First things first: GCHQ can stand down; this isn’t about a latter-day gunpowder plot, or a coup to depose the board of trustees of Age Concern England. This is about… well, it’s about Autumnwatch, or what’s left of it. In fact it’s about the whole Seasonwatch franchise and what it’s become.
I caught a few bits of the series just ended; not quite sure why but I did. I’ve never been one of the ‘waste of the licence fee’ brigade; there’s still plenty to like about the Beeb, particularly in the context of what passes for content on most of the hundreds of alternatives which fill the screen when you press the ‘Guide’ button on the remote. But is this really it? Is this what the acclaimed Natural History Unit now considers to be acceptable output?
Right back to its origins, more than 10 years ago now, the programmes have never pretended to be anything other than gently informative, while remaining mostly uncontroversial. But there was at least some quality to be found in the early days, both in terms of the content and the presenters. Okay, it was probably inevitable that Bill Oddie’s eccentricity would eventually alienate as many viewers as it would attract, and personally I was never a big fan of Kate Humble. For me the programme was defined by the contributions of presenters like Gordon Buchanan and Iolo Williams; Gordon has gone on to bigger and better, while Iolo’s contributions are latterly infrequent and all too brief. Maybe his tendency towards ‘frankness’ when dealing with issues like raptor persecution could have something to do with it.
What do we have now? On three evenings last week we saw Gillian Burke – a talented and engaging naturalist – reduced to the role of circus master, arranging for urban foxes to learn tricks with scraps of food attached to string. That’s not a prime time nature broadcast – it’s Blue Peter with foxes! Foxes incidentally, so de-wilded by generations of inculcation that they’re more tame than the average tomcat. If the objective is to engage a younger audience then broadcast that stuff late afternoon, before the early evening news; not at 8:00pm a prime slot on a supposedly flagship channel.
There’s a rich vein of self-satisfied laziness running through the whole franchise now: the presenters are provided with accommodation for a base; supporting personnel with high levels of expertise; contributions from people with local knowledge; a nerve centre with more screens than a city dealing room; more cabling than the East Coast Main Line; and for what results?
Urban foxes; grainy shots of excavated earth where there had been a badger earlier in the day; repetition mostly; species many of us could spot on a decent day’s walk; very few genuine rarities. Go find a lesser-spotted woodpecker, or a nightingale; you have enough resources at your disposal. Or perhaps deal with some proper wildlife issues, maybe highlight some of the appalling land management practices going on out there. There’s no shortage of people who could tell you where to start looking!
Anyway, glad that’s off my chest. And finally, a glimpse of what once was and could be again…