Tuesday, 1 January 2002

'Young, attractive' wildlife show presenters slated for ignorance

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From the Independant
One of the grizzled old beasts of the television wildlife world has condemned programmes that made stars of presenters rather than animals.

Terry Nutkins, the former presenter of The Really Wild Show and Brilliant Creatures, said yesterday that television companies were alienating viewers by attaching more importance to presenters' looks than their knowledge.

He was speaking the week before the BBC Natural History Unit's newest signing, Saba Douglas-Hamilton, 31, appears in Going Ape, the first of three wildlife documentaries. She follows the actress Tamzin Outhwaite, who plays Mel in EastEnders, and Charlotte Uhlenbroek, whose appearances have earned her the tabloid sobriquet "telly wildlife stunner".

Ms Douglas-Hamilton and Ms Uhlenbroek have strong academic and family backgrounds in studying wildlife, while Ms Outhwaite professed to a lifelong desire to swim with dolphins before appearing in Tamzin Outhwaite goes Wild with Dolphins last month.

But Mr Nutkins, 49, said they were being used for their looks. "[Programme makers]will do anything for ratings, which has made it very competitive for us old hands," he said. "I don't mind that, but the people they are taking on board know nothing about what they are presenting.

"They think that an attractive mini-skirted young girl will bring in the ratings, but ... the viewing public are not as stupid as they think they are. People come up to me in the street and say wildlife programmes are not as good as they used to be. The presenters don't know their subject so well and are just reading from a script.

"I have nothing against a young, attractive female presenting a wildlife television programme, but I do have an objection to a young, attractive female if she doesn't know anything about it."

Mr Nutkins said Ms Outhwaite's programme was "all very nice" but not a natural history programme. He claimed Ms Uhlenbroek "gave the game away" when she was "given a good kick" by a gorilla and sat there "looking pathetic" while four support staff with sticks chased the animals away. "It wouldn't have bothered me a bit," he said. "I ... certainly wouldn't have had people chase it away."

He also condemned the Discovery channel's Crocodile Hunter presenter, Steve Irwin – described by the channel as part Indiana Jones, part Tarzan – for being more interested in his ego than the animals.

"When I did it the animals were the star and the presenter was second," he said. "The animals should always be the stars. Now it's a vehicle for the presenter to put themselves up as the big star."

Mr Nutkins' criticisms may surprise Ms Uhlenbroek, who is a doctor of zoology and spent years studying chimpanzees in the forests of Tanzania. They will also raise eyebrows at the BBC's Natural History Unit, which made the widely acclaimed The Blue Planet, produced by Alastair Fothergill, who devised Going Ape. Mr Fothergill has said Ms Douglas-Hamilton's experience with elephants made her a natural presenter because she understood animal behaviour and was used to rainforests.

Keith Scholey, head of the BBC's Natural History Unit, said glamour could be a factor in choosing presenters but that expertise was vital. "You want a presenter that stands out," he said. "Glamour can be one thing that stands out, but Bill Oddie is one of our favourite presenters and I hope he won't mind me saying that ... he is not in that category." He said Ms Outhwaite's programme had presented her as a celebrity who wanted to learn about dolphins, not an expert.