In his new TV series Brian Cox travelled to Madagascar, where he met a lemur called David. Being a particle physicist, the presenter hadn’t had much practice making friends with a wild animal on camera. David, on the other hand, was an old pro, for he’d already met another BBC presenter many years earlier, in whose honour he was named.
If the lemur noticed any similarities between this new visitor and the last one, he didn’t say. Anyone who watches Wonders of Life, however, almost certainly will. Viewers have been wondering for a long time who the next David Attenborough will be, and no plausible candidate had ever emerged – but now it looks like the heir to the great Attenborough might well turn out to be a smiley ex-pop star from Oldham.
Until now Cox has always been talked of as the heir to the late Patrick Moore, thanks to the staggering success of his first two major series, Wonders of the Solar System and Wonders of the Universe. His boyish enthusiasm for the stars inspired us to gaze up at the sky through his eyes, and even try to get our heads around concepts as tricky as electroweak symmetry breaking, or entropy. But now Cox has lowered his gaze to the Earth, and is set to take us on a global tour of living creatures whose bodies conceal pages, if not chapters, of the evolution story. It’s remarkable television, all the more remarkable for the fact that Cox, 44, hadn’t studied biology since the 1980s.
“It’s incumbent on you, as a physicist, to explain life. The question for physics is, how does a human being emerge from a cloud of dust five billion years ago. If you don’t think that God did it, then what did? So it started off very physics-based. But one of the great joys in the series was that it was a learning experience.”
He enlisted two professor friends, and told them, “‘You need to basically teach me everything that’s happened in biology since 1986.’ And what happened was that I got more and more fascinated, so as we went through the series it became more biological, just because I got more confident and more fascinated by the subject.”
The visual tone is also very different from the two Wonders series. Gone are the lavish, sweeping shots, which at times looked less like a documentary than a pop video, and even Cox himself said became “a little bit too grandiose – too epic”.
Cox nods: “Well, you create your own clichés, in a way. Especially when something is so successful. I liked Wonders of the Universe, but I think we didn’t really move it on; I thought it was like Wonders of the Solar System again. And there’s no way that I wanted to do that again, because we’ve done it twice now. I just get bored; I like to change things. So we sat down and thought, ‘How do we make this different?’”
The visual atmosphere is now more understated, with the contemporary informality of a travelogue. But there is also something quite old-fashioned about the simplicity of watching Cox go round the world meeting animals, and he must have been acutely aware of the parallels with Attenborough’s work. Did that make him self-conscious?
“We thought about that, actually,” says Cox, “because I didn’t know how I’d get on with big animals, and obviously Attenborough is brilliant at getting on with big animals. And actually, in the first two programmes that we filmed, we didn’t really do big animals in it, and that was because we were thinking, ‘Maybe we should be focusing on the detail. We want it to be different; it’s not Planet Earth, it’s a different kind of programme.’ But, actually, again, as we got more confident as a team, we found that, actually… well, I think it was actually a matter of gaining confidence with big animals, and learning how to sort of talk about them.”
From the number of “actually”s in that answer, I would guess Cox still feels a tiny bit self-conscious about the comparisons, but whatever he lacks in zoological authority on camera, he makes up for with infectious curiosity. I wouldn’t have fancied getting close to the catfish he practically cuddles in Florida, but luckily it turns out that he isn’t squeamish. “Not really,” he grins, “but, er, I don’t like insects really – that’s my thing. I’m not a great fan of big spiders.”
You could say it’s quite brave of Cox to stray beyond the safe territory of physics, because he’s come in for a bit of what was perhaps inevitable criticism, for “celebritising” science. Back in 1993, while studying physics at Manchester University, where he is now a professor, Cox became the keyboard player for D:Ream, and much has been made of his good looks and former pop-star career.
But the career lasted only four years before he completed his PhD and became an eminently serious scientist, working on the Large Hadron Collider at Cern near Geneva. It was there, while being interviewed for a documentary, that he was spotted by TV producers. And in 2010, after three presenting stints on Horizon, he became a household name with Wonders of the Solar System. Physicists are seldom invited onto Jonathan Ross and Graham Norton’s chat-show sofas, or get to play themselves on Doctor Who, so I wondered how much jealousy he’s encountered.
“Occasionally you hear things from sort of junior lecturers and things,” he admits, but quickly shrugs it off. “You make programmes and millions of people watch it – there’s always going to be somebody that takes exception, you know. But not at the highest level. It may be that if I was just off doing showbiz then they might eventually think, ‘What is he doing?’ but I don’t; I spend a lot of time lobbying government behind the scenes and in front of the scenes as well.”
Beyond lobbying government over funding and investment, Cox is on a mission to make it socially unacceptable to boast, as many of us do, about how little we know about science, as though ignorance were cool. His evangelism is starting to work, judging from a recent Royal Society survey he cites delightedly, in which more than 40 per cent of schoolchildren said they wanted a career in science, technology, maths or engineering.
The “Brian Cox effect” is also evident in applications to study physics at Manchester University, which have soared. That means he now feels obliged to teach a first-year course, which keeps him on campus two days a week, and I wonder if any bit of him might be secretly cursing himself for making the subject so popular that it keeps him from making TV every day. Nothing, he laughs, could be further from the truth.
“Basically I’ve discovered that from having three years or so from not doing as much academic work, I just get a bit grumpy when I’m not doing physics… I get really grumpy.” He still calls himself a scientist on his passport, and in fact never planned on becoming a broadcaster at all. “But I’m just not a great consumer of things. When I first got into the music, it was just because I wanted to make some music as well as consume it. And when I saw Carl Sagan’s Cosmos [a 1980 TV series], I thought, ‘Well I’d quite like to make one of those.’ That’s just the way I tend to operate.”
What he hadn’t bargained for was the fame that TV would bring. As the keyboardist for D:Ream he was seldom recognised in supermarkets, but once Wonders of the Solar System went out he discovered he could barely leave the house.
“It is interesting, because you do modify your behaviour. Having said that, I’m kind of re-modifying it back again. So, initially, I just didn’t want to go shopping because you’re wary of everybody looking at you, even if they don’t come and talk to you. But then, talking to a few people who are quite famous, they said what’s actually turned out to be the case. You end up just forgetting about it and ignore it. You just expect that everyone is going to be staring at you, so you just don’t notice.” Sometimes he still pretends to be talking on his phone, to put people off approaching – though it’s embarrassing if it starts ringing.
“But I’d always said that science is too important not to be part of popular culture. Science should be like The X Factor, in the sense that it should be talked about, so therefore when people start looking at a scientist, essentially then that’s good, because it should be celebrated.”
Even so, his poor wife can’t have bargained for groupies when she married a particle physicist. Gia Milinovich is a TV presenter herself; they met at Cern, married in 2003 and have a three-year-old son. “Pre-fame,” she has observed, wryly, “I was asked for my opinions. Now, I’m asked what Brian thinks.” It must be a bit galling to have the world suddenly decide your husband is both Einstein and a heart-throb, so I ask Cox what he’s rubbish at.
“I wasn’t that brilliant at being a pop star, actually. I was an average pop star,” he chuckles. “I managed to throw a tea tray out of a window once. I didn’t manage to drive anything into a swimming pool. So I even had average tantrums involving tea pots. Oh and I’m very, very bad at languages.”
Creationists will almost certainly say his new series is rubbish, but Cox sees little point in even trying to engage with them. “If you don’t accept evidence then there’s no real point in having a discussion. Because what am I going to say? I’m just going to say, ‘Well, first of all, you have to learn to accept evidence.’ I don’t see any issue with religious scientists; I don’t share their view myself, but it’s not logically inconsistent.” The notion that the world was created 6,000 years ago, on the other hand – “that’s just absolute drivel at every level”.
Which are more bonkers, does he think – creationists or astrologists? “In a way, astrology is less annoying, because I see it as part of the entertainment business and therefore it’s not particularly problematic. But the sensible answer is they’re both equally so. It’s the ability to dismiss evidence that I get irritated about, against my better judgment, because I’d rather not. I mean, obviously there are people who think crazy things. But it does annoy me.”
Any letters of complaint from viewers who don’t believe in evolution will “go straight in the bin”. If the rest of us love Wonders of Life, though, he will take almost no personal credit, instead putting his popularity down to the role of public service broadcasting. It’s a positively Reithian argument, of which I’m pretty sure Attenborough himself would approve.
“The point is that it would not have been possible without very broad-based public service channels, which have big audiences, and big audiences can stumble across things they didn’t know they were interested in. Of course, nobody knew that they wanted to watch a programme about astronomy. But the fact that it’s on the BBC, which mixes Strictly Come Dancing with Newsnight, documentaries and entertainment means that people stumble across it.
“The fact that people are then interested is no surprise to me at all, because of course the rest of the universe is interesting. And then you say, ‘We’re going to tell you what we know about the origin of life’ – of course that’s interesting! But if you said, ‘Choose what you want to watch,’ people wouldn’t say, ‘I’ll watch a documentary about biology.’ So the point is, a multichannel environment where people can choose what they want to watch all the time is a recipe for the removal of choice, and the ghettoisation of the audience.
“It’s possible to watch 24-hour sports, and indeed a lot of people do, but I think that’s actually bad, as it’s the removal of choice from the person who watches 24-hour sport, because they don’t stumble across things that they might be interested in.”
So after Wonders of Life, what will be next? Cox continues to co-present Radio 4 comedy The Infinite Monkey Cage, but his next major TV series is still a work in progress. In the tradition of Attenborough, will he now be focusing more and more on natural history?
“Not necessarily, I don’t think,” he offers cautiously. I tell him I was rather hoping he’d say yes. “Well, we’re batting around the ideas at the moment, and I think we’re looking more like at the time of civilisation type thing, but I’m not – well, we haven’t decided entirely yet.” He ums and ahs a bit more, then smiles.
“I suspect you’re right. And at least we know now that if we want to tell a story that involves an animal, we know how to do it.”
Wonders of Life begins on Sunday at 9:00pm on BBC2