Steve Backshall: Where the wild things are

Raging hippos, angry tigers, killer worms... It's no wonder Steve Backshall's wildlife show Deadly 60 is a jungle-sized hit with the kids. Nick Harding explores why

Tuesday 15 February 2011 01:00 GMT

If you haven't heard of children's natural history series Deadly 60, you have probably been living under a rock. Then again, the probability is that at some point since the programme began 18 months ago your rock would have been lifted up by Deadly 60 presenter, Steve Backshall, in his inexhaustible global search for killer wildlife.

Deadly 60 is to children's wildlife television what Life On Earth was to adult natural history programming – a total game-changer. For the uninitiated, it follows adventurer Backshall as he sets out to far-flung corners of the earth to track and film deadly animals. In each series he finds 60 such creatures. The "deadly" of the title does not solely relate to animals dangerous to humans: as long as they are proficient killers in their own realms, they can be included on Backshall's deadly list. They can be deadly to worms and still make the show. Even seemingly gentle animals like the chameleon are given a deadly makeover that highlights their ability to hunt and kill their prey.

The reality-style filming gives viewers a sense of closeness as they follow Backshall in whichever (usually inhospitable) environment he tackles to find his chosen creature: be it diving in a chain mail suit to film giant Humboldt squid or traipsing through Argentinean marshland to find anaconda snakes.

The format has fired six to 12-year-old imaginations like no show before it – 3.2 million children have watched it; a whopping 66 per cent of the age range. And because of the adventure, modern soundtrack, quick editing and possibly the fact that Backshall frequently takes off his shirt, it has unintentionally achieved the kind of adult viewing figures many non-kids' shows would be jealous of. More than 25 million individuals at one time or another have watched Deadly 60, equating to 44 per cent of the population of the UK.

On a global scale the show has been sold to 18 countries. Spin-off books have become bestsellers, a spin-off series, Live 'N' Deadly, attracted over 90,000 people to 10 live events across the UK and children now collect Deadly 60 trading cards.

The show successfully provides what children expect from nature shows and makes its forebears look archaic. The first natural history series for children was in 1956, a show called Zoo Time which focused on the animals in London Zoo. It was presented by Desmond Morris, with captive animals paraded for the audience. It became famous for its mishaps. On one occasion a venomous cobra escaped during filming and on another a vampire bat escaped and was chased off-camera by a presenter, whose live microphone lead accidentally strangled him, giving horrified viewers listening to the audio feed the impression that he was being attacked by the bat.

In 1962, the BBC launched its own natural history programme for children, Animal Magic. Fronted by the avuncular Johnny Morris, the series featured appearances by regular animals such as Dotty the ring-tailed lemur, who viewers could visit in Bristol Zoo when she wasn't perched lethargically on Morris's shoulder. To present the show Morris dressed in a zoo-keeper's uniform, complete with peaked hat and would interact with the animals by projecting comedy voices onto them; like a ventriloquist with a live dummy.

By 1983, however, his anthropomorphic: "Hello, I'm Mr Giraffe" routine had worn thin and the show was axed. In 1986 the BBC launched The Really Wild Show, hosted by Terry Nutkins, Nicola Davies and Chris Packham.

The show was filmed in front of a studio audience of children and set out with the mission to answer viewer's questions about the animal kingdom. It ran until 2006 and Backshall was one of the presenters during the final series. By then, however, tastes had changed immensely, partly because ground-breaking adult natural history series such as Blue Planet had set such high standards. Children had become much more sophisticated and, with multi-channel TV, the internet and games consoles to access, nature programmes needed to up their game.

Studio-based programmes that showed animals as exhibits out of their natural habitat were outdated. Younger viewers now expect nature to be natural and the lecture style format is no longer an option.

The first word ever uttered by Terry Nutkins on The Really Wild Show was "Shush", as he told the young audience to be quiet. An introduction like that today would have children reaching for the remote control.

When producers began to devise the format for Deadly 60, they knew the show needed to be authentic, exciting, informative and believable.

Head of children's programming at the BBC Natural History Unit Wendy Darke explains: "Johnny Morris was a huge inspiration in his day, but now children have so much more to choose from and the bar is set very high. They are watching everything from Waterloo Road to Top Gear. They have hugely sophisticated benchmarks which we have to hit in terms of production values. And because they are kids, for them it needs to be about show, not tell.

"They crave a sense of experience. They want to know what it is really like to be there with the presenter in the Arctic or in the jungle and what we do with Deadly 60 is to allow the viewer to feel like they are there.

"You never know what is around the corner and we film the show with flexibility. It is not scripted, so we know that if Steve suddenly stumbles on a giant anaconda, we can capture the surprise and shock."

Indeed the cameras were there and rolling last November when, during a hunt for rare anaconda, Backshall stumbled on a caiman (a breed of small crocodile) in swampland and subsequently required hospital treatment for his injuries. He's also been charged by an elephant, stalked by a Bengal tiger and suffered a severe recurrence of malaria in a cave in Papua New Guinea.

He says: "It's hard to pick a favourite moment so far, but seeing a sea eagle pluck a fish out of the water right in front of me, getting chased by a rowdy hippo and having a cobra spit venom into my mouth are things that will stay with me forever."

The show makes no apologies for being entertaining yet, despite the sometimes sensational content and the focus on the featured creature's deadly credentials, conservation is also a strong thread that runs through it. Encouragingly, feedback confirms that child viewers are interested and engaged in the conservation message. A large proportion of the animals filmed for Deadly 60 are on the endangered list and in each series there has been an endangered animal special.

"We look for the opportunity to embed the conservation message in the story without ramming it down the viewer's throat," explains Drake.

"It is our responsibility to share the wider picture that goes beyond just introducing a deadly animal."

When it comes to children and natural history, this fascination with conservation also extends to zoos and the way they present their exhibits. At London Zoo, Sophie Stephenson runs a learning programme attended by 10,000 people - young and old - annually.

She says: "TV has had a major influence on the way children perceive natural history. It has done a remarkable job of bringing the major issues to light. It has made them more aware of things such as conservation and climate change and its effect on wildlife.

"Children's interest in wildlife is as keen today, if not keener, than it has ever been and they crave that access to it. It is compelling to watch children when they encounter an animal they have never seen before for the first time. They are inspired and in awe."

For this reason many of London Zoo's new exhibits are designed with younger visitors in mind.

The newest development, Penguin Beach, which opens in May, is created so children are on the same level as the penguins, allowing them the feeling of proximity that Deadly 60 promotes.

Sociologists have argued that children's lives are becoming disconnected from the natural world as they become increasingly immersed in media. Some even contend that nature films condition children to believe that nature is exotic and inaccessible and dislocates them from the nature which exists in their own gardens.

If the success of Deadly 60 is anything to go by, the sociologists have got it wrong and Steve Backshall is leading a new generation of eager natural history buffs in the same way David Attenborough did before him.

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