Thursday, 3 April 2014

Face to Face with Jeremy Wade (on the phone)


If you don't like River Monsters, you and I aren't going to get along. We're just not. I'm sorry. In the age of netflix I've all but abandoned scheduled television viewing, with exception to River Monsters of course. Every week I settle down to watch presenter and extreme fisherman Jeremy Wade travel to some remote location in search of an elusive river dwelling super predator. You never really know what he is going to catch, sometimes it might look something like the picture below.
The Goliath Tiger Fish

So I am a big fan of River Monsters. You either conform and play the River Monsters drinking game with me or you get out. Period.

My first introduction to River Monsters was in 2010, just before I went travelling to Thailand. This was the episode in which Jeremy goes off in search of the Piraiba catfish, one of the largest breeds of catfish in the world and native to the rivers of Thailand. In this instance, a Piraiba was documented as swallowing an unlucky fisherman whole. The fish did choke on the man in question, this isn't exactly Jaws we're talking about, there was a pathetic dimension to this great creature that didn't have the mental or physical capacity to spit the guy out. As a result, both man and fish died. The show introduced several species of catfish, all varying in size and all utter bastards, seemingly. A smaller variety of catfish featured in the show actually latched on to a man's private parts with its tendrils by swimming up the man's urination stream as he relieved himself by a river.

Last month, I had the opportunity to speak to Jeremy Wade over the phone. This was amidst his busy post production schedule putting the finishing touches to season six of River Monsters and on the eve of going on a live tour across the country for Face to Face with Jeremy Wade.

I have transcribed the interview here in full, it was also used for a feature I wrote for the Tamworth Herald. This one's for you River Monsters fans. 

Q. Hi Jeremy, thanks for taking the time to talk to us. So I guess the first question is, let's start logically, how would you describe the show?

A. The first thing I’d say, is that it’s not a fishing program! I think a lot of people pidgeon hole it as a fishing program. The next thing to say is that it’s sort of exactly what it says on the tin! It’s about large creatures, large fish that live in fresh water and monsters, you wouldn’t think live in freshwater. Until we came along and did this, no one had really turned the spotlight on freshwater. The reason being because you can’t see into a lot of rivers, so you can’t do your Jack Cousteau styled programmes. So a lot of the stuff that was in the murky depths simply hadn’t been featured on television before. Some of the creatures are quite astounding both in terms of size and appearance. 

Obviously, yes, it is about river monsters. If you wanted to go into more detail I would say that they are mystery stories, its not just ‘lets go and find this thing that we heard about’. We tend to start each one with, as you know, a story, a fisherman’s tale that sounds very unlikely and exaggerated. That’s our starting point, we talk to people, some people have been bitten or pulled under, otherwise molested in the water, so we ask what on earth could be responsible? I go on to talk to some witnesses, maybe people who were generally in the area. I assemble a suspect list and narrow it down to the prime suspect and eventually arrest the prime suspect, who normally doesn’t want to come quietly. 

And then we have the final twist in which we let it go. It’s about motive as well, not whodunit but why did they do it and the fact of it is most fish won’t deliberately go for people for no good reason it’s normally because the person has gotten too close to it, or stepped on it or whatever. And the message from that is – yes, there are fish that are potentially dangerous out there but our way is not ‘don’t get into the water’ it’s taking the trouble to find out about these things and understand why they attacked so you don’t do anything stupid in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Q. In you’re life you have been a biologist, but I guess the thing that has drawn you into the science has been fishing. How did you get into fishing and extreme angling in the first place?

A. A lot of that kind of thing is sort of down to accident at birth! There’s that famous expression mountaineers say – “because it’s there”. I can imagine growing up somewhere, say the Alps or somewhere in sight of mountains and just thinking; I’ve got to go there! the next thing you know you're a mountaineer. In my case it was living in a village in South East England in Kent, that had a river running through. My parents at the time thought ‘how do you keep a young boy with lots of energy out of trouble? And y’know none of my family were fished but I was given a fishing rod and it was actually left to a school friend of mine to show me what to do. It was just the fact that it was there. And like with a lot of interests, you need to experience it and see the appeal of it. To be honest, for quite along time I thought fishing was a complete waste of time, because you stand there and you get cold and wet, and what is the point of that? But as soon as you catch your first fish, something happens and you just want to see what else is out there? I want to catch a bigger one, I want to see what I catch in a different place and from there it’s never ending!

Q. You have this live show coming up. The first date is this weekend. How do you translate the river monsters experience into a live show?

A. Good question. I don’t do an awful lot of talks. I used to do a couple of slideshows many years ago, I’ve done a couple of one off things recently. I think what it is, is a lot of what you see on TV is really the tip of the iceberg. It takes roughly between 2 to 3 weeks to film each program for what is in the UK a half hour program and there is always some good stuff that we leave out. I think a lot of people also like to know the process, not just how you catch a fish but how you capture that on camera. A lot of people also, just like you asked now, are wondering how I got into this and so it is to give them a lot of background. I’m planning to do a couple of interactive demonstrations. Not sure how well they will go… but I’ve done a lot of practice with the people at the production company here and I think those will be highly interesting. There will also be time for questions and answers.

Again, because the audience for river monsters is quite diverse. It includes a lot of people who fish but also a lot of people who don’t fish, so I think, like the program, it’s how do you pitch it to be something different.

Q. Will any river monsters be making an appearance at the show?
A. I would like that to be the case… [laughs] But yes. Traveling with fish is not easy. So unfortunately not, I’m afraid. If our thing was snakes, it would be quite easy to transport them in a fox, but fish unfortunately is a lot more difficult.

Q. So no live Goliath Tiger Fish imported straight from the Congo?
A. [laughs] No unfortunately.

Q. Something I’ve always wanted to ask you. I love the episode titles, 'Demon Fish', 'Face Ripper'. These are obviously there to excite the viewer but at the heart of the show you do always exercise a zoological curiosity towards the creatures. I think, in the episode with the Tiger Goliath Fish you very clearly state the show's intention, to venture forth in the name of understanding these creatures. Is there a line between the zoological curiosity aspects of the show and the TV horror murder mystery formula?

A. Yeah, well exactly. I think the thing is, we do tread a bit of a tightrope in lots of different ways. We have two different types of audience, those who fish and those who don’t. And we want it to be educational. But at the same time you don’t want to be preaching to the audience and boring them, you have to entertain them as well. I think a lot of people who watch the show understand that. What it does do, is something quite serious, there is a reason why people pay attention when the story starts off with somebody getting attacked or their leg bitten off. It is actually hardwired into everybody to be interested in predators. We come from ancestors who paid attention. You look at the more blue chip upmarket natural history programs its filled with imagery of lions tearing into zebras, or crocodiles chomping down on wildebeests, and people watch that.

I used to work in advertising for a while and I’ve brought a certain amount of that into this. Although I have to stress its not just me, it’s a huge team who know a lot more about television than I do. But what we have to do is get everybody’s attention in the first place and once you’ve got that you can start to go somewhere else with it. I think there is a very strong message there, we don’t totally spell it out. The thing I said a few minutes ago - here’s this dangerous animal, its bitten and attacked people and all that but in the end I put it back into the water. In the entire history of the show, only a handful of people have asked me well why do you do that? I think most people by the end of the program get it.

The message is, having an apex predator in an ecosystem is normally a good sign. It normally means that everything in the food pyramid underneath it, is good and healthy. The time to be worried is when you haven’t got that predator in the water, because that destroys the whole system.

I think the other thing to say is that it is primarily made for an American audience. We do make the program with an American style and then de-Americanise it for the UK. I think a lot of people who fish are very pleased that something that contains fishing is on terrestrial TV. It does a good PR job for fishing, even non anglers are able to see the worth in it.

Q. So what can we expect from Series 6?

A. Ooh… I have to be quite careful there, because there is such a delay in having it appear. One thing I can say, the list of fish that we feature on this program isn’t infinite. It’s actually fairly limited. So every year, we sort of think, well this is going to be it. And then we find enough to do another year. And actually last year, we got some of the best programs that we’d ever done. I think part of that is that it makes you look that much harder. I mean we have revisited a couple of species but come at them with a different angle or story. We thought we might be scraping the barrel, but actually we’ve hit quite a theme of stories.

Q. So it’s getting harder to find creatures to feature. Is there anywhere the show hasn’t gone that you would like to go?

A. Again, my other slight concern for the program is that we do give the impression that there are 7 foot creatures that are going to bite your leg off living in rivers everywhere you go. But you obviously have to look very hard to find these things. If you go to most places, you won’t find anything. And if you make a program where you can’t find anything, nobody is going to be interested. We have this track record of actually producing something each year.

We’ve not been to China, which would be interesting to go to. But sadly, I think everything of interest has sort of disappeared from China, unfortunately and a lot of parts of the world. People have no choice to eat what is in the rivers. It’s actually a big thing that is happening in the Amazon, it is a shadow of what it was fifty years ago. You really have to pick you places before you go there. I mean China had the giant Yangtze paddle fish, it was huge, but its sadly been officially declared extinct over the last few years. That’s not a fish you could catch on a rod and line, it was an amazing creature but they no longer exist. So China is a big blank on our map and will probably remain so.

Having said that. I’ve got a busy year this year. I’m making some more programs but I think they will change a lot. I’m not exactly sure how, but I think they will mutate into something maybe slightly different. I can’t say too much, but definitely watch this space.

Q. Exciting! Well thanks very much for talking to me today. Do you have any concluding thoughts you would like to say?

A. Well. One thing that just occurred to me when you said where you would like to go. There almost like crypto-zoology programs, where we’re looking for the yeti or something. The difference with these programs is that we go there and there’s the yeti! We have been extremely lucky and looking back we really have produced stuff against the odds. I think apart of it is, we don’t have a huge amount of time when putting together the program, so we really have to concentrate the mind, its about being very realistic about what you can get.

Everytime we go away, there is always a certain amount of desperation but we’ve set ourselves some very difficult challenges, but touch wood, everytime we do come up with something and I think sometimes it is good to put yourself under pressure.      

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