Interview: Bill Oddie

Anyone who has witnessed Bill Oddie’s passion for nature, or watched the personable and wonderfully erudite wildlife presenter in action, might be forgiven for thinking that he could never really have been anything else. But such a role was not the natural end of a career that began with comedy sketches in a university amateur drama club. While most young people will recognise Oddie from such well-loved programmes as the BBC’s Springwatch and Autumnwatch, his career is really a tale of two halves, and “the comedy years”, as he laughingly refers to them, made up a considerable period of his life.

He was at Cambridge at the same time as John Cleese and Michael Palin, and later become part of the comedy trio ‘The Goodies’, whose humorous sketches delighted audiences throughout the 70s.

When I mention that ‘The Goodies’ came rather before my time, he admits that the realisation that he is now known predominantly as a wildlife presenter has been “a terrible shock as the years go by. The wildlife bit of it was quite specifically a hobby, and always had been since very young really.” Despite this early fascination with nature, “doing wildlife programs was not an ambition at all, it was an accident, really. I honestly can’t remember the exact details.” Some of his earliest enterprises, however, were Wild Weekends; a series of short episodes set in London, not far from where Oddie was living. “I suppose [these programmes] set off a reputation amongst TV people that I knew something about wildlife. I think it was very important for my confidence, because I’m sure there was a bit of opposition to it in the early days, a certain amount of natural history snobbery – ‘He’s just a comedian, he doesn’t know anything about it.’ It took a long time to get to the greatest hits.”

Once he had made it, though, Oddie was unstoppable. Three series of Birding with Bill Oddie were followed by another three of Bill Oddie Goes Wild, before he achieved arguably his greatest successes with Springwatch and Autumnwatch. I ask if, despite having apparently completed the transition from comedy to wildlife, his skills in the former overlap into the latter. “I think they do a great deal, on all sorts of levels. I think that’s a really good question because I don’t get people recognising that and understanding that quite so much. It’s improvised acting a lot of the time; actually, I sometimes feel that they don’t recognise the strength of that either.”

It’s perhaps his capacity for improvisation that accounts for a self-confessed pet hate in wildlife documentaries. “Nothing pains me more,” he says, gesticulating in exasperation, “than watching clichés, and cliché presenters and cliché voiceovers. If I see a presenter walking towards camera, obviously either reading the words off an autocue, or repeating something that’s actually a script, plus using all the usual natural history gestures, or reporting gestures, I can’t stand it, I get so annoyed about it. Let’s have a bit more originality and relaxation and being genuinely natural.”

At the heart of the individuality that distinguishes Oddie’s style of presentation is his ability to immerse the viewer in the scene. As he puts it, “The birdwatcher is part of the programme.”

One heart-warming anecdote illustrates what he means, “One of the nicest accolades I ever got was a letter from an elderly lady. It said, ‘I’m 80 now, and I’m very much housebound, but last Friday you took me for a walk.’ It was just lovely. And I thought, that little phrase encapsulated an awful lot about the job satisfaction that you can have – you could see exactly what she meant. And I thought, ‘Thank you, that’s as good a review as I can get, because that’s exactly what I’m trying to do.’ I take the camera for a walk, but the camera is you.”

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Perhaps one of his most remarkable successes is the popularisation of bird-watching, helping to erode its associations with eccentric, retired colonels in plus-fours wielding enormous binoculars, or even so-called ‘twitchers’ – people who race up and down the length of the country in order to catch a glimpse of a recently-spotted rare bird. “I think it’s settled down [now] – there are plenty still like that, to be perfectly honest, but I think there’s room for it now. It’s alive and well and why shouldn’t it be, because it’s just people who like birds, and that’s fine!”

But just when everything seemed to be going so perfectly, Oddie was suddenly axed from Springwatch in 2009. Tentatively, I press him about his relationship with the BBC. “That’s always terribly dangerous,” he chuckles. Was he ever given an explanation as to why he was sacked? “‘No, not really. The nearest I got was just a really waffly explanation, ‘It’s a number of things’. I can’t even remember who said it now. But I wasn’t called into a bloody great committee – I wish I had been, in a way, because I’d have had lots of people to cross-question.” One possible reason he puts forward, though, is a crippling paranoia at the BBC following ‘Sachsgate’ the infamous incident in October 2008 when Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross left multiple lewd and offensive messages on the answer machine of actor Andrew Sachs. Following the incident, Oddie claims, anything controversial had to go. “There is no panic,” he says, “like a BBC lawyer’s panic… I’ve always had an abrasive streak, I would own up to that, and I think in that autumn I was more abrasive than usual. Perhaps that had something to do with it.”

But what Oddie was not aware of at the time was that he was in fact suffering from bipolar disorder, or manic depression as it was formerly known. The latter term has become rather non-PC in recent years, but according to Oddie, it provides a rather accurate portrayal of the condition, “Manic depressive – I always thought that was pretty good, because that described what it was! One minute you’re depressed, the next minute you’re jolly.” I ask if it’s something that he’s struggled with all his life. “I mean it didn’t hit me at Cambridge, fortunately, but loneliness was certainly an element. As anybody who’s been to university knows, it’s perfectly possible to be part of a larger institution with thousands of people and still feel incredibly lonely wandering around in the middle of the night thinking, ‘There must be something going on.’ But I was lucky, because I had lots of activities. I had the Footlights stuff, I played a lot of sport, and so on and so forth.”

 

Surprisingly, Oddie believes that his work and his depression are largely unrelated, but that it has in fact contributed to his creativity as a presenter. “The manic side of bipolar can be very creative. It can also be very dangerously over the top. But for a while, it can give you great energy and imagination. I think I was very fortunate that my manic side is not extreme, it’s not dangerous. The plus side is that I can work under pressure and never even think of it as pressure.”

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He is perfectly prepared to admit, though, that he sometimes becomes irritable with people. He has courted controversy in the past with his political views, claiming in an interview last year that the size of British families should be restricted to help control population rise, rather than tougher immigration laws, and calling the British “a terrible race” which he is “ashamed” to belong to. With this, and the large sign on the outside of his house saying, ‘Vote anyone but the Tories (and UKIP and Labour)’ in mind, I ask him what is the most important issue for him in this year’s General Election. His answer is typically robust. “The most important issue is not an issue. It’s a quest, a necessity, and that’s to get rid of the Tories, and get rid of Cameron. It’s been a disastrous couple of years from the wildlife and the real countryside point of view.”

I can sense the agitation building as Oddie expresses his utter contempt for the current state of British politics. “I’ve never known the reputation of politics and those connected with it and those financing it and benefiting from it to be so riddled with lies and corruption in my lifetime. I wouldn’t blame new voters for saying, ‘But I don’t feel I can trust anybody, so maybe I won’t vote at all!’ I don’t know whether that’s a tragic thing either, but I do know that truth comes very high, and of the people I’ve seen talking, it’s perfectly possible that whoever gets in will renege on whatever they were going to do.”

I can tell that a genuine anger lies beneath Oddie’s friendly, slightly avuncular exterior. While vociferous in his opposition to environmental policies such as fox-hunting and the badger cull, he clearly feels a much deeper disillusionment with politics, and the choices available to the country. Oddie’s view of David Cameron is simple: “I just hate the bastard. Nobody’s going to blame people for making a change if a change is obviously required, but please, let’s just have a bit of honesty. And I don’t trust Cameron and his crowd at all. I’m sure there are some good people, but…” He tails off, apparently overcome with sheer exasperation, and after a few seconds looks back up at me, all charm and jolliness again. “You didn’t go to Eton, did you?” Happily, I’m able to reply to the contrary.

Bill Oddie is a fascinating man, whose talents extend far beyond the realms of TV wildlife presentation. His huge success is testament to both his insuppressible passion for wildlife and his strength of character. While his appearances on our screens have become less frequent recently, I am sure that Oddie will not be leaving the public spotlight any time soon.

Bill Oddie is speaking at a documentary-making conference at St Hilda’s College on Saturday 16th May. For more information and tickets visit www.st-hildas.ox.ac.uk/st-hildas-documentary-making-conference-16-may-2015.