Bill Oddie arrives for our interview in bare feet, a Hawaiian shirt and with a toy puffin tucked neatly under one arm. In his hand, he is carrying a dog-eared greetings card that, when opened, plays a startlingly lifelike recording of a puffin’s call – a sound that is half-donkey, half-demented chicken. Oddie chuckles as he flaps the card open and closed.
“A puffin is classically, you would have to say, a bird which non-bird-watchers still enjoy,” he says, placing both the toy and the card on a low coffee table in the back room of his large house in Hampstead, north London. The window over-looks a fairytale garden overrun with bushes and grass and artistic installations involving mirrors and bits of string. Inside, the walls and tables are strewn with knick-knacks – tribal masks, ashtrays in the shape of cannabis leaves and a couple of electric guitars propped up in one corner. The puffin blends in seamlessly.
Oddie is about to return to our screens, highlighting the plight of the puffin, in a six-part BBC1 series, Britain’s Big Wildlife Revival. Each week, some of the UK’s most respected wildlife experts will champion a wild creature they want to protect for future generations.
Oddie, who for many of us reignited our love affair with the British countryside and its wildlife, is delighted to be back at the age of 72, especially as he will be making the case for such an endearing animal (in next week’s programme). “My God, there’s nothing easier [to choose] than a puffin,” he says. “If you’ve got to champion a creature and make everybody at home think, ‘Gosh, they’re lovely, I’d like to look after them and save them with lots of money,’ well, you know, I think a puffin – easy. Somebody’s definitely chosen a stag beetle, which is great, but you can’t really cuddle a stag beetle. They don’t make silly noises.”
He grins. Oddie is entertaining company – jovial, chatty and given to putting on funny voices whenever the anecdote demands it (he does an excellent impression of two male black grouse trying to fight each other like blokes at closing time in order to impress a female).
It helps, of course, that Oddie has a comedy pedigree (I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again on radio, The Goodies on TV) as well as a lifelong love of nature. He made one of his first forays into natural-history television in 1985 when he appeared on a Nature Watch special.
From there, he went on to become one of the most recognisable faces on our screens, hosting a number of nature shows for the BBC, including Birding with Bill Oddie and Bill Oddie Goes Wild and culminating in the extraordinary success of Springwatch and Autumnwatch, presented alongside Kate Humble on BBC2, which regularly attracted more than four million viewers.
He remains a passionate campaigner for the protection of our countryside and our wildlife, though he is fearful for the future. He says Britain’s wildlife is suffering “one dip after another. There’s no point in pretending we’re entering a golden age where there’s this amazing sort of comeback for all these species.”
He remembers growing up in Quinton, a suburb in west Birmingham, and seeing skylarks and yellowhammers when he walked through nearby fields. There were often hedgehogs in the family’s small garden. Nowadays, he’s worried that there will come a point when “wildlife in any abundance or variety is only going to be found in places that are in some way managed or reserved for wildlife – in other words, a nature reserve.
“You can go, as I have done, to what you think is a fairly wildish country like Zambia or Borneo or somewhere like that but the only place that you see a lot of stuff is within an area that has barbed wire fences round it and guards.”
Oddie blames “very greedy humans” for the decimation of various species, but reserves his most forceful ire for the Government.
“I think this Government is stunningly ignorant and arrogant,” he says, eyes suddenly serious behind the frameless spectacles. “The badger cull has had a lot of publicity but basically what you’ve got is scientific research that suggests this is not the way to curb bovine TB. But the Government turn round and say, ‘Right, I see, we did this survey but it hasn’t come up with what we want to hear so we’ll ignore it.’ And that seems to be the general attitude to just about everything.”
In May, it emerged that a government agency licensed the destruction of the eggs and nests of buzzards to protect a pheasant shoot. Oddie sees this as evidence of “a vested interest. It’s the old boy thing still. It’s still these Old Etonian boys getting together on a whacking great estate shooting weekend. You keep seeing the links.”
It’s clear, listening to Oddie talk about these issues, that no matter whether you agree with him or not, he is an expert communicator. Which makes it all the more baffling that he has been off our screens for so long. Oddie says he can’t understand it, either.
He had suffered from bouts of depression for much of his life and when he was dropped from Springwatch just before Christmas 2008, he plunged into despair.
“They just said, ‘We won’t be asking you to do it again’,” he recalls. “And actually you’re so taken aback at that moment you don’t insist, ‘Why not?’”
He loved the BBC and was left hurt and baffled by what had happened. He tried to find out the reasons for his treatment but says they only gave him “a waffly statement” with no specific detail.
“That put me in hospital for a year, basically,” he says, his voice low. His wife, Laura, and three daughters (two from his first marriage) were supportive, but the episode took a toll on the whole family. His youngest daughter, Rosie, a musician, later described seeing her father taken to hospital: “It wasn’t my dad. It was a shell of a human. My dad is full of life and love, but that person was crippled with self-doubt.”
It wasn’t until he ended up in hospital for much of 2009 that Oddie was finally diagnosed as bipolar. He was prescribed lithium, which he still takes, and as a result now feels “absolutely fine”.
The bipolar diagnosis “made a lot of sense... And now when I look back, I think during that autumn period I was on a high because I was very edgy and tetchy. Your ability to work long hours and think quickly and that sort of thing is usually heightened... But one or two people said to me, ‘You know, you really intimidate people in the office’ and I said, ‘Why?’ and they’d say, ‘Well you know, you’re sort of brusque and impatient sometimes.’ I never thought so, you know. I look back and I think, yeah, I guess I was.”
He sounds regretful, a touch wistful. It’s clear he doesn’t want to say anything that might endanger his future relationship with the BBC or the prospect of doing more of the TV work he adores. For the first time in our conversation, he looks away and pinches a corner of skin at the edge of his elbow.
“I could well see that there was an autumn of mania going on and therefore I was probably giving signals out which I didn’t realise and, I imagine, signals were reported back. I think somebody said the public complained I was swearing at a cameraman or a producer when we on location somewhere in a shop. I can’t remember what it was but it’s probably quite likely.”
The older he gets, the more he believes he inherited his mental illness. Oddie’s mother, Lilian, was committed to an asylum when he was six and she was absent for most of his childhood, apart from the occasional weekend visit. It was only in 2004, when Oddie appeared on Who Do You Think You Are?, that he discovered Lilian had suffered a late miscarriage and the cot-death of a baby daughter before her son was born in 1941.
“I have come to believe that the genetic side of it is probably a lot stronger than is actually admitted by a lot of the experts.”
These days he is aware of the need to look after his mental wellbeing and has a fairly quiet life, involving daily walks with binoculars to watch migrant birds on Hampstead Heath followed by breakfast at a local café. He returns home and fills the bird-feeders in his garden with peanuts, sunflower hearts and live mealworms. Then he sits on one of the sofas in the back room and waits until the birds fly in. From this spot, he watches as chaffinches, long-tailed tits, dunnocks, wrens, blackbirds and ring-necked parakeets gobble up the grub he has left for them.
It’s a lovely image.
Wildlife, he says, has long been a refuge, “probably more than I realise.” In the darkest periods of his life, it has been a constant.
If he were reincarnated as an animal, I wonder, what would it be? “If I went for cute and not having to make too many decisions, I’d go for a dormouse, I think, because they’re very lovely, very cuddly and everyone would go, ‘Ahh, aren’t they sweet?’ And then you could say, ‘Yes and I’m going to go to sleep now for seven months’.” He pauses. “Seven months and no more decisions,” he says, in a tone of wonder.
You get the impression this is his idea of heaven: a prolonged break from the vagaries of life. But then he wonders out loud if he’d want to be an animal, given how badly they are treated. “Far happier being a human being,” he says. Oddie nods, as though reassuring himself, and then, with the photographer waiting, he pads barefoot into the overgrown garden.
Britain's Big Wildlife Revival is on Sunday at 5:35pm on BBC1