‘Presenting’ natural history…

Natural history films are notoriously expensive to make. Sending a film crew half way around the world, normally with specialist kit like underwater cameras, infra red lights, camera traps, high access equipment and boxes of anti venom, to sit for weeks in a hide, or to bob on a boat waiting to document some uncooperative critter, is not going to be cheap. So lining up co-producers to spread the costs is almost always an essential part of any commission.

Selling so-called ‘blue chip’ behavioral natural history to the international market comes with the huge advantage that animals, the stars of these shows, don’t speak any one particular language. They don’t tell lame jokes or make incomprehensible topical or culturally specific references. In fact they don’t do any of the things that make human presenters so problematic when it comes to reversioning your shows for an international audience.

But blue chip is the most expensive of all natural history genres to make; double your budget at least if you are hoping to make a film without any people in it that relies entirely on the animals to carry the narrative. Making natural history films with presenters is often the only way to go.

Some producers will tell you that natural history presenters can be almost as uncooperative as the animals they are there to reveal – although in my experience most (not all) will turn up when they are supposed to and most (not all) can be directed. However with no pecuniary incentives, contracts or well-developed egos to lure them in front of the camera and onto the screen, animals are under no obligation or inclination to co-operate and frequently don’t even show up or do anything except sleep, if and when they bother to make an appearance.

So in these days of straightened budgets finding a presenter who not only turns up and does their thing, but also travels well – by which I mean works not just for one particular audience – that’s gold dust. Icon Films has recently been lucky enough to find such a presenter in extreme angler biologist and explorer Jeremy Wade.

Jeremy grew up in rural Norfolk where his dad was a vicar. He read zoology at University and taught biology at a public school before taking off to fish the world’s wildest rivers. He really couldn’t be more polite, considerate or more English if he tried. But River Monsters, the show Jeremy Wade hosts in the US, is the best rating series in Animal Planet history. Ironically, this very self effacing English angler, who can walk down most High Streets in Britain without turning any heads, is a star in America. I am curious to see how things will change once the series gets picked up in the UK. I suspect Jeremy will have to invest in some dark glasses.

What has Jeremy got that so many Brit presenters who have crashed and burned on the other side of the Atlantic don’t have? I think it is authenticity. He is always himself and that is what audiences, wherever they are, appreciate.

After the first series of River Monsters went out on Animal Planet, Jeremy was arriving at New York airport to begin work on series two, when he was pulled across by immigration. We’d had huge problems getting him the right visa and it was a horrible moment. But all the Homeland Security officers wanted to do was shake his hand. They had seen him leap into a fast flowing freezing Himalayan river with his fishing rod in one hand, muttering something about “going for a little swim”, determined not to loose the monster man-eating cat fish he had hooked. They knew he was the real deal, albeit, as one viewer put it, ‘a dumb shit with balls of steel’. Now, that’s high praise.

Harry Marshall is CEO of Icon Films