On a short trip home in between expeditions, Steve Backshall spoke to TV Real about his long-awaited dream project and what he hopes audiences will take from it.
Steve Backshall has built a career in television by being boldly unafraid to experience the natural wonders of the world. He parlayed his innate curiosity and penchant for traveling into a gig as an Adventurer in Residence for National Geographic Channel before doing a raft of natural-history series for the BBC—including the hit kids’ title Deadly 60—Discovery, Sky and Channel 5. His latest is Expedition with Steve Backshall, which sets out to document a series of firsts, including the descent of a white-water river in the Himalayas and a trek through unexplored jungle in South America. Produced by True to Nature for BBC and UKTV, the show is being distributed by Fremantle.
TV REAL: How did your new series Expedition come about?
BACKSHALL: It’s a concept I’ve been trying to get off the ground for a very, very long time. I’ve been pitching it in its present condition since 2006 and finally managed to get moving on it a couple of years ago. I’ve been making expedition television programs for 20 years now, and just doing expeditions for 25 years. [The series] stems from the fact I’ve managed to get together a little black book of people who are capable of extraordinary things and of places that are still very much waiting to be explored. I’ve been convinced that this was an epic series in the making—convincing commissioners of that was a whole different ball game! [Laughs]
TV REAL: What was it that finally moved BBC and UKTV to come on board?
BACKSHALL: We did two other expedition programs with the BBC. One was a mountain climb in Venezuela [Extreme Mountain Challenge] and the other was [a journey along] the Baliem River in New Guinea [Down the Mighty River]. They both worked well and were very well received. To say in 2018 that we could go out and do ten expeditions that no one has ever done or seen before, and we’re going to bring you back extraordinary things, is a pretty bold claim. And I imagine a lot of people would look at you and say, “Yeah right, whatever!” [Laughs] They’d take you with a real pinch of salt. The only way I was ever going to get this going was to prove that we could do what we were saying. It went well. I mean sometimes it went really, really badly! [Laughs] It’s all been caught on camera, all there for people to see. And there is a refreshing quality to the authenticity of these expeditions. Everybody knows that what they’re watching is as close to reality as you can ever get with television. And there are moments where we are genuinely in very real threat for our lives, and there are moments where we’re experiencing highs and a level of euphoria that normal life doesn’t ever give you a chance to achieve. People can see that and have taken to it.
TV REAL: Tell us about the research you and the team at True to Nature did to come up with the expeditions.
BACKSHALL: Most of them are locations that I have had in my little black book for a long time now. There are others that [emerged from conversations with the production team]. The team is really special. It is very much dominated by women. They’re all very strong-willed and very capable. We have a team that feels more like a family of people who are all very good friends, with a lot of respect for each other. We sat down in endless coffee shops and thrashed out ideas and have come up with a compendium of expeditions that works. It was tricky. We’re filming this entire thing in a year. We wanted to make sure that we had a full diversity of locations—the Arctic, mountains, deserts, seas. Trying to slot all of those together so that they work [in terms of] timing and calendar and schedule is hard enough. If I didn’t have a team of this quality behind me, it would be impossible.
TV REAL: How did you get into television?
BACKSHALL: I started in 1998. I was working as a writer and I had an idea for a program and went out and made it myself. I went to the jungles of Colombia for about six weeks and filmed myself living rough in the jungle, catching snakes and spiders and scorpions, and I sold it to the National Geographic Channel and they took me on as an Adventurer in Residence, which is the coolest job title I’ve ever had! And I’ve been doing it ever since. It’s been a crazy, crazy ride and amazing fun. I’m so chuffed that it’s still going, 20 years on. Every single new project is a thrill. And this is the one that I’ve been working toward for 20 years.
TV REAL: I interviewed Bear Grylls and Anthony Bourdain in the past and they both mentioned cringing somewhat at their early television work. Do you ever go back and watch some of your initial productions and think, I wish I had done that differently?
BACKSHALL: I don’t really, because all of those experiences were formative. Yes, they’re very raw and they lack much of the storytelling and the finesse that I have managed to accrue over 20 years of work. But in those early programs where I was making all my mistakes, I was editing the programs and I was filming the programs. I was learning what it is to put together a short story in television. I feel like I’ve cured a lot of the mistakes I made. There’s something satisfying about that. And there’s something quite endearing about seeing the early me trying to make it work, and quite often utterly failing in television. [Laughs] All of those experiences have got me to where I am today, making my dream [project].
TV REAL: Is there a particular message you want Expedition to convey to audiences about conservation or about encouraging them to go out and experience the world?
BACKSHALL: I think if you have one simple message, you’re likely to lose or alienate an enormous number of the viewing public. The public can take from this what they want. If they simply spend an hour watching me nearly die and are all excited over how I’m going to injure myself next, that’s fine! If they’re inspired to get out and explore themselves, that’s amazing. A lot of work I’ve done in the past has been about getting kids outside into nature. The next [message] is conservation. There is a conservation angle in every one of these programs. All of the environments that we are experiencing for the first time are under threat. If the audience listens to that and has any kind of take home from it at all, even if they merely hear it and recognize it, then I will be very happy. If there’s a call to action from that, if people see what we’re talking about in conservation and think they might want to do something positive to make the world a better place, that would be the gold at the end of the rainbow.
TV REAL: Have you now gone through all the expeditions on your wish list, or are there still more in your little black book?
BACKSHALL: I certainly have enough to do this all over again, to do another ten. But it is getting harder and harder. The world is a much smaller place than it was in the golden era of exploration 200 years ago. And an awful lot of modern exploration is done through a microscope and genetics, breaking apart the genomes of animals and bacteria and viruses. Old-fashioned exploration is harder to find now, but it is that much more exciting when you do manage to find somewhere [that hasn’t been explored]. There are a couple of expeditions that we have on the hit list for this series that I’ve been trying to do since the late 1990s! Every year I come back to them and ask, Has anyone managed to do this yet? No? Amazing! Eventually, all of these things will get done. I want to do all I can to try to make sure we do them first.
TV REAL: Being a new dad, how did you manage the filming schedule?
BACKSHALL: It’s hard. I have a [newborn] son. You’re just about to hear him break into full voice now! This is a time when I want to be at home with my wife and my son. I go off this Sunday and I’ll pretty much be away for two months. That’s a long time to be away from them and to miss big parts of his development and his growing up. But this whole year has been an adventure for me in many ways, a plunge into new frontiers, be that in my personal life or in exploration.