Michaela Strachan: Born to present children's TV
A new book, a stint on 'Springwatch', and now she gets to meet Kunal Dutta... again
Michaela Strachan and I have history. It started with heartfelt letters (she replied only with signed postcards); then desperate pleas to be her co-presenter (she declined, insisting it could leave her out of a job). And, finally, the meeting. I was 10. She was 24. It was in the Granada TV studios in Manchester – and I had won a singing contest on the Wide Awake Club, the children's show that propelled Michaela to fame.
So, when I get to interview her about her new book, Michaela Strachan's Really Wild Adventures, due out this year, and her stint as the glamorous face of Springwatch, we have a lot to catch up on. But, to my chagrin, she has no recollection of our first star-crossed meeting 23 years ago. At all. "God. Were you really on it?" she asks, bursting into laughter. "That's hilarious. What did you sing?"
"Kylie Minogue," I mutter. "'It's never too late'."
But it is, of course, far too late. Speaking from her home in Cape Town where she lives with her partner and six-year-old son, it is painfully clear that I'm nothing but another childhood fan. She has an army of them. Her impact on my generation left an impression so deep that the band Scouting for Girls wrote an ode to her in 2007 with the lyrics "Michaela Strachan you broke my heart when I was 12". She was relatively unfazed. "The band was more worried about it than I was. All I could think was, did I really mean this much to people?"
From the outset, Strachan seemed made for children's television. She landed her first presenting job on the Wide Awake Club, aged just 19, and quickly became a fixture across the range of children's programming at TV-AM. Flanked by Timmy Mallett's manic eccentricity and Tommy Boyd's schoolteacher demeanour, Strachan could feign unimaginable levels of enthusiasm for just about anything.
Now 46, she despairs at the state of children's TV today. "CBeebies is great, within limits," she says. "Then you get to the likes of Boomerang and, my God, it just morphs into one crappy cartoon after another."
It is a perspective shaped by her son, Ollie, whom she fears is becoming a cartoon addict. "As a parent, you soon realise that to get your child away from the TV you have to create a diversion. But if I am working or looking at emails, he'll just quietly slip away. And an hour later I'll find he's still watching cartoons."
Strachan professes "tremendous sympathy" for young people today. "Kids have so much choice that they don't know where to focus their attention. So much of their entertainment involves sitting around and staring at screens. It's become faceless. The way this manifests itself is that they find it difficult to talk to somebody face to face or share their emotions. When they're dumping boyfriends and girlfriends, they can just do it in a text. And that's really changing them."
For the worse, it seems. "Ours was the Thatcher generation. Ultimately, we were all trying to succeed. There was a work ethic instilled in us. Our parents grew up in the aftermath of the Second World War. They were used to struggle and hardship.
"What you see now is the 'why? generation'. Everything is questioned, rather than obeyed. That's not wrong; it's just made it more difficult."
She has had to endure difficulties of her own. In 2010, her Countryfile co-presenter Miriam O'Reilly sued the BBC for age discrimination. Strachan was among four female presenters who were let go in a shake-up.
But she's more at ease with it all than her peers. "When programmes are not securing ratings, the easiest thing to do is change your presenters. Sometimes, it's nothing more than that. I say, 'thank you Countryfile, you gave me 10 great years...' It's a bit naive to be bitter. But fair play to Miriam. She felt passionately about it; she took them on and she won."
And Michaela is back in the limelight, becoming the face of Springwatch, replacing Kate Humble and reuniting with Chris Packham, with whom she presented The Really Wild Show nearly 20 years ago. The programme, which ends this week, has been well received, with Strachan comfortably taking the reins from Humble.
And, for someone who has had years of being the unassailable object of teenage affection, she is not blasé at all. She even gives me reason not to despair at the time I have waited for our interview. Before it ends, she asks a question: "Is there still a VHS of that show somewhere?"
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