Interview: Bill Oddie
Ella Griffiths talks to the nation's favourite twitcher about Footlights, wildlife and girlfriends.
by Ella Griffiths
Wednesday 17th October 2012, 12:45 BST
Bill Oddie is a man of multiple different parts. With a Wikipedia page describing him as an actor, writer, musician, composer, comedian, artist, ornithologist and television presenter, this is no one-trick pony. When I meet the lovable Springwatch presenter at the Cambridge Union, I ask whether he has prepared a speech for the event tonight. ‘No’, he chuckles: ‘I think I’ve got enough to talk about’.
In a checked flannel shirt and battered walking shoes, the rotund and furry-faced 70-year-old lounges on his armchair. After all, this is a man who received his OBE for his work in wildlife conversation at Buckingham Palace in a camouflage shirt. As a student at Pembroke College in the 1960’s, I ask whether he is enjoying being back in Cambridge. ‘It is very unreal’, he says. He attributes this to the changes that have taken place since his graduation, especially in terms of the new mixed-sex colleges. ‘The biggest change that I never get over is the fact that there are people like you!’, he laughs, pointing at me and whispering: ‘ females!’ under his breath. ‘You can imagine, it’s a big change; back then, they were few and far between, so a sighting of a girl walking down the street would be in the papers!’ Did he have any illicit relationships as an undergraduate? ‘I did for part of the time have a girlfriend but it was a tragic tale’, Bill says drily. ‘She was out at Girton so we'd have to cycle complete with all the usual nonsense of climbing over the walls. We had a very liberal head of college at Pembroke who seemed to have carefully positioned a lamppost by the bike sheds and wall, perhaps even with a cushion over the other side ..'
In retrospect, he would have preferred university life to have featured more girls, since this gender segregation spread over to the Footlights. Indeed, when people ask the comedian and actor where he studied, he replies that ‘I spent three years at the Footlights but not Cambridge’. Bill studied English Literature on an exhibition after his education at King Edward’s School in Birmingham, although his academic studies suffered when he began to find the degree stifling. ‘I absolutely did not enjoy it; I got no pleasure out of it and I was put off reading for life, I think, because you would always start planning how you would write your essay instead of enjoying the book’. He experimented with his childhood passion for rugby before realising that it was at a different level in Cambridge. ‘Some of the people had done national service so you did have a strand of people who were twenty-three and brilliant sportsmen’, he remembers. ‘You didn’t stand a bloody chance against them so there was no way I was ever going to get anywhere particular … Footlights really was the saviour’. Despite finding the professionalism and talent-spotting pressure of the performances intimidating, they soon became his whole undergraduate world after getting involved with the group: ‘I just lived there; the Footlights was undoubtedly what being at Cambridge was about after that’.
Did this experience in comedy and theatre proved invaluable for his early career co-writing and acting in iconic television series The Goodies? ‘Oh God Almighty, I'd be nowhere without it, totally. In a practical sense, heaven knows the legacy lingers, because it was during that period in the early sixties that people would come from the BBC in London to see if they could spot young talent. You’d be doing a musical or smoker – whatever they are, I still don’t know – and then nudge, nudge, there’d be a couple of guys from the BBC sitting in the background’. This atmosphere of competitive performance actively lead to work as Bill began writing television scripts for That Was The Week That Was while an undergraduate before becoming a national treasure as a famous BBC wildlife presenter.
After all this dabbling with television and comedy: why birds? He laughs uproariously like an earthy Santa Claus and explains that bird-watching has been his favourite pastime since childhood. ‘Funnily enough, I did very little birding whilst I was at Cambridge and I’ve never figured out why. It just stayed as a hobby completely and was always there, whatever else I was doing with some of the same people’. Even on an American tour with the 1960’s BBC radio comedy series featuring John Cleese, I’m Sorry, I’ll Read That Again (known on the tour as Cambridge Circus), Bill would explore the local wildlife. ‘It was an amazing experience being on Broadway in New York in 1964 .. Oh yes! It was stunning; there are lots of strange tales and memories of it. But wherever I went, if I was every allowed any time off, I’d be back in an hour and see what I could find’. Eventually, his twitching hobby became a central facet of his success after The Goodies ended and his hobby became more prominent. ‘I was doing bits and pieces and some journalist found out about my hobby, wrote a little article and fortunately it just escalated from there’.
Most people will know Bill as the eccentric presenter of the BBC wildlife programmes, Springwatch and Autumnwatch. Was he surprised when the nature documentary become so wildly popular with viewers? ‘No, I wasn’t, because if you get the right ingredients and the right pictures and the right characters and present it properly as live action, you’ve got some pretty safe bankers there’. Bill was one half of the charming and enthusiastic duo that he formed with fellow presenter Kate Humble, with whom he worked for numerous years. ‘We had some great times and we were appallingly misbehaved during rehearsals - if they’d been cross with us I wouldn’t have been surprised, as we would just be silly, and some website or another even voted us comedy duo of the year’. Why did they work so well as a team in creating a new face for wildlife conservation? ‘I don’t know whether she would admit this but I think early on she was a bit intimidated by the whole thing because she wasn’t a wildlife expert even though she’s an excellent presenter. In the second series, I think she got it spot on, because she is not so much the expert as the intelligent companion talking on behalf of the viewers, so she challenged me and I thought that worked great’.
In his exciting, varied and mildly chaotic career, I wonder what Bill would consider his greatest achievement. ‘I’ve learnt over the years that when people come up to me and say that some programme that I was connected with was an integral part of what made their life enjoyable, that is a great thing to hear’. This refers to I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again which ‘apparently got all sorts of stressed children through their exams’ and the adoring fans that still watch The Goodies: faking a twanging accent, he smiles when describing how Australians ‘still come up to me and go ‘gah bloody ‘ell mate, part of my childhood, you know, ah that’s fantastic!’ More obscurely, he affectionately remembers working for a radio station in London and playing jazz music on his own programme. ‘I had people come back and say you know, you’d played something exciting so I went out and got the record, and I loved that’. Inevitably, Bill finally lists Springwatch and Autumnwatch as two of the highlights of his career. I tell him that he has changed public views about wildlife while giving years of entertainment through the anarchic humour of The Goodies. He gives another gracious laugh and leans back in his armchair. ‘Well, as long as I enjoy it. I mean, bugger it if they do – what about me?’