If Steve Backshall truly fancies a future in politics then he is going to have to practise his ability to fudge questions and stall for time. Ask the adventurer, explorer and conservationist if he’d consider standing as an MP and there’s no dissembling. ‘I am not ruling it out for the future.’
He’d be a Green Party candidate? ‘Yes, I would think so.’
Well, this is interesting. He’d certainly be a conviction politician, a man with passion and a proper career behind him, better informed about climate change, pollution and at-risk species than anyone else on the environment select committee.
Steve Backshall is one of the world’s best-known nature broadcasters, a double Bafta-winner who has appeared on dozens of TV shows
The caveat – and there’s always one in politics – is that for now, with his ability to reach hundreds of millions of TV viewers in more than 150 countries around the world, his influence is far greater than it would be making policy in Westminster. ‘Were I to start getting involved in party politics I would have to begin at the bottom, and there is an awful lot I would have to know, so it would be a long time before I had anything like the platform I have now.’
Backshall is one of the world’s best-known nature broadcasters, a double Bafta-winner who has appeared on dozens of shows on the BBC, the Discovery Channel, Sky and National Geographic. He is a well-regarded writer too, the author of a series of children’s novels and multiple best-selling companion books to his expeditions. More than anything, though, it’s his wanderlust and his fascination with deadly creatures, combined with his ability to bring both to life for those on the sofa at home, that have made him famous.
It would be premature to suggest he has a plan for leaving all this behind but he is 46, and while he’s still buff enough to take his shirt off on prime-time TV, he’s not sure how long that’s going to last. ‘The kind of programmes I make, I don’t think anyone is going to want to see me doing them in ten years’ time. I have been smashing myself in the name of good television for 20 years and my body is screaming at me to stop.’
Which bits are really flagging? ‘Oh, all of it.’ He’s had two operations this year alone, the legacy of a 25ft fall headlong down a cliff face and onto rocks in Gloucestershire that badly damaged his back and a leg in 2008. He’s also been bitten by a shark and an alligator, almost swallowed by a humpback whale and attacked by hundreds of bullet ants, which have the world’s fiecest sting. His most extreme culinary adventure was courtesy of an innocent-seeming peppercorn floating in a bowl of soup somewhere in China. ‘It felt as if I was gargling with acid. I couldn’t even drink for two hours afterwards, it was simply like nothing I have ever had before, or since.’
So he’s always taken a run at challenges, and politics would be a huge one. He isn’t in talks with the Green Party yet but it was Backshall who introduced the Government’s last Environment Bill in July and he has spoken to Parliament several times this year. It does sound as if one of his dusty boots is holding open the door at Westminster.
The Commons is his preferred route for environmental protest, which means he has not joined stars such as Emma Thompson and Benedict Cumberbatch at Extinction Rebellion camps. He is, however, fiercely supportive of the movement, saying: ‘I think we could well look back on this time in the same way that we look back on some of the most important civil rights movements of the past.
‘This is the only way we have of saying that things that are important to us, which our government is not taking care of, should be addressed. If we always condemn anyone who has the gumption to take a day off work to stand up for what they believe in, then I think we are lost.’
Backshall’s fears for the future of our natural world are based on two decades of journeying to its remotest regions. At the very beginning of his career, when he was hired by the National Geographic channel, his business card read ‘Adventurer-in-Residence’. These days he has no idea what to write at the top of his CV. ‘It’s difficult to put anything down without sounding hideously pretentious,’ he says gruffly.
I have been smashing myself in the name of good TV for 20 years – my body is screaming at me to stop’
It’s true that what he does doesn’t really have a title. It began with a love of nature and travel imbued by his parents who both worked for British Airways and took advantage of the free flights offered by their jobs. As a child he holidayed ‘backpacker style’ with them in India, Africa and Asia.
Today Backshall is keenly aware of his carbon footprint, something that obliges him to consider his work choices and leaves him with a conundrum. If he’s making a programme about rhino-poaching – which could see the end of the rhino in his lifetime – then he has to fly to film. ‘But that programme will be seen in China, Taiwan, places where horn is desirable, where demand is driving the illegal trade, and that gives us the opportunity to change minds, to ensure the future survival of the animal.’
At home the Backshall family ran a smallholding in Surrey, which their son filled with rescue animals. He says it ‘hobbled’ them financially but clearly its value lay in a childhood he describes today as ‘perfect’.
After graduating from the University of Exeter with a degree in English and Theatre Studies he left for Japan to study martial arts, and then moved on to Indonesia, where he wrote for the Rough Guides. In 1998 he self-funded a trip to South America, where he filmed himself living in the jungle and wrangling snakes – footage that made his name as a broadcaster.
Since then he’s been pretty much full-time up volcanoes, down sinkholes, underwater, trekking through jungles or roped to a mountainside. He is a technically accomplished climber and an extreme kayaker. Marriage to the double Olympic gold medal-winning rower Helen Glover, and becoming a father, brings him home but it certainly doesn’t keep him there. Their son Logan is now one and they have a new baby due early next year.
I ask if Glover is mentally and physically tougher than him, the real superhuman in the household. ‘Without any question,’ he says. ‘Her fortitude is on a whole different level to anybody else I have ever met.’
It seems obvious that having a family would make Backshall reconsider the risks he has spent a lifetime ignoring. ‘Yes, the second you become a parent it changes you completely, alters your perspective on life and you do start to rationalise everything around you more and more. But many of the risks I take, which other people would consider insane, are, after years and years of doing this for a living, nothing like as dangerous as people expect.’
Recently, though, he came close to drowning in an uncharted whitewater river in the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan. He had kayaked through a river gorge with vast cliffs soaring on each side and 20 tons of water per second passing between them over a waterfall. It had never been tried before.
‘I got trapped inside a recirculating wave at the bottom of the fall, it sucked me back in and held me there. I was stuck for four-and-a-half minutes in the whitewater, freezing cold, running out of energy. I did not have the physical ability to get myself out.’ His safety kayaker battled back upriver, threw him a line and dragged him free. ‘If she hadn’t, there’s no question I would not be here now.’
Previous scrapes have happened so fast that he only felt the fear in retrospect. ‘In this particular scenario I had a long time to realise I was drowning and process what that meant – that I would not see Helen again, or see Logan grow up. Getting back in the kayak the next day was one of hardest things I have ever done, but I understand that the moment I take my foot off the gas, that’s probably the end. It’s time to move on to something else.’
Now he’s revealed this might be politics, even if entering the House of Commons is ‘not something for now, but a possible, far off in the future’.
Steve Backshall filming with a hippo in South Africa for Deadly 60. ‘I have been smashing myself in the name of good television for 20 years and my body is screaming at me to stop’
One of Backshall’s most recent projects came, uncharacteristically, with no risk at all. It is a BBC1 special about Back From The Brink, a conservation project trying to save 20 of Britain’s most endangered animals, plants and fungi from extinction. It operates from Cornwall to Northumberland with the help of £4.6 million funding from the National Lottery and has been voted Best Heritage Project in this year’s National Lottery Awards, which mark the 25th birthday of the lottery.
What would he do if he won the lottery himself? ’I’d buy a superyacht,’ he says. For once he’s definitely not telling the truth. ‘No, not really, I’d buy a big area of rainforest and preserve it for future generations.’
Steve Backshall presents Back From The Brink as part of ‘The National Lottery Awards: Celebrating 25 Years’ on BBC1, November 19 at 11.30pm, lotterygoodcauses.org.uk