Talk to new BBC wildlife presenter Gillian Burke about diversity and you’ll most likely get a heartfelt piece of advocacy for the ladybird spider, the grass snake or the hermit crab. This is a woman who loves the variety of the British countryside.
But mention it in conjunction with her elevation as an on-screen addition to the Springwatch team, and the simultaneous demotion of Martin Hughes-Games, and you ignite a different kind of debate, one of the most persistent in the broadcast industry at the moment. Is Hughes-Games being eased out to make the presenting team less white and help the BBC hit diversity targets? He says yes, though generously accepting it’s a good thing, the BBC says no. But more of that later.
Burke, 42, is Kenyan born and now lives in Cornwall with her ten-year-old son and eight- year-old daughter. She says she was upset when the story broke suggesting she was ousting Hughes-Games from the team. “A friend texted me one Monday morning saying I was in the papers. Can you imagine the horror for me of apparently busting into the party and being blamed for breaking it up?”
Happily, at least for the time being, that party is still in full swing as Hughes-Games is back in the field – and the studio – for this week’s Winterwatch from RSPB Arne in Dorset with Burke and programme co-hosts Chris Packham and Michaela Strachan.
Have she and Hughes-Games spoken about it? She says not. But she hopes there isn’t a problem. “In many ways Martin and I have had a very similar journey. We both went to Bristol University, both did biology, both went into natural history as researchers and then worked our way up as producers.”
The difference being, of course, that Hughes-Games’s route wasn’t via Nairobi and Vienna. Born just outside the Kenyan capital, Burke lived what she describes as a “very happily feral” childhood, hunting barefoot for insects outside their house – “I hated shoes and would kick them off as soon as I got home from school” – and going on trips with her mechanic dad into the game parks to observe the wildlife. That hands-on exposure to the natural world was underpinned by an awareness of conservation that came from her mum, who worked in Nairobi for the UN on environmental projects.
The Winterwatch team (from left): Martin Hughes-Games, Michaela Strachan and Chris Packham
Her ancestry is defined by the British Empire: her grandfathers are from Trinidad and Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) and grandmothers both from the Seychelles. They met in Kenya, then known as British East Africa. “There was a lot of movement at the time, which I think gets overlooked. Basically, skilled and unskilled people travelled around the British Empire where the work was required.”
When she was just ten years old, Burke moved with her family to Vienna after the UN offered her mum a new role. “It didn’t register as a big shock then, but looking back it was. We were one of only two or three black families in the whole of Vienna so it was a massive contrast for us. There was no place at the international school so for a short while I went to an Austrian school where no one spoke English. But I picked up German very quickly and it meant that my experience wasn’t confined to being part of an ex-pat community.”
After high school she won a place at Bristol University to study biology. “My plan was that I would do my degree and go back to Kenya and work in the game parks for the wildlife service. But walking up and down to lectures took me past the BBC’s Natural History Unit and I remember gazing at it and thinking, ‘Wow. That’s where I would like to work.’”
She got her dream and today is as enthralled by the diversity of British countryside as that of her native Kenya, particularly those creatures she calls the underdogs (she once had an ant colony living at home with her and suggests we all pay more attention to the beauty of the common house spider). “I do think it’s important to get people to relate to members of the animal kingdom that aren’t easy to like. It’s the whole ecosystem we need to be interested in and look after. We cannot conserve on a selective basis. I feel very strongly about trying to get people to connect to the wildlife around them. I think there’s a big group of people who just aren’t sure whether, and how, they can make a difference. But it’s a bit like housework. It’s good to get everyone involved, but sometimes you just have to get on and do it yourself.”
So protect diversity in the natural world and improve it in the TV world? The BBC is, after all, committed to 15 per cent of its on-screen talent coming from the black, Asian and ethnic minority population by the end of this year.
She politely sidesteps the question, though, saying that skin colour has never been an issue during her career. “I can totally understand why people would want to know where I’ve come from, the perception is that I’ve just shown up. But I’ve been doing this a long time. My first job in natural history was in the mid-late 90s and I’ve worked pretty solidly in it ever since. I have grown up alongside all the people involved in programmes like Planet Earth. I have my own story and my own journey and it’s taken me a long time to get here.”