Michaela Strachan on wildlife, Springwatch and her Surrey roots
12:08 18 March 2013
Michaela Strachan may be famed for her upbeat presenting style, but even she received a bumpy ride when she joined Autumnwatch back in the tail end of 2011.
“Some of the feedback was initially really negative,” admits Michaela, who was taken aback by comments posted on the BBC nature show’s messageboard when she took over from family favourite Kate Humble. “One person said that it looked as though I had a stick-on comedy nose, while another said: ‘I wish people would stop saying she’s 46. My brother went to school with her and he says she’s 56,’ even though I am 46! A third said: ‘Hasn’t she aged since she presented children’s telly?’ which is hardly surprising because that was 25 years ago!
“My co-presenter, Martin Hughes-Games, gets very sensitive about the comments, but now I just laugh them off,” she adds. “Now that we’re prepared for it, Chris Packham and I love it when there’s a bitchy comment – which is usually about our hair or what we’re wearing.”
Michaela, I sense, is tougher and shrewder than her happy-go-lucky TV persona might suggest. Not only has her career spanned the best part of three decades, but she has outlasted many female contemporaries who have long since been relegated to the annals of TV history. She is also a professional to her fingertips, something her Springwatch co-presenter Chris Packham was quick to recognise when they were first teamed up on The Really Wild Show back in the Eighties.
“I was known for being a smiley presenter on The Wide Awake Club, while Chris was very dry and sarcastic,” she grins. “Or to put it another way: Chris was The Smiths; I was Kylie Minogue. When he was younger, Chris was a tortured soul and I just didn’t think we’d get on, but we got on brilliantly. I think that’s because we have a lot of respect for each other.”
Besides, Michaela is far from a dunce when it comes to her wildlife facts and figures. In fact, the lads quickly nicknamed her the girly swot because of her penchant for looking everything up, though she modestly shrugs it off. “That’s because, while they were building bird boxes in their gardens when they were five, I was in a tutu doing ballet,” she grins.
What’s more, she actually thinks her children’s TV background is a good fit for the show. “You want to make it accessible. You don’t want people to feel intimidated out of some misplaced sense that they lack the knowledge required. My role is to be enthusiastic and have a passion, without necessarily knowing the inside-wing measurement of a pigeon.”
They must be doing something right because the Springwatch, Autumnwatch and now Winterwatch shows regularly attract four million viewers. So what is it that makes them perennially popular? “I think it’s because we feature wildlife that’s accessible. People love seeing lions and tigers, but they won’t get a chance to view them in the wild unless they go on safari.
“On our shows, we talk about a robin and then you can go out into your garden and see a robin. Viewers can also make a real difference. If we say, it’s a bad year for berries, please put some berries on your bird table, people can go out and do something. Whereas if lions are being hunted and killed in Africa, what can the average person in the UK do about it?”
At home in Hersham
Michaela is chatting from her mum’s cottage in Hersham, where she stays when she’s filming in the UK. Although she now lives in Cape Town, South Africa, with her partner, Nick, their son Oliver, and her three step-children, she grew up in Hinchley Wood in Esher and returns to visit her family as often as possible.
“You go through a period in your 20s when you just want to get away from where you were brought up, but as you get older you’re invariably drawn back,” she says. “And if, like me, work takes you to London, then Surrey is a great place to live if you don’t want the hustle and bustle of the big smoke. Surrey is much greener and offers a better pace of life.”
Michaela, it seems, was always destined for the bright lights. At the age of three, she enrolled at Chadsworth Stage School in Esher, where she excelled at ballet and tap, and regularly performed in local dance competitions. But her world fell apart in her late teens when her father lost his job and they faced severe financial difficulties.
“I’d grown up in a secure suburban family, but then Dad lost his job, my parents split up and I had no control over what was happening,” she says. “When things spiralled out of control, I felt I needed to regain that control, so I decided to do it by controlling my food intake.” She now describes herself as a ‘textbook’ case for anorexia and reveals her weight plummeted to seven-and-a-half stone.
She finally conquered the disease in her mid-20s, by which time she had found fame on the children’s TV show The Wide Awake Club with Timmy Mallet. Since then, she has forged a career presenting a host of nature programmes, from The Really Wild Show to Countryfile, Michaela’s Zoo Babies, Michaela’s Animal Road Trip and Michaela’s Wild Challenge.
“I’ve been really surprised at my career and where it’s gone,” she says. “For years, people kept telling me that I had to get out of children’s telly, but I loved appealing to that audience because they are the audience that really learn from you.”
Returning to her roots
Just to prove it, she is poised to return to her roots by performing in a one-woman show aimed at children aged between three and eight, packed with poetry, puppetry, music and lots of fascinating wildlife facts drawn from her most memorable experiences working on wildlife programmes.
“It all started when my agent suggested I write a book about animals for children. Initially, I intended writing a book about baby animals, but I thought anyone could write that – you basically look up the facts and write the book. Then I remembered that when I went away on filming assignments I used to write a poem about my filming experiences on the back of a postcard. And I’ve always loved poetry books for children, from The Gruffalo and The Cat in the Hat to Winnie the Pooh, so I decided to give it a go. Water-spitting snakes “Now we’re building on that with this show, which is very educational, a lot of fun and has plenty of audience interaction. One of my favourite poems is called Never Try to Out-Spit a Spitting Cobra, based on an item I did for Michaela’s Wild Challenge, which I illustrate with a puppet snake that spits water at the audience. Then we invite kids onto the stage with water pistols to see how far they can ‘spit’ their spitting cobras – and the one who spits furthest claims a prize.
“I also recite a poem called Polar Dentistry, based on a TV item where we had to remove a tooth from a polar bear to determine its age. For that, we haul a dad on stage, dress him up as a polar bear and then mark his bottom, which is one of the things we actually did. It always gets the kids laughing.”
Michaela may have turned her back on children’s telly, but it seems she’ll never lose her inner child.
• Michaela Strachan’s children’s book, Really Wild Adventures: A Book of Fun and Factual Animal Rhymes, is published by Franklin Watts and available from all good booksellers priced at £7.99.
MY FAVOURITE SURREY:
Restaurant: The Dining Room in Queen’s Road, Hersham. It serves really good British food and all the tables and chairs are mismatched, which gives the interior a lovely higgledy-piggledy feel.
Shop: Fat Face in Weybridge. Their clothes are really outdoorsy, which is perfect for the telly. I also like Squire’s garden centre in Hersham. I’ve really got into gardening – particularly vegetable gardening – and they sell good bird tables, nest boxes and garden bird feeders.
View: The view of Claremont lake and landscape garden from Claremont Fan Court School in Esher, where I went to school. It brings back happy memories of my childhood.
Place to relax: My mum’s garden in Hersham. Her cottage garden is small, but it’s very pretty and a real haven. It’s perfect for relaxing.
Place to visit: Kew Gardens in Richmond. It’s a brilliant place to see plants and wildlife.