David Attenborough has seen the future – and it’s one that those who aspire to follow in his footsteps might shudder at. “I suspect the age of the presenter is coming to an end,” he’s said. “I suspect that people in Norway and Brazil want Norwegians and Brazilians.”
In a business increasingly dominated by international investment and sales – and therefore opinions – you can see his point. But for the moment, at least, the production line of new talent shows no sign of slowing.
Rolling off the conveyor belt this week is Lucy Cooke, an Oxford zoology graduate who took life lessons from Richard Dawkins and got her first experience of TV as Jonathan Ross’s receptionist.
“I had solo tutorials with Richard Dawkins every week for three years,” she says. “He’s the most significant thinker since Darwin on the subject of evolution so it was an amazing privilege. He was a really cool guy.”
After graduation, Cooke’s course took a slightly less conventional turn when she ended up working for Ross’s Channel X production company. For a few years she was distracted by the fast-paced glitz of entertainment television, enjoying bit parts in The Fast Show and Reeves & Mortimer before moving into documentaries and directing. A documentary on sloths she made for the Animal Planet channel was particularly well received.
Her BBC debut comes in Talk to the Animals, a two-part documentary that explores communication in the animal kingdom. From east Africa to North America, her quest to become a “reallife Doctor Dolittle” sees her chatter excitedly with meerkats and strike up flirtatious conversation with fireflies. It’s a light-hearted, informal approach to wildlife television that she hopes will engage those who might not tune into the more traditional, blockbuster series.
“I’ve always thought that you could bring a bit more entertainment to natural history,” she says. “I’m all about being popular and getting your story out to the widest possible audience. I’m a committed conservationist, but I think that people can become a bit jaded about hearing the same story. Humour can be the sugar coating around the bitter pill of a message. I don’t think it means that you’re dumbing things down.”
And while Cooke cites David Attenborough as her inspiration – “he blew my mind and changed my life” – headline writers looking to crown the 88-year-old’s replacement shouldn’t get carried away just yet – although it hasn’t stopped The Times annointing her. Wendy Darke, the head of the BBC’s Natural History Unit, and the woman who recruited Cooke, is adamant that she isn’t looking for one individual to fill the veteran broadcaster’s well-worn shoes.
“Sir David Attenborough is a legend and an irreplaceable one-off. He is a storyteller without match, so we would never attempt to fill his shoes. However, the wildlife film-making landscape has changed immeasurably. There is now a much greater range and variety of output and I can’t see one person ever dominating natural history programmes in the way that David has done so brilliantly for the last 60 years.”
Instead, Darke says that she’s developing a range of presenters to front the BBC’s increasingly varied selection of nature programmes. “To ensure a successful future we need to continue to innovate and diversify – and that includes offering a more diverse range of presenters and programme styles and formats that have relevance to people’s lives.
“Often people who don’t come from a biological degree background ask questions that the audience would ask. I’m a real believer in having a mixture of ‘ologies’ in terms of expertise."
She’s not kidding. Her new roster of presenting talent includes a cancer biologist and a skeleton bobsleigh-cum-karate expert.
Regardless of provenance or speciality, presenters need a complex cocktail of skills if they are to truly win over the viewing public.
“Raw passion is important, as is an ability to talk knowledgeably about the subject,” says Darke. “For me, it’s almost about looking into somebody’s eyes and asking, ‘Am I engaged by what you’re telling me?’. A presenter needs to resonate above the programme. That was the case with Bill Oddie and Springwatch. Wherever Bill went, he had a whole raft of people who just loved his presenting style. In the past it was more like slap on a presenter, but these days they are inextricably linked with their subject matter. Now that people are buying big TVs, our programmes are at their best when people say, ‘You took me there’. People write to me and say, ‘I live in the top of a multi-storey block of flats, but last night it was as if I was diving on a reef.’ ”
Two-part documentary Talk to the Animals begins tonight at 8:00pm on BBC1