Reviewer: Jo Beggs
For many kids in the 1980s, Chris Packham made wildlife cool. With his spiky, bleached hair and cheeky smile, and along with co-presenters Terry Nutkins and Nicola Davies on The Really Wild Show, he sparked an interest in wildlife and conservation that has stayed with that generation. They’re well in evidence in the audience at the Lowry as Packham, launching his new memoir Fingers In The Sparklejar talks about his childhood and his passion for the natural world with naturalist and journalist Patrick Barkham.
Of course, since 2009, along with their kids, they’ve also been enjoying his triumphant return to the BBC with the hugely successful, annual binge-watch Springwatch – along with its Autumn and Winter spin-offs. Packham, now in his mid fifties, holds the show together, yet still manages to play the bad boy – slyly slipping song titles into the script, revelling in the darker side of the natural world (remember that weasel attack on the reed warbler that left us all traumatised?) and regularly getting told off by Michaela Strachan. Packham holds string views on any disrespect for the natural world, over-population and the lack of political will around a sustainable planet, and he’s not afraid to voice it. A strong message which comes through in the Q&A is that we need to stop talking about how the problems need to be solved and start doing something ourselves.
Barkham gets straight to the point with his questions, drawing out the story of Packham’s school days, during which his Asperger’s Syndrome, a misunderstood condition at the time, led to severe discomfort in social situations, bullying and isolation. A combination of a brilliant mind and a lack of distraction meant that he focused on the thing that fascinated him most – and that was nature, not so much what David Attenborough was introducing us to on TV, but the “flying, crawling, slithering and scuttling” things right outside his front door.
Packham reads two short excerpts from the book. The prose is rather florid, but it reveals his extraordinary capacity to remember visual and sensual detail from more than forty years ago. Luckily for us, Packham struggles when he doesn’t have a project to focus on. After abandoning his PhD, and needing a job, Packham spotted an opportunity to audition for The Really Wild Show, a chance to talk about wildlife to an audience wider than his family. Despite being an active wildlife campaigner and activist, he berates himself that he’s not doing more. When he recently went through a period of not being able to take photographs, he decided to write the book.
Barkham’s interview questions are sharply direct and emerge from a genuine interest in his interviewee. He keeps to time, allowing plenty of questions from the audience, which are wide-ranging and intelligent. A final question from a “young birder” who wants to know what he can do to make a difference creates the perfect opportunity for Packham to drive his point home about direct action.
A slightly bizarre selection of photos (presumably from the book) are projected on a large screen overhead. It’s an unnecessary, and occasionally quite irritating distraction, especially when the images don’t relate to the discussion. Other than this, though, it’s a thoroughly enjoyable hour. Packham is serious, intelligent and honest, and, with Barkham’s excellent input, raises a surprisingly wide range of fascinating and important issues.
Reviewed on 9 May 2016