t hate the animals, they don’t want to destroy them or get rid of them. They don’t overstate or overemphasise their danger, like we do here in this country. You know if someone gets bitten by a false widow spider and all of a sudden it hits the headlines – this venomous spider’s going to leave its web and savage us and your arms are going to fall off – you know, a lot of that is to do with the fact that we’ve become so detached from nature here. We’ve lost sense of what the reality of it is.
Are you ever scared for your life on expeditions?
Yeah, lots, but it’s very rarely from animals. People expect that they’re the things that are going to be most frightening to us – it really isn’t. It’s things like rock fall, it’s things like weather, it’s very often people. Coming back from a big expedition going to a big city and being held up at gunpoint. Having a car crash or being caught in a riot. People are so much more frightening than animals could ever be.
Where was your favourite place to visit on Fierce?
My favourite one was Indonesia. We went to the Komodo National Park, which is a really special place both above and below the water. Below the seas you have this extraordinary abundance of marine life [with] fabulous diversity. Many of the creatures there – despite the fact I’ve probably filmed there six or seven times – I’d never seen before. On land, you’ve got the world’s largest lizard, this three metre long dinosaur just walking up and down the beaches. It’s an incredible place.
You do a lot of travelling on the show – it must be exhausting. Do you actually stay out in the wild?
Of course. So for example with the Guyana programme, there’s this one big city in Guyana called Georgetown and then it was a chartered flight of several hours, and then a river journey of nine hours to get to where our base camp was. You can’t come back and go to a hotel at night, because that would be three hours of travel.
What’s your favourite animal experience this series?
I would say my favourite animal experience on this series was we came across a king cobra in the act of eating another snake. Absolutely unbelievable. We sat and watched for two hours while this huge venomous snake killed and then ate whole another snake. That’s a once in a lifetime thing.
Talking about the animals you’ve seen on this series, the honey badger has got this recent internet fame for being crazy. Would you say that’s justified?
Yeah, god absolutely. The Guinness Book of Animal Records lists the honey badger as being the most aggressive animal on the planet. This is a creature that’s no bigger than our own badger in this country, but has been seen driving lions away from their prey just purely through their attitude. I’m not suggesting for a millisecond that they’re dangerous to us as human beings, of course they’re not, but in their world it is the fiercest animal out there.
What animal would you say was the fiercest in Britain?
Good question. The stoat is in the same family as the honey badger and has the ability to take on a rabbit that might be three or four times it’s weight, kill it and then drag it away over logs and stones and sometimes over small walls and things. They are absolutely fierce.
What tips would you give to those who would like to do what you do?
What I would do is start off by studying science. I would study biology, I would go on to study marine biology or zoology at university. I would volunteer and work for every wildlife and conservation charity you can get hold of, like go and work for your local wildlife refuge.
More than anything it’s a state of mind, it’s a state of inquisitiveness about wanting to find out everything about what you see outside in the natural world. It’s about going for a walk and hearing a birdsong and thinking what bird made that and what is it saying? It’s about seeing an animal you haven’t seen before and going back and finding out everything about it. That is the main key I think to getting to do something like what I do.
What was more scary, coming face to face with scary animals on Fierce or having to face the judges on Strictly Come Dancing?
The first week of Strictly was quite scary, because I’d never danced a step before and I didn’t know if I was genuinely going to humiliate myself in front of every person I’d ever met, because it’s a big show – it has a huge viewing in this country. After the first week, when I knew where I was going to be – I knew I wasn’t going to be one of the ones that was competing to win it, I knew I wasn’t going to be one of the people who was out in ignominy in week two – I enjoyed it. It was good fun. So it certainly wasn’t as scary as a hippo.
If you were to do a second series of Fierce, where would you like to go?
Botswana is fantastic. We didn’t get there this time, but the Okavango Delta in Botswana is an absolute hotspot for wildlife. We didn’t actually go to the Amazon, we went to Guyana, which is to the North of the Amazon but it’s not actually in the Amazon Basin itself. We didn’t do anything north of Mexico, so we didn’t do anything in Alaska, which is probably the world’s greatest wildlife hotspot. There is an endless list of places we could go to.