Meet the woman who sent Davina McCall to the hottest and coldest places on Earth (and has weathered worse)

Martha Holmes looks back on the highs and lows of an extreme career - from diving under the ice in Antarctica to being stranded in an Arctic storm

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In a new ITV series, Davina McCall runs alongside cheetahs in a desert, braves -30ºC temperatures to get a polar bear’s perspective and attempts to free-dive deep into the Atlantic Ocean. 

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With her every step of the way was executive producer Martha Holmes, who’s spent her career camping out in places where humans are scarce. We asked her whether she’d recommend it…


Did you or Davina take much persuading?

Did I take much persuading? No! Davina? A little more; it was when I told her she could run with a cheetah and swim with a whale that she signed up.

Where was it hardest to film?

Davina doesn’t like being cold so it was hard to sell that one to her – but although it was freezing, it wasn’t too hard to film. She was also really worried about going down 1000m in the submarine and had to have hypnotherapy before we even left for the Azores. I think the toughest was the ‘Wet’ programme, filmed in Costa Rica. The humidity was oppressive, we were always hot and wet, and the cameras suffered as much as we did.

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Davina McCall prepares to free-dive in the Atlantic Ocean, Azores 

You’ve had your fair share of extreme jobs. Which was the toughest physically?

Diving under the ice in Antarctica and holding a light for a cameraman. Clearly it was exceedingly cold, but because I was having to hold the light still I couldn’t move and I absolutely froze.

Mentally?

When I was in the Arctic, stranded on a drifting ice floe with a cameraman and Inuit guide. The ice floe was breaking up, there was no hope of rescue because of a massive storm and we all had to face dying out there. 20 long hours later we were rescued.

Where has tested your endurance most?

Being the only woman on a boat in the Antarctic for three months with a lot of men with egos. It was the toughest shoot of my life and there was nowhere to go, nowhere to escape to.

And what’s been the highlight of your career so far?

It’s very hard to pick one, five or even ten. I’ve been phenomenally lucky with the work I have done, from a two-year stint with polar bears, many years of Antarctic work, diving on coral reefs, filming in Africa, Australia. If I had to pick one place I would love to return to it would be South Georgia in the Southern Ocean. It is truly remote, truly wild and packed with animals. 

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Martha, Davina and the crew

Do many women do your job?

Yes, they do, but there is always that tricky time when you want kids and still need to travel.

Would you recommend it as a career?

Absolutely. It combines so many fabulous aspects of life. Travel, animals, people, storytelling, creativity – the list is long.  One minute you’re talking to the top chameleon scientist, the next you’re on a plane to Alaska. It is hugely varied and there is rarely a dull moment.

What sort of person do you have to be?

There are lots of attributes that you need (and as many that you don’t) so it’s not a quick one to answer…

1. Determined – at all stages, from getting into the business in the first place, to being prepared to wait two, three, four weeks for an animal to do something.

2. Creative – to come up with series, programme or sequence ideas and ways to tell them.

3. Collaborative – it’s very much a team effort from start to finish. 

4. Detailed – getting everything sorted down to the last bootlace is important. And that includes keeping the team safe.

5. Positive – things can feel very bleak when the animals don’t behave, time and/or money is running out, it is hot/cold/dark…  You just have to keep going.

Where’s still on your bucket list?

I’ve never worked with gorillas and would love to spend some time with the highland gorillas in Africa. Tigers? Yes, I’d love to film the Siberian tigers in Russia.


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Davina McCall: Life at the Extreme begins on Monday 29th February at 9pm, ITV