Bill Oddie: The twitchfinder general

They don't mind that he gets grumpier and scruffier with each passing year. They've even forgiven him for doing the Funky Gibbon. The more he gets up the noses of the smart, metropolitan elite, the more the public love him and the more they'll want his quirkiness rewarded
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Only the owls have been uncooperative. In a part of Devon apparently teeming with barn owls, just one has so far deigned to show its feathery face in the specially-rigged-up owl box featured on the BBC's Britain Goes Wild with Bill Oddie. Seconds later, even he was gone. But the viewers have come in droves.

Only the owls have been uncooperative. In a part of Devon apparently teeming with barn owls, just one has so far deigned to show its feathery face in the specially-rigged-up owl box featured on the BBC's Britain Goes Wild with Bill Oddie. Seconds later, even he was gone. But the viewers have come in droves.

In early summer schedules packed with reality TV action from both kitchen and bedroom, the ex-Goodie's live wildlife marathon has proved the surprise hit of the season. On the first night of its three-week run, the show set a record for the 8pm slot on BBC2 with viewing figures of 3.4 million (one million more than Channel 4 at the same time) and, despite the soaps on offer elsewhere, the numbers have kept up ever since.

So when, exactly, did the man who penned the sadly memorable refrain "Goodie Goodie Gum Gum" turn into the nation's favourite and most unlikely celebrity twitcher?

Famously, Oddie is one of just three subjects to have turned down Michael Aspel's This is Your Life red book, and he has often eschewed the traditional conventions of luvvie-ish celeb behaviour. As he gets older - he'll be 63 next month - he appears to get grumpier. Disapproving tuts accompanied his acceptance last year of an OBE (for "services to wildlife conservation") dressed in an open-necked camouflage shirt and a rumpled grey jacket, as though he might be planning to hide in the bushes and whisper a running commentary on The Queen's favourite corgis. "The Goodies were sending up OBEs for years," he said somewhat ungraciously (though not to The Queen herself). "I've already got half a dozen of them because we were always awarding them to each other."

Yet, by common consent his own OBE was well earned, and the public perception of him as a force for good means further royal approbation can't be ruled out. Oddie is a committed conservationist and environmentalist, say the wildlife and ornithological charities to which he lends his name. It goes without saying that they would rather have the more charismatic Sir David Attenborough as a patron or spokesman, but it is Oddie's common touch, rather than an encylopaedic knowledge, that they particularly value. Oddie hero-worships Attenborough and once, realistically if rather bizarrely, assessed their respective qualities in terms of top-shelf soft porn: "In wildlife, David Attenborough is Playboy to Bill Oddie's Readers' Wives."

Oddie or oddball, to anyone over the age of 30 he will forever be a former Goodie. Bill met Tim Brooke-Taylor and Graeme Garden at Cambridge University, where all three were active members of Footlights. In 1962 Brooke-Taylor was the drama society's treasurer, John Cleese the registrar, and Humphrey Barclay and Trevor Nunn members of the script committee. Oddie acted, and provided the music - all the while honing a deep-rooted daft streak and a facility for mimickry that he and his comedy pals later brought to Radio 4 in the cult strand I'm Sorry I'll Read That Again. It was Oddie's job to sing a silly song in the middle of Isirta (as it was known) and to sign off with a nonsensical ditty called "Angus Prune", but the programme's most influential sketch featured John Cleese and Jo Kendall as respectable but dysfunctional couple John and Mary - the forerunner of Basil and Sybil Fawlty.

In 1970s vocabulary, the Goodies, often pictured on a three-seater bicycle or running from a giant kitten (Kitten Kong), were "madcap" and "wacky", in the days when those terms were a recommendation: a visual version of The Goons perhaps. Nowadays, the programme is often dismissed as adolescent and unfunny, a kind of Monty Python Lite. The BBC has steadfastly refused to repeat any of the 45 episodes that aired between 1970 and 1980, yet its silliness may have played a part in influencing fashionable modern comics such as Vic Reeves and The League of Gentlemen. A number of hit singles by the Goodies, "The Funky Gibbon" for example, invite speculation as to where exactly the British public mislaid its brain 30-odd years ago.

Oddie's politics have not softened over the years, however. The vaguely political and satirical parts of The Goodies tend to be forgotten, but they were there - if lacking in subtlety. One sketch featured a regime called Apart-Height, where short people were segregated from the rest of society, and another a Christmas Eve on which the threesome waited for the world to be blown up on the orders of the government. Oddie has often called himself a pacifist and is a passionate Green. In a recent interview, he described both George Bush and Tony Blair as a danger to the long-term future of the human race: "The situation worldwide is that bad: with people like that in power, we don't stand a chance in the long run." In The Goodies he regularly assumed the character of a scruffy anarchist. His politics have been sufficiently apparent this week for him to have riled both Jeremy Clarkson - for his opposition to the building of a new airport (and also, evidently, for his "preposterous shorts") - and The Spectator, for his preference for placing birds on a higher pedestal than fish.

Oddie was born in Rochdale but grew up in Birmingham, where he took up bird-watching as an escape from an uncomfortable family life. His mother was schizophrenic and "virtually absent from my childhood", he has said. "She only features in a series of bizarre memories, like coming home when I was six and finding the kitchen crockery broken and blood all over the place. My mother had just turned up and attacked my dad."

He has admitted suffering mental health problems himself, perhaps belying the energetic and limitlessly enthusiastic persona he projects on TV. In 2000, Oddie checked himself into a psychiatric hospital for treatment for clinical depression. "There wasn't any way I could carry on. I could barely talk for a few days. I just ended up going to bed all the time." As the making of 2002's live wildlife series Bill Oddie Goes Wild came to an end, he suffered a brief relapse, and has spoken of his fears of a further recurrence. Viewers can't have failed to notice that on screen this restless soul is twitchy to the point of near-tetchiness when the programme's focus drifts from the

serious contemplation of the natural world. Yet work and a busy family life appear to keep his demons at bay. Oddie has three daughters: Bonnie, a dancer, and the actress Kate Hardie by his first wife Jean Hart, a former Sale of the Century hostess; and 17-year-old Rosie by his second wife Laura Beaumont, with whom he writes books and comedy dramas for children. Earlier this year, he presented a daytime quiz show for the BBC called History Hunt - while Tim Brooke-Taylor and Graeme Garden co-hosted Channel 4's daytime quiz show Beat the Nation. Neither programme featured any discernable trace of humour.

It's claimed that in the wake of Oddie's wildlife and bird-watching shows, with or without an elusive barn owl, RSPB membership surges. Oddie is like an eccentric and obsessive uncle who comes to visit once a year and drags the entire family out into the countryside with a pair of binoculars and a copy of Peter Scott's Morning Flight. This is probably good for us, however. In an increasingly unpredictable man-made world, we seem to feel the need to return to nature once in a while and breathe a lungful or two of clean, fresh air. Britain Goes Wild has been less reality TV than reality-check TV. If you're going to watch live pictures of animals, you might as well get the real thing after all.