One of the most prominent wildlife presenters and filmmakers working today, Gordon Buchannan, visits The Haymarket, Basingstoke, on Wednesday (February 16) to talk about his 30 years of working. And what a remarkable story it is.
Having produced some of the most popular wildlife programmes on the BBC, we have been able to see Buchanan’s incredible passion for the animal kingdom and the ability he has for presenting such hidden animal worlds to an audience.
For the first time, Gordon will be taking a look back at his challenging expeditions and incredible adventures, both behind and in front of the camera. This will be a rare opportunity to discover what has continued to drive his career and the landmark stories that take pride of his work.
Gordon Buchanan interview
Tell us a bit about your childhood – how did it prepare you for a career in wildlife film making?
I grew up on the Isle of Mull, which is a very wild part of Scotland, and I think that drove my passion for being outside, and close to nature. School didn’t do it for me: academically I wasn’t really present – all I wanted was to be outside, and the classroom was torture. I was a daydreamer, and I always knew I was never going to work in an office. I’d see the scallop divers, and I’d think: that’s a really good way to spend your working life.
I grew up in the late 70s and 80s and David Attenborough’s documentaries were big on the telly – and I devoured them. Attenborough is tremendous: his career has lasted so long, he’s such an important voice, and he has so much respect, right across the globe. I thought my admiration for him could go no higher – but then I met him, and it soared even more.
How did you get into making nature films as your career?
I was right in at the deep end with making wildlife films. I was 17 and working in a restaurant on Mull at weekends and evenings to earn a bit of money – and the husband of the owner was a cameraman. He was going to Sierra Leone for 18 months to make a film about the animals in the Gola rainforest, and he asked me if I wanted to come along as his assistant. I knew nothing about what it involved, and I had no idea really what I was getting into – but I knew it was the sort of life I wanted, and I never wavered from that belief. So having never been abroad – never even been on a plane – there I was a month after leaving school, setting off for a year-and-a-half on the other side of the world.
But if getting there was serendipity, and while it was definitely the best break I ever had, those 18 months were tough going. I was so young and being so far from home was hard. But I knew it was the way forward, I knew it was an incredible opportunity – and I knew I’d be able to build on it and move into the life I’d love.
How has wildlife filmmaking changed over the years you’ve been doing it?
Right now I’m on my way to Brazil for a conservation series – we’ll be filming jaguars. Big cats are the pinnacle for me – watching them hunt is utterly fascinating. The technology has changed hugely over the three decades since I started out – it’s always been about showing viewers the parts of nature we’ve never been able to see before, and technology allows us to do that more and more. But the other huge change across the years has been the increased realisation about how vulnerable and fragile these areas of the world where I’m filming actually are. Thirty years ago we didn’t know – the world was a lot bigger then, and we simply didn’t realise the impact human beings were having on wildlife. Now we understand that so much better, and I’m acutely aware of it in every way, from my own carbon footprint to questions around changes that need to be made by governments across the globe, if we’re going to stop the damage. Right now we’re losing animals before we even knew their species existed – that’s a tragedy.
Given all that, how optimistic are you about the future?
Despite the immense difficulties I do have hope for the future. I spent time at COP26, in my home city of Glasgow, and I was really moved by how children and young people are making their voices heard. At the moment it’s the suits who are making the decisions – but soon it will be the turn of the new generation, and they’re going to understand the climate emergency in a very different way, which I think will make for real change. My growing-up years were the eighties, when we were all in awe of the US and consumption – it was all about big cars and having stuff. But the mentality has changed, and tomorrow’s decision-makers are being formed by that.
How does it feel being somewhere really remote when you’re making a film?
Sometimes it’s me completely on my own – and when you’re trying to witness something that requires great sensitivity, that’s the best way to do it. But usually I’m working in a team of four – the camera operator, sound operator and director. We tend to be a pretty tight bunch, because you’re relying heavily on one another, especially when you’re in a dangerous situation.
How did Animals with Cameras come about – and are the animals ok with it?
We knew Animals with Cameras was a great idea a long time ago – but the technology had to get there. And it’s so good that it has, because it’s one of those programmes that really captures the imagination, and also it’s about genuinely seeing animal behaviour without human interference. We’re very careful about making sure the camera-carrying animals aren’t upset – we have very strict rules about the weight they can carry. If they weren’t comfortable with it they wouldn’t behave naturally, and that wouldn’t work from the point of view of the programme either.
There must be a lot of contenders for this – but could you share a few career highlights?
A few years ago I was working with arctic wolves on Ellesmere Island in Canada; it’s really remote, there are no people there. I got to meet a pack of wolves who had no preconceptions whatsoever about humans. What I realised is that wolves have been vilified for centuries by humans – but they’ve been totally misrepresented. They’re actually highly intelligent animals, and I felt honoured to spend time with them.
Another incredible moment for me was seeing polar bear cubs emerge into the world for the first time. They’d been in their winter den, under the snow, for the first four months of their lives, and I was there to see them coming out into the daylight, seeing what was outside, exploring it with a sense of wonder. I remember thinking about the lives they had ahead: it’s incredibly tough to find food, to live the way they do. And yet it’s the life they’re equipped to live.
Another amazing time was the two years I spent living in Brazil, travelling up the Amazon by boat. I remember the incredible sense of awe at being in the last great wilderness on the planet – that memory has stayed with me, and it always will.
Do you ever find yourself in danger? What sort of scary situations have you been in?
I’ve been chased by bears, tigers and elephants – but not all at the same time. And let me tell you: that’s when you discover how fast you really can run.