Tiger tale: interview with Steve Backshall
Steve Backshall is Surrey’s very own wild man. Just ask the kids who watch his Deadly 60 show. Catherine Whyte meets him in her own natural habitat ahead of his forthcoming tour
I can’t help but smile. I’m on my way to meet the man who was once National Geographic’s Adventurer in Residence and Eye Of The Tiger, by Survivor, springs onto the radio.
The perfect soundtrack. Steve Backshall has crawled, hiked and swum his way to BAFTA-winning acclaim as the presenter of uber-popular CBBC series Deadly 60. In it, he gets up close and personal with a handful of critters and creatures – some cute, some creepy, some with backbones, some without – but all with one thing in common: a high dose of deadliness.
We meet in a different sort of jungle. My sort of jungle. We are, in fact, in the elegant Covent Garden Hotel to chat about Steve’s imminent nationwide tour which takes in Guildford’s G Live, on July 8.
It’s a far cry from his usual pastures – the only flora and fauna I can see make up the curtain designs. He arrives in a crisp pink shirt, sprightly despite an ankle in cast (to repair an injury incurred some time ago) and an early rise. He’s just appeared on ITV’s Daybreak to promote his new book Tiger Wars, copies of which lie across the table, alongside book plates graffitied with his cartoon-like, anguine autograph.
The Guildford date marks a welcome return home for the man whose love for nature was kindled on the smallholding in Bagshot where he grew up “surrounded by animals from the year dot”, and from which his airline staff parents – he affectionately refers to them as “proper gypsies” – would take him and his sister on family holidays to remote, wild corners of the globe.
“Guildford was quite a large part of my childhood,” he says. “I used to love going to Guildford Lido with my friends. One of my favourite cycles was from Bagshot to Guildford and over the Hog’s Back. My sister lives in Farnham and we still go cycling on the Surrey Hills, which is absolutely beautiful. “
Indeed, meeting Steve in person, there’s no mistaking that well-spoken Surrey accent, which somehow gets diluted by all that on-screen action and adventure. Eloquent and erudite, there’s more to the man than you’d perhaps expect from a CBBC presenter.
“I actually wanted to become a writer. It was the thing I was best at, that I had a passion for,” he explains. “I didn’t really reconnect with my love for biology and wildlife till quite a bit later.”
Surprisingly, he claims that he doesn’t “really have a head for science”.
“It’s been a hard slog going back to studying things at which I’m not massively adept,” he admits.
His backpack, therefore, is usually weighted down with a menagerie of books on the natural world, while his ipod is “full of bird songs and bird identifications”. You could call it essential reading and listening.
“Months and months of work would be totally wasted if we saw a species of bat flying above us and I couldn’t say what it was and talk about it.”
Autodidacticism, for Steve, is a full-time occupation.
“I’m a total obsessive. This is my life inside and out. Every single moment that I have, I am out in the garden rummaging through the leaf litter looking for beetles, or I have my binoculars out looking for birds.”
The feathered kind, presumably. Or perhaps not. At 39, and supremely fit in both senses of the word – Google Steve Backshall and ‘shirtless’ comes high up the list – Steve is still single.
Which is hardly surprising, given his admission that he is married to his work. But at least it is a fertile relationship. He won the BAFTA for Best Children’s Presenter last year and Deadly 60 is now shown in 111 territories across the world.
Just don’t expect any dumbing down on account of the kids.
“People expect that there will be less information, that it’ll be less complex. In fact, the complete opposite is true. Kids will absorb far more facts than adults. The Lost Lands expedition programmes that I also did (broadcast at 9pm) contained infinitely less factual content than this series of Deadly 60.
“What’s different is the tone. Lost Lands is far more serious; it has deliberate gravitas. On Deadly 60 we have more fun.”
Which brings us neatly to Steve’s imminent tour, A Wild Life, in which he’ll recount his escapades in the natural world and make plenty of room for questions from his eager young audience.
Which – revealingly – fills him with fear.
“I’d far, far rather be faced with a six-metre saltwater crocodile than a question from a five-year-old that I can’t answer in front of an audience of people.”
It’s the fourth tour he’s done, but now he has his new book to promote. Tiger Wars is the story of two teenagers thrust into a violent world of gang wars, poachers and assassins on their mission to save some of the world’s most endangered animals
As his first work of fiction, it’s uncharted territory. But why tigers?
“I definitely wanted to do something on them following my trip to Bhutan to film Lost Land of The Tiger, in 2010, but I didn’t just want to write a conservation book. So, I played with an idea that I had going round in my head – this thriller story about two young kids on the run.”
But it was a meeting with tiger conservationist Dr Alan Rabinowitz, from an organisation called Panthera, that really “blew his mind”.
“Alan put the tiger situation so perfectly by crystallizing the problem of conservation versus economics.
“If we can’t save the tiger, possibly the most iconic animal on earth and certainly one of the most loved and beautiful; if you can’t save that animal, what hope do we have for everything else?”
A Wild Life, July 8, Richmond Theatre, call 0844 871 7651 or visit: richmondtheatre.co.uk
Tiger Wars, £9.99, Orion Children’s Books