Chris Packham: a man for our times

Chris Packham: a man for our times

By Caroline Frost,
Tuesday, 29th August 2023
Chris Packham in Earth (credit: BBC)
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He is often called the new David Attenborough but Caroline Frost finds there is a lot more to Chris Packham than being a naturalist and eco campaigner

Chris Packham is freshly angry. On the afternoon we speak, he has spent the last few hours protesting at the Government’s announcement of 100-plus new North Sea oil and gas drilling licences, a policy he describes as “a dark day for life on earth”.

While he has vehemently criticised the plans, Packham stops short of joining in the personal attacks on the Prime Minister. He explains: “It would be very tempting for me to send a tweet to Rishi Sunak saying I’m not too impressed with his announcement today. But I don’t attack individuals, I will question government policy. I’m constantly on the receiving end of those sorts of personal attacks. They’re not helpful. Rishi Sunak is symbolic, he’s the leader of the moment, the problems we’re facing are not solely his to solve.”

Like some other BBC luminaries not shy of speaking out on political matters, Packham walks the tightrope between obeying his conscience and adhering to the broadcaster’s impartiality requirements. How does he manage to navigate this?

“I’m generous and polite about when and how I campaign,” he begins with his customary thoroughness. “I work in constant contact with the BBC. Whenever there’s a source of conflict, real or imagined, coming up, I let them know so they’re not caught off guard by the fact that I’m going to do or say something that could be perceived as a conflict of interest. 

“I’m a fan of the BBC’s impartiality, so I work to protect it. I’m conscious of that and do everything I can not to come into conflict. Every now and again, some mischief is made that breaks through” – he cites the “right-wing press” as well as his many trolls on social media – “or sometimes I make a mistake, but relatively few and I’m quite practised.

“It’s about communication and mutual understanding. Plus, I focus my campaigning solely on environmental issues. I campaigned vociferously against HS2, but on environmental grounds. There are plenty of other grounds to protest, but I don’t talk about those aspects, I stick to one field.”

For producer Joe Myerscough, who has worked with Packham on two recent series, Chris and Meg’s Wild Summer (2021) and this year’s Inside Our Autistic Minds, such passion is what he believes audiences want, even if it does cause the BBC a few headaches. “If you’re making a programme about the environment, viewers want presenters who will fight for the environment. You want Jeremy Clarkson to care about cars, you want Chris Packham to care about badgers.”

Chris Packham in Earth (credit: BBC)

Packham has been talking about badgers on our screens for nearly 40 years, following his 1986 debut on The Really Wild Show, where his Billy Idol bleached tips and passion for nature made him a distinctive presence for the next decade. Michaela Strachan joined the team in 1993. She remembers being initially quite intimidated: “I didn’t think he would like me. I’d come from Wide Awake Club and he was ex-punk. He liked The Clash, I liked Kylie Minogue. Amazingly, we hit it off. When you travel the world filming, you have life-changing experiences and they bind you. We would stay up late, have quite a lot to drink and an enormous laugh. He was quite a party animal.

“As the years have gone by, we’ve kept that bond. Chris isn’t the easiest of people to have as a very good friend because he’s complex, but the bond is still there.”

Since those days of hard partying and hedgehogs, Packham has channelled his love and knowledge of our planet into hundreds of programmes. Many label him the natural successor to David Attenborough, a view given yet more credence with the new BBC Two blockbuster Earth, where his passion and authority for the subject matter – a guide to “five pivotal moments” in our planet’s history – is much in evidence.

But there is more to Packham the broadcaster than nature films. In 2017, he turned the camera on himself, exploring his experience as a high-­functioning person with autism in Chris Packham: Asperger’s and Me, and this year saw him revisit the subject in the brilliant Inside Our Autistic Minds, a project he found both tiring and rewarding. “It’s quite challenging. I’m trying to be an ambassador for autistic people, I’m trying to make a decent piece of TV, and manage myself. It’s a three-way job. It was reaffirming. I got to think, ‘It’s not just me.’

“[Autism] can be isolating and lonely and meeting someone who totally gets it, the connection is there, which you don’t get with neurotypical people. The overall mission was to give the audience a broader understanding of the aspects, both difficult and advantageous.

“The public response has been overwhelming. An enormous number of people have come up to me and said thank you, saying it had changed their perception of someone they knew.” He laughs. “Nobody ever asks about Springwatch.”

For the crew around him, too, working with Packham has been an eye-opener. Myerscough is used to the presenter’s requests to have breakfast alone, sit in the same seat in the car between shoots, and to dispense with the need for any chit-chat. “Chris has no interest in small talk and that’s really refreshing,” he tells me. “You’ll phone him up and he’ll just start talking about the thing in question – there’s no time wasted.”

Sir David Attenborough and Chris Packham in Winterwatch (credit: BBC)

Packham says such confidence has come only relatively recently, and certainly post-diagnosis. “I’m far more outward when it comes to working with people, what suits me and what will benefit them. My requests may seem trivial, but they’ll soon come to realise, sitting in the same seat in the car, being allowed to get on with my laptop and not partake in small talk, is the best way of getting Chris Packham to do a good job for them.”

For sure, broadcasters are queueing up to work with him, including Alf Lawrie, Head of Factual Entertainment at Channel 4, who commissioned Is It Time to Break the Law?, a documentary exploring the issues posed by the title’s question due to air this month.

For Lawrie, Packham was the natural choice to front such a piece: “He has a deep understanding of the natural world, which is increasingly getting entangled in politics. He’s someone who is fearless, a deep thinker, so that’s why we commissioned him.”

Inevitably, such a huge workload, while battling climate sceptics and managing his autism, takes its toll. Strachan admits she worries “about his mental health, and that he pushes it too far. I don’t know how he copes with the haters, he has people who absolutely worship him but also people who hate him. He gets fuelled by people who don’t like him and dis­agree. But he takes on such a lot and there’s no proper balance.”

"I just despise it... I would have sport removed from BBC News"

Packham agrees he “no longer has the luxury of reading a novel”, but finds distraction in film – “I’ll watch sequences from Pacific Rim or Transformers with the sound down, the stories are terrible” – or any TV on art, including Fake or Fortune?: “I can be in the kitchen doing some work, and Fiona’s there with Philip Mould and they’re unravelling some story where someone’s found a Picasso in their kitchen cupboard.”

A query into any love of sport, though, brings a swift shake of the head. “I just despise it, I’m afraid. The football World Cup went to Qatar and now players are moving to Saudi Arabia. The underlying principles of sport are noble, ancient, valuable, but it’s all just got corrupt. If I had a magic wand and could change one thing, I would have sport removed from BBC News. It’s not news, and a disproportionate amount of time is given to the trivia of sport.

“All of these things are peripheral. If you want to watch Match of the Day, you can watch Match of the Day, but I don’t want my daily news reduced by the amount of time given to something essentially unimportant in the grand scheme of things.”

If Packham is in danger of saying goodbye as furious as when we said hello, solace is at hand. I ask about his dogs, Sid and Nancy – two black Miniature Poodles, in the tradition of his previous pooches, Itchy and Scratchy – and, immediately, he smiles.

“My greatest predictable joy is taking them for a walk in the wood. I call them my joy grenades because, every time I let them off the lead, they explode with joy. Sometimes they run and I just start laughing and smiling and crying. They’re so happy, it makes me happy.”