How Springwatch was sprung

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British TV’s biggest outside broadcast – Wimbledon only lasts a fortnight – ends its 3-week annual stint this evening. The Springwatch team (BBC2, 8pm, Monday through Thursday) was back at the National Trust’s Sherborne estate in Gloucestershire. The ingredients were familiar. Twists, turns and traumas of local wildlife action (a tree-nesting Mandarin duck emerged as a viewer favourite) mingled with reports from farther afield (notably the Shetlan­ds and a former coal mining site in Yorkshire metamorphosed into the RSPB’s Fairburn Ings reserve).

Also tossed into the mix was the presenters’ banter, not least Chris Packham’s musical references: to Michaela Strachan’s horror one evening, he compared the decibel level of the nightingale’s song to ‘The Clash in a bush’.

Springwatch – made by the Bristol-based BBC Natural History Unit (NHU) – is now fourteen years old. It’s become as much a part of our spring as the bluebells, wild garlic, frogspawn and nesting blue-tits. Nestling firmly at the heart of a national conversation about the nation’s nature, references to the show regularly crop up on TV. In 2008, the presenter on Have I Got News for You remarked: ‘I leave you with news that, in Bedfordshire, a fan waits impatiently for the next edition of Bill Oddie’s Springwatch’. The ‘fan’ in question was a badger perched in front of a TV set.

By 2008, Springwatch had already been joined by Autumnwatch, and the audience-driven companion show, Springwatch Unsprung, soon followed. Then came Winterwatch and a host of specials. But success was far from guaranteed. It certainly didn’t mushroom overnight. Exploring the emergence of the force of nature that is Springwatch takes the environmental historian on a fascinating and unpredictable journey. Badgers could almost literally have been the only ones watching.

A few years older than Springwatch is the Festival of Nature. Britain’s largest celebration of the natural world, it’s been held at Bristol’s Harbourside since 2003. Last week, to coincide with Week 2 of Springwatch, we (that’s me and the project researcher, Susie Painter, alongside two other former NHU producers) appeared on the Festival programme.

Our session – ‘How Springwatch was Sprung: The History of a National Institution’ – drew on insights from our interviews with key players involved in the show’s origins and development (including NHU producers Nigel Pope and Fiona Pitcher, as well as cameraman-turned-presenter Gordon Buchanan and presenter Michaela Strachan). Two of our interviewees were on our panel: Stephen Moss, one of Britain’s leading nature writers, broadcasters and wildlife TV producers, who was Springwatch’s original series producer; and Tim Scoones, a freelance consultant in conservation and media innovation who led the Springwatch team for over a decade.

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At the session, our main prop was a 7-foot high ‘Springwatch Family Tree’ poster that graphically illustrated how Springwatch grew from multiple, often unappreciated roots and branched out from a tender sapling in many sturdy but unforeseen directions.

Tim reflected on the evolution of the Springwatch Brand and the Springwatch Community. He discussed the Springwatch Effect and Springwatch’s Legacy. But, as Susie Painter reminded us, it’s easy to forget that British wildlife hadn’t enjoyed a regular slot on British TV twenty years ago. Devoting programmes to gold crests and badgers and weasels rather than lions and tigers and bears (‘oh, my!’) was a dramatic departure.

What’s more, capturing the behaviour of any wild animal, large or small, LIVE, had always offered a mighty challenge. Back in the 1970s, the NHU had tried broadcasts such as Badgerwatch and Foxwatch, that revealed the nocturnal activities of wildlife, live, for the first time.  There was even a mid-1980s show, The Great, Great Tit Watch, which managed to rig up a camera inside a nest box.

The attempt to revive the Unit’s reputation for live broadcasting, as Susie pointed out, was an unexpected by-product of the huge success of its landmark (‘blue chip’) series, Blue Planet (2001) (the subject of previous blogs). Series producer, and former NHU Head, Alastair Fothergill, spotted an opportunity to broadcast live from the ocean depths: Abyss Live went out in 2002.

The show attracted healthy viewing figures and Fothergill and others in NHU’s Development team were intrigued by the opportunities opened up by Big Brother, which had recently launched in the UK. They came up with a wildlife version of a reality TV show, with mini-cameras rigged up across a garden in suburban Bristol.

Wild in Your Garden (2003) built on the Unit’s experience making animal soap operas like Big Cat Diary. It also tapped into an upsurge in interest in UK wildlife demonstrated by series such as Birding with Bill Oddie. During our session at the Festival, Stephen Moss recalled how he was appointed series producer for Wild in Your Garden and brought the former Goodie, Bill Oddie, to a new wildlife audience.

He also explained how these forerunners of Springwatch got around the problem of dependence on animals turning up and actually doing something watchable (summed up by a member of an impromptu focus group wondering who on earth was going to watch ‘badgers doing bugger all’). Wild in Your Garden proved popular enough to get recommissioned for 2004 by BBC2’s Controller, Jane Root.

It was also beefed up from a week to a three-week slot (filling a gap in live broadcasting between the Chelsea Flower Show and Wimbledon). And it received a new title: Britain Goes Wild with Bill Oddie. As our audience at the Festival of Nature could see from the clip we showed from the start of the first episode (and hear from its jaunty title music), everything we’re now so familiar with was effectively in place – everything, that is, bar the title.

When the show got recommissioned for 2005, BBC2 had a new Controller, Roly Keating, who decided to change the name. And the rest is ’welly telly’ history.

Peter Coates and Susie Painter (principal investigator and research associate for ‘New Cultural Producers of Nature’s Value’, a collaboration with BBC NHU)

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