Chimps are only the beginning

The BBC has found its new David Attenborough, high on enthusiasm and whispers. Unlike him, she's qualified. Oh, yes, and she's beautiful.
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The Independent Online

Twenty-two years ago the nation watched with bated breath as David Attenborough crouched deep in the jungle for his face-to-face encounter with the gorillas of Rwanda. It was a classic TV moment, the culmination of the celebrated series Life on Earth. It is now a memory of which the BBC's Natural History Unit is justifiably proud. Last Wednesday, the first of the Bristol-based unit's new three-parter on primates, Cousins, saw the BBC revisiting that same gorilla family group. This time, though, the safari-suited, silver-haired Attenborough was replaced with the dark good looks of 33-year-old Charlotte Uhlenbroek.

Twenty-two years ago the nation watched with bated breath as David Attenborough crouched deep in the jungle for his face-to-face encounter with the gorillas of Rwanda. It was a classic TV moment, the culmination of the celebrated series Life on Earth. It is now a memory of which the BBC's Natural History Unit is justifiably proud. Last Wednesday, the first of the Bristol-based unit's new three-parter on primates, Cousins, saw the BBC revisiting that same gorilla family group. This time, though, the safari-suited, silver-haired Attenborough was replaced with the dark good looks of 33-year-old Charlotte Uhlenbroek.

As with Attenborough, the gorilla sequence saw Dr Uhlenbroek prowling through the undergrowth speaking in hushed tones. Like him, she could barely contain her excitement as she encountered the animals. All spangly eyes and adrenaline-rushed, she whispered: "This is the most fantastic moment of my life ... I can't believe I'm sitting here." But this time it was the BBC that was waiting with bated breath. It was BBC1's first prime-time showcase for the woman it is heralding as "the rising young star of the BBC Natural History Unit".

It can probably breathe a sigh of relief already, for before the first programme even went on air, a small Rwandese forest's-worth of wood appears to have been pulped for articles in the tabloids about her photogenic qualities.

Uhlenbroek is flattered to be compared to the "fantastic role model" she first bumped into when working as a programme researcher in the unit after graduating from Bristol University ("I met him very briefly outside a studio and was completely tongue-tied"). But she is clear: "I don't think there will ever be another David. He's in a class of his own."

Although she is, she says, excited by her media success, it is also all rather overwhelming. She had never even dreamed of a career in television. Which is not surprising; a globe-trotting childhood saw her first properly acquainted with the medium as a teenager. "It's very strange," she comments. "People on television are just so far away and it's beyond what you can imagine. David inspired a couple of generations, globally, and changed people's view of wildlife. I always thought I'd like to go and see that, but I never thought I'd like to go and present that."

However, presenting is what for the past few years she has been gently groomed for. In an era of declining audience figures, it is an important role. Ten years ago, the 43-year-old Natural History Unit - acclaimed for series such as The World About Us and Wildlife on One, as well as the Life on Earth trilogy - made significant profits. The advent of the multi-channel world and the increasing costs of technology have changed all that. Though its productions still sell all around the world, the unit operates more on a break-even basis today.

As Keith Scholey, head of the unit, says: "There's no doubt that it's now tougher to get an audience with natural history. Clearly audiences are important to us. If you think a format using a presenter will make a programme more attractive then that is part of what we're here to do.

"The potential value of a successful presenter is enormous. Increasingly the public wants to have that personal experience with wildlife, to have that feeling of what it's like to be there. Ten years ago that wasn't the case."

But, he insists, this is not a case of dumbing down. "You can elevate a programme if you use the right presenter, if you use one with authority and knowledge of a subject."

Hence the alacrity with which the unit has jumped on the not only personable, beautiful and enthusiastic, but also well-qualified, newcomer. Uhlenbroek is the daughter of an English mother and a Dutch UN agricultural adviser. At 10 days old she moved to Ghana. When she was five years old she went to Nepal, when 14 to Tanzania. She has been a wildlife fanatic from her earliest years and, from bringing home stray animals as a child, went on to study for a first degree in zoology and psychology. Her first brush with the media world came after university when, finding her letters to scientists in the field were met with pleasant but negative responses, she took the research position at the Natural History Unit.

"I remember thinking it would be quite fun to produce natural history programmes and go down that line," she says, "but I also knew I was hankering to get out and study animals in the wild. That was my real passion." It was in the course of television research that she learnt that the great primatologist, Jane Goodall, whom she had met by chance when she was 15, was looking for graduates to work in Burundi. "I literally jumped at it. I left my pint on the table and went and phoned her. It was one of those classic right-time, right-place moments."

So Uhlenbroek went to Burundi, helped set up a conservation and research project, and from there, having secured funding from the Leakey Foundation, went to Gombe, Tanzania, where she started collecting data for her PhD. While in Gombe, various film crews passed through, and on a couple of wildlife productions she worked as scientific advisor. But it was back in Bristol, while writing up The Functional Significance of Panthoots in Conflict and Co-operation between Adult Chimpanzees in Gombe National Park, that an old contact offered her the opportunity to appear on screen.

She was asked to appear on a chimpanzee programme in the Natural History Unit's Dawn to Dusk series. The brief TV appearance impressed Sara Ford, talent strategist at the unit. Ford's trawls of people in the field - scientists, camera people with a natural history bent, those working with wildlife - revealed that not all specialists have what it takes to engage the public. "The thing that separates Charlotte is her ability to talk about scientific subjects in a way that makes them easily accessible. That's a real art."

Uhlenbroek was asked to present BBC2's Chimpanzee Diary, as part of Animal Zone, which Ford describes as the perfect series to break in potential talent.

"That programme had an informal approach. Charlotte talked about the behaviour and relationships of the chimps but only turned to talk to the audience at times. It was a nice way of getting an inexperienced presenter used to the camera, and it gave her confidence."

Uhlenbroek was now well and truly spotted. Audience research confirmed Ford's gut feeling: "Even though Charlotte was not hugely experienced, there was a great respect for her. The audience knew she was for real. OK, she looked completely gorgeous but that didn't seem to deflect. She had credibility."

And that is the nub. Apparently, the BBC's core natural history audience can spot a fake at a glance. Uhlenbroek herself is aware of the difficulties of combining science with presenting. Right from the start, she says, the most important consideration was "what is Jane [Goodall], or the others who researched alongside me in Gombe, going to think?"

She says: "There can be a danger in simplifying issues, but there's no reason why science can't be fun and accessible. There might be a reluctance among some scientists to talk about their subjects in simple language because they feel it devalues it, but I firmly believe you can do it. I'd be the first to be upset if we got something wrong."

And she says she has encountered no professional jealousy: "I guess there's a certain realism that I am aware of, that it helps if you're an attractive face. But that isn't the primary reason for having me. If they just thought 'Charlotte doesn't know what she's talking about', there would be a reason for them to be jealous or snooty."

There are obvious parallels to be drawn with Charlie Dimmock, the gardener who became not only an inspiration but also a pin-up for wannabe green-fingered types. Groundforce director and producer John Thornicroft says it was a combination of Dimmock's expertise, commitment and complete disregard for the camera that convinced him she'd be ideal for his programme. He confesses: "It's terrible to say, but attractive people are nice to look at and on TV you have to look at them for half an hour."

Perhaps even more refreshingly, Dimmock and Uhlenbroek are more concerned with communicating a subject than correcting a camera angle. As Thornicroft delicately says: "Some, how shall I put it, 'personalities', can be a little difficult to work with."

Everybody testifies as to how delightful it is to work with Uhlenbroek, who describes herself as a private person with "quite an ordinary life really".

The next two years will see her to-ing and fro-ing between Bristol and the wild as she works on the Natural History Unit series, Talking to Animals. And the unit has plans for her beyond that, too. Now taking in the wildlife on a holiday in Alaska, Uhlenbroek hopes to return to research at some stage. "It's very gratifying that people are complimentary," she says, "but I don't want to get to the stage where I feel I'm upstaging the wildlife."

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