Chris Packham on coping with Asperger's, grief and why he owes his dogs his life
In a searingly honest interview, the Countryfile presenter explains how he killed a fox with his bare hands, his love of animals - and how he got through some incredibly dark times
After ending his sessions with the therapist in 2005, Chris Packham was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome.
“It’s that that underlines all the other problems,” he acknowledges today. And certainly, many of his behavioural “issues” – the obsession, the isolation, the painfully plain speaking, the eye-watering commitment to truth that means he’s a serially controversial conservationist – make sense in that light. Ironically, they also make for a brilliantly written book. If only he’d known earlier…
“But,” he counters, “I looked through my diaries and in 1994 there’s a six-page section written about autism and my autistic traits. I’d begun to figure that out, basically.”
Forearmed with nearly two years of therapy, and with the diagnosis, Chris Packham is “better” these days. No, he has no “real friends”, but isn’t bothered in the slightest. “I don’t need to go to a dinner party this weekend with someone I’ve known for 15 years. What’s the point of that?” But he has a great relationship with Megan, 21 now and studying zoology at Liverpool University. “I won’t say I’m proud because I don’t like pride as a trait. But what an amazing thing. I’m pleased.”
He’s still obsessed with his dogs – Itchy and Scratchy, also black poodles (“there’s only one kind of dog, isn’t there?” he jokes) – but he also has an understanding partner, Charlotte. She owns a zoo on the Isle of Wight so certainly “gets” his monomaniacal love for animals.
What does she make of the book and its unvarnished, exposing truths?
“She’s very supportive. She’s not in any way negative. She says she’s writing a parallel book – How to Live with a Person with Asperger’s. Whenever I make one of my faux pas and say something entirely inappropriate, she makes a note of it,” he smiles. “But I can’t say that sometimes some of my behaviour doesn’t upset her.”
Now, as the days lengthen and the earth wakes, Springwatch is stirring into life once more. By definition it’s a show involving lots of people and logistics and interaction, not to mention the pressures of exhausting live broadcasts. Does someone with Asperger’s view its return with some trepidation?
“Ah, not trepidation, but I think about it. I get myself psyched up for it. They all know, the people I work with. They take the piss out of me, the fact that everything has to be lined up. But they’re very tolerant of that. ‘OK, that’s Chris’s seat, and we don’t put anything on that part of the sofa, and we don’t just go into his caravan and dump a load of shit in there!’
“I have processes,” he shrugs, “and as long as I can do them and keep the same pattern of everything, then that’s fine.”
But he admits that it can be tiring, having to be mindful of all these criteria while anchoring a huge show. “And sometimes I slip out of it – I forget that I’m meant to look at people. Making eye-contact, I’ve got to think about it. Charlotte said to me that I didn’t look at her for the first four months that we went out. I fancied the pants off her and I was concentrating so hard not to mess up!”
You already thought Chris Packham was a great TV presenter? Knowing all this, he’s even more brilliant now. Not, of course, that Mr. Logic sees it that way.
“It’s OK talking to a camera,” says this rather unique animal. “It’s a bit of glass. It’s easy.”