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BAFTA Television Lecture: Chris Packham CBE

30 January 2020

Transcript from the BAFTA Television Lecture: Chris Packham, Tuesday 21st January, London Barbican Centre 

Sarah Putt: Good evening, thank you very much for coming tonight. My name is Sarah Putt and I am deputy chair of the Academy’s Television Committee, and I’m delighted to introduce our BAFTA Television Lecture speaker Chris Packham CBE.


This lecture is a highlight of BAFTA’s year-round programme of events, where we invite one of television’s leading figures to give their personal view on creative excellence and their vision for the future. This lecture offers a neutral platform for debate, and strives to drive the conversation around creativity in broadcasting. It’s all part of BAFTA’s charitable mission to bring the very best work in film, games and television to public attention, and to support growth of creative talent.


Chris Packham CBE is an award-winning wildlife and natural world broadcaster, conservationist, photographer, writer and campaigner. His career has spanned more than thirty years. As a broadcaster, Chris began in 1986 when he was a presenter on the multi-BAFTA-winning series The Really Wild Show. Since then, Chris has gone on to present a huge range of popular natural history programmes, including Autumnwatch and Springwatch, Yellowstone Live, Curious Creatures and Operation Iceberg, which saw him embark on a ground-breaking expedition to the Arctic in 2012. More recently, in a very personal film, Chris explained what it is like to live with Asperger’s in Chris Packham: Asperger’s and Me on BBC One. Many of these are also BAFTA winners.


Beyond the screen, Chris campaigns fearlessly for causes he believes in, and brings audiences to stories about biodiversity and the natural world in his own unique and infectious way. Chris’ lecture tonight will be a bold rallying call for action. He will focus on how programme makers handle stories on climate and biodiversity and the impact of production on the environment, to challenge the industry to wake up to the fact we’re just not doing enough. In relation to Chris’ call to action, here at BAFTA we are doing more than ever as part of a wider commitment to sustainability. There is, of course, much more to do, but the goal this year is that the EE British Academy Film Awards will be carbon neutral, and we’re working towards making the same commitment for the Virgin Media British Academy Television Awards.


Since 2011, BAFTA has also chaired albert, the industry consortium on environmental sustainability. This is a collaborative project, supported by almost all major broadcasters and production companies. The group has two aims: To reduce the industry’s carbon impact, and to ensure that we are effectively and strategically engaging audiences on environmental issues.


So we look forward to a thought-provoking lecture and discussion. After the lecture, Creative Director of UK Factual at Raw, Liesl Evans, will chair an interview with Chris and take your questions from the floor.


Finally a note to say we are audio recording and filming the lecture for future broadcast on BAFTA’s social channels. Please do check out for future activity. Without further ado, please join me in warmly welcoming our speaker, Chris Packham.




Chris Packham: I come in fear for all humankind. I come in fear for all humankind. Not as a Messiah, but as a messenger, because that’s my job these days, that’s the job some of you have given me—I’m very grateful for that. I’ll take a moment to say thank you for giving me that job. It’s a job that sometimes sees me shot at; they always say don’t shoot the messenger, but my adversaries have never listened to that. Thankfully I’ve got quite thick skin. But my role now, not just within television but outside of that, is to transfer knowledge and fact and information from one source to another to precipitate productive progress. It’s something I take very seriously because I need to do it with enormous urgency. It’s always been a privilege to be a messenger, too, and my career goes back—well if that’s what you call it—to the mid-‘80s when I started making The Really Wild Show. I grew up in a three-up, three-down looking at National Geographic; I never dared dream I would visit some of those locations. That’s where my gratitude comes from to some of the people here who facilitate that. To paraphrase one of my favourite movie lines of our era, I’ve seen things people wouldn’t believe. I‘ve seen humpbacks breaching off the shoulder of Cortez, I’ve seen cheetahs hunting gazelle at dawn off the Musiara Gate. But my question is: Will all of these things be lost in time like tears in rain, or can we save them from that time to die?


I think the question is valid to this audience because we have enormous power in this room to make a productive difference, and our consciences need to be satisfied that we will make those differences and we will make those differences. So in an unconventional lecture, certainly unconventional for me, I’m going to do something a little unusual: I’ve written you all a story, yeah. Sat down, toiled over my keyboard and written you all a story. I’m going to read you the story then we’re going to have a look at a clip that I made recently on location, going to segue directly into that clip and the clip will run for about fifteen minutes, and you’ll know when it finishes because it will say ‘The End’ in white letters on the screen, pretty simple. So without further ado, I’m going to read you my story.


Here we go. I hope you’re sitting comfortably for the moment. He will pitch precariously over the top of the ladder at the peak of the 1,000 bund. And as he does so, his vast fingernail will break off and float out and away like a flake of fire ash. He’ll pull down his UV and squint after his scale, watching it spiral on the salty updraft until that precious little piece of him softly melts into the smog and vanishes. All of the younglings will lose their nails, many their hair and many their teeth by the time they’ll be his age. He will be fourteen.


The descent was dangerous; the rung swung loose and rusty and the wind smacked his face and tore at his smock for the long hour that he spat the brine and drank the tears that streamed from his sea-stung eyes, clambering down, a speck on that shear face of steel and stone. He dwelt in the shade of this great dyke and at certain times when the grinding of the colossal tides quietened, they knew the waves had sunk and the braves of the well-fettled made this journey to try and see the sun.


He was the old fishering man as soon as he landed on the naked shore, far out beyond the litter sling, bent forward with his fisher stick. Blobbed with great clots of spindrift, knee-deep in the brown slosh, staggering to stand on that edge of the sea’s land. The figure lurched in the spew and he wondered again at his desperation, the ancient fool with his ancient fisher tool, tugging his line through a fishless ocean with some hell-bent redemptive notion.


The base of the bund, the work of the pre-ers, those with memories of all the gone things; tattooed there in tableaus of wave-worn paint were a menagerie of fantastic fables. Slippery-shaped blue and grey creatures with giant swimming arms, with huge spouts of steam boiling from their backs, smooth and sleek, some leaping clear of frothy white water, others bent beneath with their baby’s curved beneath their tales. He gazed through the fog at murals of shining fish and traced his fingers over the mottled bodies of eight-legged devils with bulging eyes, and he found twenty tiny buttons, prettily banded in orange and white, peeping from a tangle of ropy fingers nestled in a jumble of violet and yellow-green rocks. The paint had long peeled; these were the fading myth from the time of trees.


Years before, his mother had taken him to visit the tree. His father and brother had just died in the third famine and his sister had vanished before the ‘gretchy’ had come. They transported all day and despite the fact they tokened their units, the line of pilgrims was so long they turned back, only having paused in confusion at the monument silhouette. Smaller than they’d been led to believe, the tree was broken into a wicked tangle, twisted, painful and sad.


He blinked and squinted to spot what the mutterers said were real leaves, and those sickly smudges behind the rain-soaked plastic shroud were all he could remember of the world’s last tree, except that it was on the transport back that the hoax about the bird had been used and the whole world screened in to follow the search. Nothing was found. They all knew the birds were gone; not even his father had seen a bird.


The fishering man staggered up the beach, rolling in the surf. Broken by the sea and betrayed again by his half-witted hopes. So the boy trudged down and helped to drag him roughly across the plastic shore, filthy and stinking of the sea sludge, foaming from the mouth, retching against the poisons, his hands raw, pinkened with sores and blotched with rosy bleeds. He disentangled him from the coils of his fishering stick, which danced spitefully in the gale and snapped on the rocks as the afternoon began to rot. As on every other of his adventures over the bund, the sun was not going to show. There was no horizon. A thin rusty strip lie where the slimy beige water blurred invisibly with the greying, mud-coloured sky. Soon a long, clammy night swallowed the two fugitives as they crawled into a cave at the foot of the rampart.


He began shivering and the fishering man began vomiting. He spewed three times; the first brought forth his last meal of cud, the second a froth of bitter pus and the last a splash of blood; clots of which rubied his matted beard. In the howling gloom, as they shook and spat, the fishering man fictioned him that he’d watched the pre-ers artisting the ramparts when he was a youngling. They’d come in floaters from the outside, they were ancient but they had good fettle. They brought ladders and papers with artistry on them and they’d copied the gone-things onto the slabs in swirls of brilliant colours. They’d had names for all of those ghosts, and he’d forgotten all but one: whales. The biggest monsters in their vestuary were called whales and one of the pre-ers facted that she’d seen them living.


She’d storied the younglings that whales lived in the sea but breathed from the air, that they transported all around the oceans, deep downing and had a secret language of beautiful songs they sang in warm blue waters. That they could leap into the sky and had families and tribes and that they lived for hundreds of years. She storied that the pre-ers first murdered these whales for food, then broke their ears and fed them plastics until they rotted inside out and all died. She storied that there were once so many different gone-things that no one could count them, and she’d shown them her skin, which was painted with many fabulous creatures. The pre-ers smiled and called her the library of life; they’d circle around her naked body crazily naming all her artistries while the younglings chimped in awe and wonder and cried again, again, again. And so she storied until the sky went out, and everyone stared up at the fresh-glowing frescos in silence. And the pre-ers promised to return and they packed their floaters and went out smaller and smaller.


That night and for five more there were great storms and no one ever saw those pre-ers again. The morning air was thick and still, and when he scaled the wall he was giddy with tiredness and hunger, so rested frequently, hanging on the steel, his eyes closed, listening to his gasping heart. Halfway up his ascent the beach was still visible, and he watched the tiny fishering man wrestling with this stick, striding out through the dreck, stumbling and rising until he reached the ribbon of oily scum where he cast his line, baited with his puke into the barren sea. Beyond him he could see the carcasses of the final floaters, buckled and slumped, jumbled and lumped; their bodies wrent, all dressed in the mess of the plastic spent by the pre-ers.


They had killed everything. The gone things, his father, his brother and sister. The sea, the air, the land, the birds, the whales. Only the fishering man’s hope and his grip on the ladder were beyond their paid-for curse. He ached. Every cell in his body was groaning a relentless agony. He’d survived the sixth famine but the seventh was going to kill him. He’d had no gretchy for two weeks and his cracked lips had drained the last of his water five days ago. It was silent apart from his failed door softly knocking and his ransacked room was revoltingly hot. They’d either all left or they were dead. He was alone in his cot, sweating, itching, coughing and lying in his stinking shit and piss. Every time he turned, he cracked the skin of his mess and choked on the stench. The rind peeled from his sores and the agony snuffed out the consciousness. He woke for the last time in a twilight and listened to his scratchy breaths, and when he summoned the courage to draw open his scratchy eyes to see, he could no longer discern colour. He recognised this as the point of his death, and his last thought did not come randomly. He’d been dying slowly enough to have prepared for this moment.


So he recalled his final climb in search of the sun, all those years ago when he had the fettle to scale the bund and sneak down to the beach. On the way up he’d been smothered in the smoke of the pyres of burning dead, the sweep of the spotty sickness had been thorough and thousands of younglings would die, too many, too quickly to transport, so they set them alight outside their homes each door. And when he pressed on, clear of the fatty stench of burning flesh, he’d perch for a while on the dizzy top of the parapet and surveyed his world. The foreground had been speckled orange and flowed lazy grey with the fires fuelled by the burning younglings. The smoke rolled, softly veiling the black and brown sub-city slums. Long, lavender ribbons that thinned to a stupor in the east where their star should have risen but where the light never set. That’s where the ever glow of the mega blocks and all their power-thirst bloomed orange, fat and heavy. With flickering lines of light, the lines where the lucky lived their lucky lives of luck, in the thickest of the muck where everything was stuck, ground down in brown town in meltdown.


It was there that the millions had swarmed while the world warmed, huddled close to their uninformed and denied, deformed desire, to hide out in the anti-worlds; those concrete closets where they nurtured their skeletons and locked their truths away to roll and need the greed and quash the need of those who thought to intercede, denied extinction’s speed and now knelt captive before their helpless machines. Outside the scum. The sweat and flesh. The lumpy, ugly. The fungus eaters. The gretchy sick and hungry swarmed in futile starvation furies in their slump of sprawl, dirty and thick, moronic and sick. Born to die and just waiting, wasting and waiting to be waste.


The fishering man had disappeared a few weeks later, presumably drowned or fallen from the ladder and been sucked away in the gloop. The boy had cautiously checked the cave expecting the reek of a corpse and there were signs he’d rested there. A pillow of plastic and the torn sheets he’d clothed himself in; handprints in the sand, the prop where he’d rested his fishering stick and the signs of a small fire, a blackened circle of sand and close by a scattered pile of tiny flakes, silvery, shiny, glistening as if the old man had pulverised some glass. They sparkled emerald and sapphire in the light and shone bright grey in the shade. He flicked them and they floated and flashed, glittered and coated his finger in a shimmering crystal skin, a dust of diamonds. He twisted his hand and a deep smile came out of him as he loved their pretty twinkling. He sniffed them, oily and salty with a warm bitter sting like nothing he’d ever smelled before nor ever smelled again.


And as his heart will stop and as this last moment of his life lingers on his final breath, he’ll realise. He’ll realise that those beautiful scales had come from the skin of a fish. He’ll realise that the fishering man’s determination and persistence had meant that his enduring hope had been fulfilled. Then he’ll sigh, his lungs will collapse, and for only the second time in his life he’ll smile from deep inside and then he will die, he will be thirty-one.


[Extended clip plays]



Liesl Evans: Wow. One take.


CP: I learned my trade on film where it was too expensive to mess up!


LE: Let’s start with your story though, Chris. That is a pretty apocalyptic view of our future—what did you hope to achieve by that?


CP: I think that may well be perceived as an apocalyptic view, but some of the scenes of that story are very real on this planet at the moment. If you were living in southwestern Australia then you would be scuffing in the embers of your burning house looking for some precious artefact of value to you.


And I think that it’s too cosy for us here at the moment. We’ve had flooding before Christmas in Yorkshire and some suffered as a result, but climate change and what it’s exacting on the planet is happening over there, which is why people are not reacting as radically and urgently as they should here. I think it’s desperately unfortunate when we have the capacity to address the issue, we have the intelligence to do it, we’re not putting prevention in place, we’re itching to get hurt so we can cure the problem. For all of our remarkable assets as a species that’s a sad indictment, really.


I think one of the things that has limited our ability to communicate these issues, our desire to communicate these issues in TV, is we perceive people have grown too frightened of fear. But we know fear is a very compelling emotion if you motivate action; it’s motivated all sorts of great human inventions and transformations, everything from pestilence to disease and war and political issues; we’ve overcome them because they’ve frightened us. I think using a bit of fear is OK but science fiction is one of the methods we need to not shy away from. I think we have to counter it with hope and the man did catch a fish, there is hope at the end of the story, but we have to get—we can’t deny what’s happening out there and it is terrifying, it does frighten—it frightens me because I don’t want to lose, I’m a bad loser. It frightens me more because I have a step-daughter who’s twenty-five, and I can’t imagine the world when she’s my age, the same age as me, and now I’m more terrified than ever. So we’ve got to do something about it and we’ve got the power to do it we’ve just got to get on with it.


LE: Climate change was first reported in 1912, so why has it taken us this long to make it a priority do you think?


CP: Well yes we have known, but our technologies in terms of measuring the climate have greatly increased and I think therefore the integrity of the science has grown and grown and therefore we can trust in our scientists. Climate, weather—there are always fluctuations and ambiguities; we’ve needed to accumulate sufficient data to give us the absolute authority that we now have to say it’s human-induced and we are exacerbating it. obviously coincidentally with those studies we’ve learned to identify what we’re doing to precipitate it. So I think that when I was at university, climate change from my perspective was just being discussed at that point in the 1980s. So I think a theatre of shame, if you like, doesn’t go all the way back to 1912; there wasn’t broad enough awareness nor the concise science available.


But for some time we’ve had that capacity and then for a long time unfortunately the powerful people who are principally responsible for exacerbating climate change have had their paid lobbyists, the climate deniers—they’re still out there but they’ve lost most of their voice, thankfully now—and initially, justifiably they were given a platform, there’s two sides to every story. But that platform was balanced far more heavily on one side for a time and that held us back a bit. But we’re beyond that now, the vast, vast majority of people know that climate change is real, they can see it being played out in real time in our lifetimes and we can measure this biologically as well as meteorologically and we’re seeing those sorts of changes.


I think the thing that accelerates the fear for me is that in my short lifetime, which is a meaningless quantity of time, I’ve seen those changes taking place. My particular focus is obviously natural history, I see springs arriving early, I’ve seen birds arriving early, I’ve seen the whole ecosystem going off-kilter, and I look back at my diaries which I’d annotated when I was fourteen and dates are written on the page and they’re two, three weeks different than they are now, and that’s the lifetime of one insignificant naturalist. And yet it’s still happening.


LE: Should we still be representing those other views, the other side of the story?


CP: No, we very definitely didn’t. They’ve had their day and this comes back to the underlying premise of my piece and that’s that this is the time that we have to tell the truth. We no longer have time to entertain the fripperies of those liars and the things that motivate them. It’s too dangerous. We’re in virtually a last-stand situation now and we can’t be tolerant of those sorts of things. If there were any chance that they were right then the answer would be yes, because science only produces a fact at a certain point in time, science is on-going, but at this point in time we know exactly what’s going on and pretty much how dangerous it is. So I see these people now as a dangerous force and in fact, although since I’ve been doing social media I’ve never blocked anyone—I had this sort of idealistic idea that if I have a voice then everyone else is entitled to raise theirs in opposition if they see it fit—but I’ve determined that when I get round to it I’m going to block all of those climate change deniers from my social media because I see them now as nothing other than a very, very dangerous force for wrong.


LE: The Natural History Museum has just this week announced a new programme because we’re in a ‘planetary emergency,’ as they put it rather than a climate emergency, with one million species at the risk of extinction, and what they’re wanting to do is to inform people in order to empower people. Do you think we in the production community are wanting to do that?


CP: I think we’ve made—as I said in the film, in the last few years we’ve seen a radical transformation with programmes that I‘ve made myself and programmes that I know will be in production. I listened to the BBC News bulletins and they are going to run this year a continuing thread on climate—I’m hoping they’re going to put the truth into that. But no, I think it’s tempting to say we came late to the table but I’m happy for anyone to jump on the bandwagon as long as it’s moving in the right direction.


We’ve made some very powerful programming, there’s no doubt about that. There’s one—sorry, this is going to sound a bit arrogant as there’s one mistake in my piece to camera. There was more than one, I know. There was one factual error and that was that the programme the BBC has made about population growth is actually going out this evening, and we showed it to a collection of journalists a while back before Christmas, and when it concluded there was no applause; they sat there in shocked silence. It’s a bold, courageous, forthright, honest, clarient call to talk about this issue. We see these changes taking place.


My job, if you like, is to be critical of the pace, and I’m trying to drive that pace. It’s no good me saying ‘everything’s great, it’s brilliant,’ I want it to happen more quickly and more forthrightly so I’m bound to say that. But no I think—I drew attention to it in the programme, when Blue Planet instigated the discussion about plastics, that initially was in a niche audience which is our natural history broadcasting, and we know what that audience is and we know its limitations. What followed on, I think was even more impressive. Well The One Show, The One Show is a popular early evening programme that ran a fantastically composed, well thought through, engaging and empowering campaign to highlight that plastic wastage issue in the UK. TV can show that it can do it but it ought to be integrating these stories far more broadly, far more urgently, and sometimes far more truthfully.


LE: I suppose how do you go about empowering an audience? Because if you constantly feed them with the heavy, hard facts like your story—and your story is depressing and upsetting—how do you empower people?


CP: That’s because I wanted to depress and upset you all to get your minds in a place where you didn’t want to envisage that sort of future. The purpose of the story was to frighten people because there are tangible aspects of reality in that story, there’s no question of that. So we see whales choking on plastic, all those sorts of things that were integrated.


But you’re right, the critical thing is at the moment we’re doing a pretty good job—don’t say we’ve finished it—but we’re doing a pretty good job of ringing the bell and saying we have an emergency. Extinction Rebellion has done a remarkable job over the last year of doing this. They’ve instigated climate and environment emergencies not just in the UK but all over the world, they’ve woken up the world’s media. Whether you agree with their methods or not, the result has been successful. The next step is to empower people to implement the solutions, and we do have the solutions. There was a fear in the past that all environmental programmes, this is going back years, that all environmental programmes were going to be too depressing to watch, they didn’t want that, it was doom-laden and so on and so forth.


But we’ve got a remarkable arsenal of technologies and abilities and solutions there. I think while some of those will need to be implemented at government, global level, many of them can be done by you and I. And those are perhaps the most important because if we as individuals feel that we’ve made a valid contribution, even collectively if it doesn’t make any difference, even if collectively that action doesn’t save the world, what it does is empowers us to feel that we are part of a solution not the source of the problem.


We need to approach this on a couple of different levels: One, the individual. Giving people something to do, of which there are a plethora of things to do. The plastic campaign is a case in point, we’ve seen change is slow and frustrating but it’s happening. And then of course we’re talking about the governmental level, the big level where we need people not only to care—we’ve done a brilliant job of making people are, but now we need to lead them to the point where they have to take action, meaningful action, and that means we have to question governmental decisions when it comes to simple things like oil exploration and fracking. If we are setting targets to be carbon zero by 2050, why are we still investing in oil exploration that won’t come online until just before that? Why are we investing in further carbon-based fuel expansion with fracking? It’s an absolute madness.


We have to get people to a point where they will take action to quash that in a peaceful democratic way because we still live, well, do we, I don’t know? But anyway, we’re meant to live in a peaceful, democratic society where we can effect things through non-violent direct actions as we do when we take to the streets.


The other thing is we have to respond to the young people, who after years of silence have found their voice with remarkable clarity and poignancy. And when you have a young, sixteen, seventeen year-old girl, speaking to the world’s leaders and it’s painfully obvious that she’s the brightest person in the room that is enormously important for the youth of the world. So we have to start handing over some of our position to them, we have to give them a platform because they are brave, they are clear and simple in their requests, things that are too complicated for us because we consider the politics and risk. They’re not interested in that, and that’s why Greta, fellow Aspie, doesn’t see anything other than black and white, is able to stand there and tell the truth.




LE: Going back into programme making. We produce programmes that I think are thirteen tonnes of carbon used for every hour of television. How do you think we can improve that? What are the things we can practically do in the community to make that better?


CP: Well I think let’s say programme making and keep it to natural history and environmental programmes that we’re making because basically the vast majority of people that I work with in that field, the reason they’re on the team is because they care about the environment. Everyone’s into it. it’s what allows us to make the programmes that we do for the paltry budgets that we get given, nudge. And that is because we’re impassioned. All those people are willing the audience for change, and we have to make those changes. The albert initiative is great, it’s given a set of rules and ideas for people to take on board, but we need to push it further and we need to set meaningful targets. Ours is obviously the genre of TV where we should be taking the lead and showing people how to do this. And I think that the first thing I think is we need better communication. There are lots of people who during the course of production will find a method of achieving something--