Steve Backshall, English writer and explorer chats with Kevin Cooper about winning a BAFTA for Big Blue Live, swimming with sharks, the forthcoming release of his children’s book Shark Seas and his nationwide Wild World Theatre Tour later this year.
Steve Backshall is a BAFTA-winning English naturalist, writer and television presenter, best known for BBC TV’s Deadly 60. His other BBC work includes being part of the expedition teams in Lost Land Of The Tiger, Lost Land Of The Volcano and Lost Land Of The Jaguar, and he has worked for both the National Geographic Channel and the Discovery Channel.
In Venom Hunter, shown on the Discovery Channel TV in 2008, he travelled to South America aiming to find out as much as possible about venom, including taking part in the bullet ant ritual where he was stung hundreds of times by the world’s most painful stinging insect.
More recently, whilst filming Swimming With Monsters, he swam with large animals, including anaconda, hippopotamus, humboldt squid, and great white sharks without the safety of a cage.
He has also studied martial arts in Japan for a year, gaining a black belt in judo and a brown belt in karate. He has also published three novels for children as well as several non-fiction works.
Backshall lives in Buckinghamshire with Olympic rower Helen Glover. The two of them announced their engagement on 16th September 2015 when Backshall proposed to Glover while on holiday in the Namib Desert in Namibia. They plan to marry later this year.
Whilst busy being an all-round action man, he took time out of his busy schedule to have a chat with Kevin Cooper and this is what he had to say.
Hi Steve how are you?
Hi Kevin I’m not too bad how are you?
I’m good thanks and let me just thank you for taking the time to speak to me today.
Not at all and very much thank you to you for speaking to me as well.
And just how is life treating Steve Backshall today?
It’s pretty damn good at the moment you know. Yesterday I was out in Germany watching my fiancé Helen (Glover) taking gold at the European Rowing Championships.
Well then it must have been doubly exciting for you as you and the team also won a BAFTA last night for Big Blue Live.
That’s right it was a pretty good day as it goes (laughter).
You are bringing your Wild World Tour to The Royal Concert Hall here in Nottingham on Thursday 27th October. Is touring something that you have had to work at?
Touring is most definitely something that I have had to work at over the years. One of the main things with a tour such as this is learning exactly where to pitch it together with using the bits of the shows which people want to see. That is really important because I am not a performer in any sense of the word (laughter). However by my going out onto the stage people are immediately looking at me to entertain them. It is a question of finding the bits from the programmes that people find the most entertaining; finding the bits that they haven’t seen, the outtakes, the bloopers together with the behind the scenes stuff whilst making sure that it is as interactive as possible. I also have to encourage the audiences to ask me questions and for a time let the show go in the direction that they want it to go.
Being onstage alone do you not feel a little vulnerable during the Q&A sessions?
Do you know what, I am a bit of a control freak so sometimes I love being out there on stage on my own, having my own fate in my own hands is, I guess, is just what I like doing best. To be honest I really do enjoy those bits of the show. After you have been out on tour for a while and you are talking about the same film clips for a bit it could get quite repetitive. But when you included the Q&A sessions, every single time it is different, and you never know what is going to be asked next, that is the bit that keeps you on your toes. That is the bit that keeps things fresh every time (laughter).
Was this always going to be your chosen career path?
No, although I always knew that I would be doing something to do with wildlife and adventure in the outdoors. Television was something which came relatively far down the line, but I have to say that it was a very happy discovery which has been really good to me.
Out of all of your adventures which would you say has given you the greatest pleasure?
Wow, I would say that there was a mountaineering expedition back in 2007 where we were making the very first ascent of a mountain in Venezuela. When we got to the top after five days of living on this vertical rock face, we all knew that we were the very first people who had ever walked there. The animals that we found there were almost all completely new and that was so exciting. It was so exciting that we all went back and tried to relive the experience last year and it was a catastrophic failure. So all that I can say is that the world around us is always changing; it’s always different and if I had to choose one then that would be it.
Has anything ever made you feel apprehensive?
Yes they have, and I have to say that I wouldn’t be human if I didn’t feel a little apprehensive with some of the things that we do. However, overwhelmingly now I think that experience and knowledge means that with a lot of the things that we do we can do them in relative safety. There is nothing in life that is a hundred percent safe, for example living in a large city having cars thundering past you every single day is quite simply dangerous. Working with animals most of the time they really do not want to hurt you. In fact most of the time they will do anything that they can to avoid you. So I have to say that it is not as dangerous as people think. I think that learning a few simple rules with animals makes my job a thousand times easier.
My biggest fear is sharks but you appear to get along quite well with them.
(Laughter) sharks are an absolute classic and they really sum up my maxim about animals. We have an absolute terror for sharks and a lot of people think that the second that you get into the sea you are going to get eaten. But the statistics really show that all around the world there are fewer than ten people a year killed by sharks. There are more people killed by falling coconuts than there are by sharks. Most of the time, if you are in the water with a shark and it can see you in clear water, believe me to that shark you are not food. It will totally ignore you and that even includes Great Whites.
So do you agree with the theory that if you are unfortunate enough to be attacked by a shark it is a genuine mistake on the part of the shark?
Almost always. In the attacks that have been very well documented it has been proven to be a case of mistaken identity. The absolute classic is a surfer at the surface of the water on their surfboard being mistaken for a seal. Obviously that is not a tremendous amount of help to the surfer who has maybe just lost a leg. But it so, so rarely happens. I think that it would be a terrible tragedy if we were all frightened to go into the water simply because of the few times that people get hurt. There is absolutely no doubt that horses, cows and to a lesser extent dogs are all many hundreds of times more of a danger to human beings than sharks are.
Thanks for your assurances Steve but I think that I will stick to the cows (laughter).
(Laughter) that’s a good idea I think.
Does anything ever scare you?
I wouldn’t say that there is any one animal that scares me. What does scare me is the very distinct possibility that my own children might not get to see the wonderful things that I take for granted because there is so much of the planet that we are making a right mess of. There is nothing that I would say that I am irrationally frightened of. I don’t jump onto a chair the minute that I see a mouse or scream whenever I see a leach or anything like that. Although I do have to say that sometimes leaches and mosquitoes can be fairly unpleasant.
Looking at the amount of books that you have had published, writing is obviously something that you enjoy doing?
Yes I really do. My degree was in English and I think that writing was where I started off. I am so lucky to have been given the opportunity to go back and write and so far it has gone pretty well for me, I have recently finished my fourth book. My latest book will be coming out later this year and funnily enough that one is themed around sharks which are one of my great passions in wildlife.
Staying with sharks for a moment, swimming with sharks or Strictly Come Dancing?
(Laughter) definitely swimming with sharks, there is absolutely no contest (laughter).
I have read of you being described as an adventurer, explorer, presenter, wildlife enthusiast, writer and all-round dare devil. If you had to put your occupation in your passport what would you put?
(Laughter) wow, that’s a really good question. Firstly let me say that I personally didn’t write that list of things because that would be so unbelievably pretentious; in fact it would be absolutely ridiculous (laughter). What would I write, I don’t know. I think that I would probably describe myself as being a writer because I think that it covers a tremendous amount of fields. And it is the thing that is least likely to offend people when you get to customs at some far off land. My job is bonkers; it’s all over the place and because of that I don’t really know what I am but I feel that writer is probably the simplest monacure.
Do you ever consider yourself to be the modern day Sir David Attenborough?
No I don’t think so. Sir David has done and achieved so much; he is the world’s finest ever broadcaster and the finest orator of our times. He is someone that I can only look up to and aspire to achieve only a fraction of what he has achieved. Having celebrated his ninetieth birthday yesterday he has had a longevity in his career that very, very few people will ever match. Even to be mentioned in the same sentence as him is an honour but no, I don’t think that I am for a second.
It is well documented that in 2008 while climbing in the Wye Valley you had a nasty accident where you fell ten metres onto rocks. Are you now okay and fully fit?
I had a long time after the accident in rehab. I had twelve different operations and several years of constant pain together with lots and lots of rehab in order to get myself back to fitness. They really were hard times. However I am now back to doing expeditions; I am in good shape again and I honestly feel that I have made a pretty good recovery eventually.
I recently saw you on TV with a rather large crocodile. Have you ever got just that little bit too close?
(Laughter) a lot of what I do is trying to figure out just what the safe place is and I stay just beyond that limit. Usually the reptiles are quite predictable and you can figure out what those limits are particularly with crocodiles.
After the tour what next for Steve Backshall?
Well just before the tour I am getting married and so after the tour we will be looking for somewhere to go on honeymoon.
On that note Steve thank you for taking the time to speak to me, it’s been great and I hope to see you in Nottingham.
Thank you very much. It’s been delightful to talk to you Kevin.
Steve Backshall embarks on his nationwide Wild World Theatre tour from 19th October to 20th November. His new children’s novel Shark Seas will be published in October.
To book tickets please visit www.stevebackshall.com/tour