Fingers in the Sparkle Jar

Jun 9, 2017   //   by Nicholas Milton   //   Blog  //  No Comments

April 2016

FISJI hadn’t spoken to him in years but now he was angry. I held the mobile phone away from my ear as it was getting hot. I’d clearly hit a raw nerve but that was that was never my intention. Now I had to try to retrieve the situation but it would be hard.

‘I really wish you’d have spoken to me first. You haven’t read the book. You don’t know what’s in it. So how could you write that?’

I’d known him for 30 years. I’d worked hard to keep in touch and had followed his impressive career with interest. And over the years we’d met up and done some good pieces together. I was delighted when he got the role fronting ‘Springwatch’ telling him to make sure the BBC paid him what he was worth. So it troubled me greatly that it had come to this.

It had all started last month. I had found out that he was launching his book at the Stratford Literary Festival, just down the road from where I live. I’d texted him about doing a piece and he responded that he would talk to the publishers. But my other texts hadn’t been returned and I’d heard nothing more.

So I’d rung round all the papers to see if anyone was interested in running a piece on him. And no one was. Pitching is the most soul destroying experience. You put together a couple of carefully crafted paragraphs and then pore over them for ages. You put everything you’ve got into those 150 words, all in the vain hope of getting a commission. And then on a wing and a prayer you send them into cyberspace. And you hear nothing back. So you rework them and try again. And again.  And again. Nothing. So you pick up the phone and ask for the desk. And they can’t get you off the phone quick enough.

Then out of the blue the Guardians opinion editor had got back to me. He wanted 700 words to run the day before the launch.

September 1987

RWSI joined the third series of the Really Wild Show as a 21 year old researcher on my placement year from Hatfield Polytechnic where I was studying environmental science. It was one of only a handful of places who offered the course and even with my dreadful A level results I’d managed to scrap in.

On arrival at the plush BBC offices in the upmarket end of Bristol I was instantly awestruck. After all this was the BBC Natural History Unit, the people who had produced Life on Earth, a programme I’d watched over and over again on my video player until the tape broke. Now I was working there. Well not working. I was volunteering as the BBC didn’t want to pay me. So instead I was claiming the dole and living in a bedsit in the downmarket end of Bristol.

I’d been interviewed by John Sparks, the head of the BBC Natural History Unit. On arrival in his office he’d looked me up and down with a mixture of curiosity and amusement. I sported the one and only pair of good trousers I owned but they were far too short for me. I’d also borrowed a shirt and one of my Dad’s garish 1970s kipper ties. And to cap it all I had a mop of unruly and bright red hair.

He asked me why I wanted to work there and had then given me a natural history test. I’d got all the answers right and to boot had produced the remains of an adder skin from my back pocket. I like to think that sealed it. Then again he may just have felt sorry for me due to my attire. Whatever he thought, I was certainly keen.

The Really Wild Show team consisted of Sarah, Hilary and Melinda. Sarah had legs that went on forever and wore very short skirts. Hilary was very nice in a bookish sort of way and Melinda was very efficient, keeping records of everything. The two co-producers were Alastair and Paul. Alastair was incredibly driven but also aloof and was clearly going places at the BBC. He had already been to Kenya to film a Wildlife on One called the Bee Team. It was all about social co-operation in Bee eaters and showed how brothers, sisters and cousins all help to feed the brood. He was particularly proud of the opening sequences which he had edited to mimic the tv programme Dallas complete with its famous theme tune. Paul was much more down to earth and had previously been the librarian at the unit.

My main role in the team was making the tea, opening the fan mail and magically conjuring up a penguin, Jesus Christ lizard or death watch beetle depending on what animal Alastair or Paul had planned for the sequence. The art was to do so without parting with any money as the BBC didn’t like paying for anything. So firstly that meant convincing someone to bring along an animal pro gratis for the glory of being on the Really Wild Show. If that wasn’t enough you could offer a plug on the programme.  And if all else failed they would get a credit at the end. Many of the more responsible zoos turned this down as understandably they wanted paying for their troubles. So we turned to a black book of animal contacts who in breach of CITIES kept many of these animals at home.

Finally when it came to filming I got to meet the shows presenters, Nick Davies, Terry Nutkins and Chris Packham. Nick was always smiling, both on and off the camera and for filming was always placed in the middle of the ‘boys’ so she could act as the sensible one. Terry I’d known from his days as Johnny Morris’s side kick on Animal Magic. He had the most magnificent Bobby Charlton comb over which kept shooting off his head and sprinting out to one side. So Terry played the role of the mad professor. He played it to a tee, frequently fluffing his lines which became a bit of a running joke. And then there was Chris Packham. With his bleached blonde spiky punk hair, handsome good looks and outlandish dress sense he resembled a giant cockatiel. He wore DMs, his hair always looked immaculate and he modelled a wide range of animal shirts which his sister Jenny made for him. Chris was the one with the encyclopedic knowledge, the know all. He was my hero.

Chris got twice as many fan letters as the other two presenters combined.  He was the undoubted star of the show even at the age of 27. Most were from kids who wanted to know with monotonous regularity the biggest or smallest animal in the world but some were from women who sent him very suggestive letters. A few went as far as including their underwear which caused great titillation to break out in the team.

But Chris wasn’t happy in the role.  When the cameras were off he seemed distracted, disengaged and sometimes distraught. No one knew why. We got talking and one day in a brighter mood he said he would take me out on one of his photography trips. To use one of his favorite phrases I thought  I may ‘burst’. But it never happened.

I also wasn’t happy either though I tried hard to not let it show. Drawing the dole in Thatchers Britain was a truly soul destroying experience and my dive of a bedsit was miles away. Every night I walked home to be confronted by my flat ‘mate’ who was twice my age and was in a bad place in life. His marriage had broken up and so most nights he was blind drunk. The team rarely included me in any of their night outs and I was given the most implausible animal ideas to work on, most of which never made it beyond the story board stage.

To someone in my position looking on he had everything. The presenters role. The looks. The fans. Then again as with everything else to do with Chris there was a lot more going on beneath the surface than met the eye.

July 1989

After graduating I wrote to Paul asking if he had any jobs going as a researcher on the next series of the Really Wild Show. I would have given my right leg to get a paid role with the BBC. I heard nothing so wrote again this time including a whole range of ideas for the show that I had carefully typed up on a friend’s typewriter. This time I got a short letter telling me to look out for any advertised roles. I never did see any advertised roles despite looking everywhere for months and realise now that there weren’t any. But to my surprise and later anger they did use many of my ideas on the next series of the show.

April 2016

I sent my first draft to him asking if there was anything he couldn’t live with. I had never sent an advanced copy of an opinion piece to the subject before and had expected him to be grateful. Instead he replied  ‘I’d really rather you didn’t run with this. The publishers and I have worked very hard on a press campaign which addresses a number of very sensitive issues raised in the book . Which you haven’t read. I wish you had spoken to me first on this occasion. Thus, if you please, could we drop this one’.

Did he know how bloody hard it was to get a commission? Drop it? Really? It was true I hadn’t read it. But then he had never returned my texts or sent me a copy. Why not? I phoned him again and rewrote the piece taking out the offending paragraphs. He seemed much happier and wrote to thank me. The Guardian were less impressed and asked me to rewrite it as it was too sycophantic. I privately cursed. It had been a bruising encounter. The next day I turned up to the book launch. He duly signed my copy but didn’t make eye contact. I got the feeling he was still pretty sore. So was I.

May 2017

I finally got round to reading ‘Fingers in the Sparkle Jar’ when I took it on holiday with me.  It is a bloody good book. It is a beautiful book. And it is an incredibly brave book. Angst ridden throughout, its literary meanderings paint a really vivid picture of growing up contrasting the beauty of nature with the ugliness of life. Reading it helped me to finally understand where Chris is coming from. And I found out we had a lot in common. The 1970s upbringing in suburbia. The love of nature. The feeling of alienation. Being bullied at school. Stashing away pornographic magazines so your Mum wouldn’t find them.  Punk music (him the Clash, me the Boomtown Rats). But there were also important differences. I’d never had a Kestrel (the closest I got to one was keeping my own pet Rat who terrorised the neighbours whenever he got out. He died tragically when trying to escape from his metal cage, biting a hole in the top and then poking his head through hanging himself in the process). My father unlike his never cared and rather than rows there had been beatings. And I never made a success of the Really Wild Show. Thirty years later as a parent myself I know how difficult it is to bring up children. So I was pleased to read the glowing tributes to his father and mother in the back. Like him my mother died a few years back. So we also share that in common. And like him writing this for me has been cathartic. So Chris if you’re still reading this you owe me a day out.

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Nicholas Milton

I am a marketing and communication expert with over 20 years experience. Over this time I have campaigned on issues I feel passionately about - conservation, climate change, racial equality, land reform, rural poverty and most recently international development. I am also a successful freelance journalist and have been published in the Guardian, Times, Daily Telegraph and the Independent.

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