As another Springwatch tramps its muddy green Wellingtons through our living rooms, kettles across the land are left to boil dry as debates rage about the sex lives of garden slugs. Yet all is not well in the world of chirping chicks and reluctant badgers. Spring has come late this year and BBC producers are burning the midnight biofuel to rewrite the usual narrative of sex, eggs, chicks, grubs, moulting, beaks out the nest, and then the inevitable being gobbled up by a carnivorous squirrel during the season finale. Still only early into this year’s run, she show has already proved to be one for horror fans. Three weeks of cooing over baby dunnocks was cut short on Tuesday night by the arrival of a weasel, clearly in the pay of ITV, who entered the nest and gave throat to all five innocents. Thankfully, Michaela Strachan was on hand to talk us through it with all the savoir-faire of Jay Rayner eyeing a continental cheese buffet.
The message of this year’s show has been that Spring has come late. We’re told that, had it been a typical Spring, the baby dunnocks would have been bigger and wouldn’t have gone down the weasel’s throat without a good fight. Yet this is not the first time that nature has been out of kilter. Last year it was heavy rain that troubled the team and regular viewers will already have begun to wonder what is happening to our seasons. Some talk about global warming whilst others about a new ice age. Both might be right. I’m only here to present my theory that we’ve not had a decent Spring since the BBC pointed Bill Oddie in the direction of the potting shed.
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Call me alarmist but I suspect that we might have mistreated one of the ancient gods of the forest. Would it be too much of a stretch to see Oddie as the modern incarnation of Pan, the hirsute sax playing lord of mischief and high-pitched giggling? After all, it was Oddie who made this style of freeform wildlife television popular and his inexplicable loss from the show surely remains as significant as any late Spring or unseasonably heavy rain. It’s now twelve seasons since Oddie hosted Autumnwatch 2009 and there definitely remains an imbalance in nature.
Chris Pekham said the other night, and I’m paraphrasing, that ‘there is no cruelty in nature’. In other words: nature is by its very nature just nature. It knows no pity. A weasel will rip into a dunnock chick’s throat without a second thought and that is pretty much how I imagine it’s like working for the BBC. It’s never been properly explained why Oddie received the weasel treatment in 2010 but his presence still looms large over the show. It sometimes feels like there’s a shadow on the sofa where Bill Oddie should still be sitting instead of touring shopping centres flogging millet.
Now, I know that some people considered Oddie to be one of nature’s blights and were glad to see him go but they were the kind of people to whom it is probably best not to listen. They complained at his occasional saucy remark. They wanted their wildlife clean, safe, devoid of smutty innuendo about rutting beetles (a line I can never write without wanting to make a joke about Ringo Starr). But isn’t that what nature is all about? To dislike Oddie is to deny the very thing that makes nature so fascinating. It’s not even his great enthusiasm I love as much as his wonderful indifference to the rules. He is a fertility god in dwarf form and, as his recent spoof nature documentary highlighting HSBC’s funding of the desecration of forests reminds us, he still has more edge than any thousand graduates of the BBC’s school of bland presenters.
Meanwhile on Springwatch, they keep telling us that ‘the wildlife writes the show’ but I can’t help but feel that the wildlife is beginning to get professional help. The whole thing feels too scripted, the segues too neat. What is missing is a good dose of British eccentricity that the BBC never managed to replace once Oddie left. Chris Packham’s presenting style is that of an overly competitive father with psychological issues regarding human contact. His punk look has now gone and he has the cold, clinical detachment you normally only find in professional killers, proctologists, and Tesco delivery men. A lifelong obsession with Kestrels did not translate into a willingness to imitate the bird’s call the other night. On the other hand, Martin Hughes-Games and Michaela Strachan combined well and try their best to form a kind of surrogate Oddie. As his name suggests, Huges-Games is game for anything and he was in his own little world as he began to squawk like a falcon in heat. Female kestrels listening would have been left feeling particularly broody and who could blame them? If only we could fit Strachan and Hughes-Games into one large body suit, Strachan providing the unscripted material and Huges-Games providing the hair, we might begin to re-establish normality.
As it stands, Springwatch makes for great TV but it still feels as unbalanced as Spring itself. I say we need the little earth lord back, sitting on the end of the sofa. We need to return the show to the wild. We need to get the seasons working again for the sake of baby dunnocks everywhere.