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DEBORAH ROSS: If Billy from Kes did BBC nature series…

Chris Packham: Asperger’s And Me

Tuesday, BBC2 


George Michael: Freedom

Monday, Channel 4


Awhile ago I described naturalist Chris Packham’s broadcasting style as ‘strangely disturbing’, which may be regrettable now, in the circumstances. But I did add that 1) it’s what I love about him, weirdly and 2) it’s what makes him such a compelling TV presence, particularly on Springwatch, where he is more compelling than any chicks about to fledge, more compelling than any otter with pups, and certainly more compelling than the other presenters with their CBBC levels of over-excitement. 

Yet I could not put my finger on what it was that made you want to watch him and not much of anything else. What is it? Asperger’s, it turns out. And all the effort he has always put into ‘trying to be normal’ – an effort you could sense but had failed to understand – and thank God he never fully succeeded, as that would have been a disaster. 

Chris Packham with Scratchy. This new BBC documentary reveals the crucial role wildlife and nature played in Chris Packham's struggles with autism

Chris Packham with Scratchy. This new BBC documentary reveals the crucial role wildlife and nature played in Chris Packham’s struggles with autism

Wildlife presenters love nature, but as Chris Packham: Asperger’s And Me clearly showed, Chris needs it. And it’s this that is transfixing. This was a brave, affecting, illuminating documentary about living with autism, albeit at the ‘high functioning’ end, but still with a need for your clothes hangers to line up in a particular direction and with difficulties surrounding eye contact and social interaction. (He has trained himself to do both but finds it ‘exhausting’.) 

He recounted a childhood where he was shunned and bullied by other children – ‘I didn’t really understand why… agony’ – but found solace in nature, which did not expect him to behave in any particular way. His interest in the natural world became obsessional ‘to the point everything else was pretty much excluded’. 

He ate live tadpoles to see how they tasted – like semolina but earthier – and licked the backs of beetles to discover how they tasted too. (Sour.) At one point, having been denied a licence from the Home Office to own a kestrel, he stole one from a nest, tamed it, flew it, engraved ‘Kestrel’ into the bricks outside his home, then it died. He buried it beneath an oak tree and visits every year on the anniversary of its death. If you ever wondered what happened to Billy from Kes, he grew up to become Chris, surely. 

We saw him at home, where he lives alone in the woods with his best friend Scratchy, a poodle, and where he feels ‘normal’ because he doesn’t have to interact. Yet he does have relationships.

He has a partner, Charlotte, who runs a zoo on the Isle of Wight, and a stepdaughter, Megan, from a previous relationship. They accept him on his terms, which isn’t a trial – ‘I will never be bored,’ said Charlotte. ‘I am fascinated by his mind’ – but they do keep trying, God bless them. ‘Will you attend a wedding with me?’ asked Charlotte. ‘No thank you,’ said Chris. ‘Will you attend my graduation?’ asked Megan. ‘No thank you,’ said Chris. 

He also travelled to America to investigate ‘cures’, which seemed so appalling one can only hope they’ll be speedily consigned to history, along with those ‘cures’ for being gay. This challenged the idea that autistic people need to change to fit into society. Hey, society, why don’t you change? 

I was educated, informed, moved, entertained and now love Chris even more than I ever did. I had not thought that possible but there you are. 

Odd, perhaps, to have George Michael down table from Chris Packham, but for all of Freedom: George Michael I just didn’t know what I was watching. This was a documentary about George, as directed by George who, apparently, was working on it just two days before his death on Christmas Day last year. 

I couldn’t figure it out. A large chunk of the programme was devoted to his battle to release himself from Sony, but this seemed to be a Sony production, so they funded it? He did not appear on screen but narrated, yet we didn’t know what was new and what wasn’t, which was troublesome, particularly as I recognised bits from his appearance on Desert Island Discs. 

There were no interviews with family or friends. Instead, it was banalities from a succession of celebrity talking heads: Elton John, Ricky Gervais, Stevie Wonder, Liam Gallagher, Tracey Emin. 

They talked about him in the present, which means they hadn’t been inserted after his death, so he’d invited them to speak about him. Really? He needed to legitimise his star status in this way? And being about George by George, it took us only where he chose to go. There was no mention of drug-taking, that arrest, his sexual relationships before or after Anselmo Feleppa, the great love of his life who died of Aids. 

His account of Anselmo’s death was powerfully affecting, admittedly, but it was like he’d never had any relationship with anyone else, ever. ‘I know I have to have a persona,’ he said at one point, although when and where we’ll never know, ‘but my actual persona I’m not prepared to give.’ And on this front he was entirely successful.





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