When a person in public life compares himself to a plate of food, it is almost a sign that he is in a bad place, psychologically. So Peter Bazalgette’s remarks on resigning from Endemol, the production company responsible for Big Brother, naturally caused me concern. Bazalgette must be some kind of cousin of mine – we are both descended from the Victorian sewer king Sir Joseph Bazalgette – and, although we have never met, there is a family bond there.
What Baz, as we call him in the family, actually said was: “I’ve been on the set menu, the table d’hôte and I want to go à la carte.” Naively, I read this apparently bizarre statement as a cry for help.
I should have known better. Our family, perhaps thanks to our background in the sewage business, is at its best when things get a little mucky. Baz, I have discovered through a network of cousins several times removed, knew exactly what he was doing when he bailed out of Big Brother. The whole “I’m the dish of the day” thing was a blind.
Apparently, he had seen for some time that conventional reality TV was, to use an appropriate metaphor, a dead duck. Ever since the brilliant Kate Humble and her assistant Bill Oddie earned better ratings with their nature series Springwatch than Channel Four did with Big Brother, Baz had been working on an exit strategy.
His big idea is that, just as reality TV was a reaction against the old-fashioned documentary with its bossy, voice-of-God commentary, so nature programmes are also facing change. Viewers are tired of watching those ridiculous wildebeest forever being eaten by crocodiles. We want to see the extraordinariness of the ordinary, to fly with the swifts and hunt with the weasels.
Baz has seen that there is money to be made at the crossroads where reality meets nature and is already developing some ground-breaking, nest-shaking new shows.
Badgers are hot, ratings-wise, he believes. Viewing figures for Springwatch revealed a surge of interest when nature put on its own black-and-white minstrel show with baby brocks gambolling together outside a sett. When the cameras returned to a blue tit’s nest, a power surge on the national grid suggested that the nation was putting on a cup of tea.
In Big Badger, cameras will be put inside two setts, which will be connected to one another during the breeding season. The anticipated clashes, we are told, will make the Jade Goody/Shilpa Shetty clash look like Songs of Praise. A plan to film the series in an area where badgers are being culled by Defra to prevent the spread of bovine TB has yet to be confirmed.
Cuckoo Swap, nature’s answer to Wife Swap, is such an obvious idea that it is surprising that no one has done it already. The series will follow the progress of a cuckoo egg which has been laid in the nest of a pair of wrens. As the growing cuckoo boots its “siblings” out of the nest, animal psychologists will be on hand to comment on the wren parents’ feelings of anxiety, self-doubt, remorse and finally pride when their hulking charge takes wing.
Mark Cocker’s brilliant book Crow Country has revealed that birds of the corvid family are peculiarly resourceful – intellectually, the average rook would knock Chanelle, Nasty Nicky or any other reality dumbo into a cocked hat. In I’m a Jackdaw, Get Me Out of Here!, a flock of jackdaws, carrion crows, rooks and possibly a raven, will be put in the hostile environment of the Channel Four office and will be required to come up with programme ideas. The bird which can put up with human behaviour longest will be the winner.
The opposition is already said to be running scared. ITV is looking into a comedy involving a group of hares in March. Channel Five is working on No Sex Please, We’re Rats, a series in which nature’s randiest mammals are denied sex for several minutes at a time. Maybe it is family loyalty, but my money when it comes to reality wildlife is on my cousin Baz.