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CHEEP THRILLS ON CHANNEL 4
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Bryan Nelson - aka "Gannet Man" - took his wife on a birdwatching expedition to the Bass Rock in the Firth of Forth. They lived in a shed with only hundreds of thousands of sea birds and the birds' pungent guano for company. For three years. Greater love hath no woman.

Bryan is just one of the avian addicts featured in Wings, an eight-part series on British birds and birders made for Channel 4 in association with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. But aren't twitchers just like trainspotters?

Mark Galloway, Channel 4's commisssioning editor for education and the man responsible for this series, answers with an emphatic "no". "Some people think that birdwatchers are anoraks," he concedes. "But I don't think anybody who previously sneered will continue to after seeing this series. Why shouldn't we all be able to indulge our hobbies if they reflect our childlike side? Why should we repress that?

"Look at Bryan Nelson," Galloway continues. "You can't help but admire his passion and his ability so devotedly to follow his enthusiasm. It's absolutely infectious. You engage with his passion and want to sense it yourself. You don't think, `He's crazy'."

The series also enables us to get closer to nature without leaving our own sitting-rooms. "The real countryside is disillusioning," argues Simon Normanton, the producer/director of Wings. "With television, you're shaking hands with a badger. In the countryside, the only badger you'll ever see is a squashed pile in the road. We romanticise the countryside; we'd like it to be as it no longer is."

Wings certainly flaps in with some marvellous fly-on-the-nest-wall scenes, drawn from the RSPB's 400-hour library of footage. "It's like seeing a holiday programme," Normanton says. "One imagines oneself there. It's prying. The things the birds get up to in the breeding programme make Neighbours look tame." Indeed, trying to keep up with the promiscuity of, say, the sand martin would leave most soap characters completely bushed.

The other thing in Wings' favour is that it lets its twitchers do the talking. "Without being derogatory to David Attenborough," Normanton observes, "natural history on television tends to be presenter-led. It's purist - they stick a camera up the animal's nostril and ordinary people get left out. But we don't need David Attenborough. People can tell their own stories. "

People, in fact, like Mike Bayliss, an amateur birder and the star of "Making Chicks", the first programme in the series. By his own admission, after 20 years of studying the blighters, he is "hooked on cuckoos".

He waxes lyrical about his hobby. "When we get away from the office and from cars into nature, we get back to basics. We lose a lot in our modern culture. By researching wildlife - not from a scientific, but from a spiritual angle - we get a deeper feeling for our planet."

He hopes the series will inspire viewers to get the bird bug. "I'd like to think that people will look at it and think `Those people are just amateurs. I could go out with a pair of binoculars and a notepad and add something.' It's not all stitched up by labs in Oxford and Cambridge. If people want to get off the motorway, there is a whole boxful of eye- openers out there."

`Making Chicks', the first part of `Wings' starts Tuesday at 8pm on Channel 4

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