Gordon Buchanan returns to our screens on BBC2 this Friday 29th for Wild Burma – Nature’s Lost Kingdom – in search of the fabled herds of lost elephants. Here is a chance to read my profile on this fascinating, fearless Scot – from cameraman to craggy, charismatic BBC presenter. I hope to catch up with Gordon this week and talk about his impressions of Burma. Alison Jane
If Sir David Attenborough is the Professor Dumbledore of wildlife television, presiding over sweeping, scholarly masterpieces about the marvels of nature from the Blue Planet to Frozen Planet – then Gordon Buchanan must surely be its freewheeling Indiana Jones. With Attenborough’s blessing, Gordon is the new kid on the block. The craggy Scot, who gets up close and personal with dangerously charismatic polar bears, tigers and snow leopards, and isn’t too manly to cry on camera.
Dressed in a sartorial, ink black velvet jacket (a recent birthday present from his wife), which sets off his many shades of black to grey hair, Buchanan cuts a handsome, charismatic presence, like a sylvan, modern Lancelot. No wonder he has made the leap from cameraman to rising BBC star. Though, what really sets him apart from the current crop of natural history presenters is his taste for solitude and very dangerous assignments. Buchanan dares to venture where the Chris Packham’s and Matt Baker’s never go. In doing so, he produces documentaries that are extraordinarily intimate, innovative and reconnect us to the majesty and nobility of wild animals and wild places, which can seem almost mythical in our frenetic, homogenised world.
It’s probably true to say that I live in the moment,” says Buchanan. “If the polar bear breaks through the box or I get run over by a bus that’s fine. It is not something that concerns me. You have to savour the opportunities that you get. Living is difficult. We all face challenges. Life isn’t easy for most of us. Looking at a hump back whale eyeball to eyeball is like a religion. That is something that can change your life. It gives you a sense of wonder.”
I ask him what his wife thinks about this reckless mantra.
“My wife thinks I do incredibly dangerous and stupid things. Most of the time, it looks more dangerous than it is. I try not to take unnecessary risks.”
This seems a mote point, given his most recent assignment.
For the next three evenings, starting tonight, Gordon will take us closer than seems sensible to one of the greatest predators on earth – the arctic polar bear. In fact, there is a very nasty few minutes, where it really looks like Gordon might become lunch. “It is the most dangerous thing I have ever done,” admits Gordon. “You can hear my heartbeat when the polar bear is trying everything to get inside the perspex box. It was terrifying, and no, I didn’t have a gun. The really scary thing is that the special perspex box had never been tested in temperatures below minus forty. There was a risk it could shatter. In the end the polar bear ran out of energy and abandoned her attempt to eat me before she discovered that the door into the ice cube box just slides open – there was no lock.”
Happily, I can tell you that he is safely sitting opposite me in a Bristol deli, sipping a glass of zingy Italian white after looking at the rushes for ‘The Polar Bear Family and Me’. Beyond the ever present threat posed by trying to get really close to this most ‘charismatic of predators’ – Buchanan’s exciting programme takes over where Frozen Planet ends and reveals the polar bear’s remarkable struggle for life in one of the last great earthly wildernesses, which is changing fast as the polar ice melts at alarming speed.
“I’ve wanted to make a programme that shows our affect on the planet for a long time,” he says. “It isn’t just about the speeding up of melting ice. There are toxins that show up in the polar bears’ from the southern hemisphere. They are entering the food chain and end up in the polar bear. It weakens them. Whether we are responsible for the melting or not – we live a life detached from nature.”
Gordon Buchanan is a cameraman who had made the exceptional leap to star presenter, and that is his appeal. We love him because he is not afraid to be honest or emotional or to make it clear he cares passionately about the environment. “ I never wanted to be in front of camera,” he says. “ I hated the idea. Then, gradually, over time, the opportunities in front of the camera became more exciting than being behind the camera.”
Certainly, Buchanan’s programme will get ruthlessly under your skin, with it’s magical footage of the female polar bear christened Lyra, and her epic struggle to rear her two cubs, Miki and Luca, amid her vanishing habitat. At first, she emerges from her pristine den, like a scene from a Pixar fairytale, with her two, boisterously photogenic cubs tumbling and frolicking in their arctic playground for the first time with uncanny, childlike glee. The scenes are as bewitching as a scene from Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle book. So it is shocking to see the same bear a few months later lying inert in the mud, dirty, unkempt and close to starvation. Why? Because her fertile ice home has vanished, and with it her food supply for herself and her one surviving cub.
Gordon makes no apology for showing such a harrowing scene.
“The whole programme is compelling, because you see the individual struggle of a polar bear mother trying to keep her two cubs alive. You can’t help but look at the arctic environment from a human perspective. Our respect increases ten fold, because it’s a part of the world we can’t dominate. We don’t belong there. I hope it shows how magnificent the polar bear is, but how fragile their world is too.
“I would like everyone to be a bit more accountable for the effect they have on the natural environment, and that includes me and my family too. When I am home I try not to leave lights on and I really try not to let food go to waste; but every one of us is guilty.”
Is your programme ultimately optimistic in its message?
“I am an optimist. But it is proven that we contribute to climatic change. Even if we change now, it would take years to make a difference. I hope that polar bears can adapt, cling on and wait for the next ice age! No one knows with absolute certainty, what will happen.”
Gordon’s style of programme making is certainly a departure from the BBC’s more formal, factual approach to natural history. “The best compliment I have been paid was when I had just made a film about killer whales, and a man stopped me in the street and said, ‘I would love to do what you do, but I don’t have to because you are doing it for me.’”
“ If that’s what people think, that’s great. My job is to convey things in layman’s terms and to stay current and contemporary.”
If Buchanan takes a more populist approach, he certainly has the ability to keep a television audience spellbound. In Black Bears of Minnesota, which made him a star, Gordon turned native, living in a wood, and gently eavesdropping on a family of bears for a year until we feel that they are more like people than dangerous wild animals, and he can count David Attenborough as a fan.
‘I like Gordon’s work,’ Attenborough tells me. ‘In Black Bears of Minnesota, we see a lot of the bears, and we see a lot of Gordon. It’s a different style of programme making to what I do, but it is just as valid. Today television is all about people, and people like people’.
Gordon was very touched by David’s comment on his work and he acknowledges the huge dept and influence the celebrated broadcaster has had on his own work.
“He is undisputedly magnificent,” declares Gordon. “He is God. I can never be him.” He is right, but the times they are a changing. Gordon’s style of wildlife filmmaking is less reverential, more personal, and reflects the current vogue for ‘the cult of personality’. His work is also helped greatly by the remarkable advances in technology – from the mysterious intimacy of ghostly camera traps – to satellite tagging and instant communication.
People also warm to Gordon because he is not afraid to show his emotions or his sense of wonder. In the past five years we have seen him famously cry on camera when a tiger is recorded on a night camera trap, confirming the exciting discovery that they can live at high altitude in the Himalayas. While the programme he contributed to on the elusive snow leopard is one of the most compelling and ghostly -beautiful natural history programmes ever made.
Perhaps his natural affinity to wildest places on earth can be explained by his childhood on the Scottish island of Mull. Gordon grew up looking after horses, flunking school and discovering girls at the age of fifteen.
“My mother brought up me and my brothers and my sister singlehandedly, after my parents divorced when I was four. It was tough. Mum did the best she could for us, but she worked long hours, and there was no time to hold our hand through school and give us individual attention or encouragement.”
Gordon shared a bedroom with his two ‘unbelievably messy’ brothers until he was seventeen, had no interest in school work and by his own admission, he was heading for life without options, until he went to work as a kitchen hand at The Captain’s Table restaurant in Tobermory. “Another restaurant offered me more money, but I chose the Captain’s Table because Ann, who ran the restaurant was prettier and more glamorous to be around.”
Ann was married to a colourful character called Nick Gordon. Nick was a chef turned wildlife filmmaker who would call to speak to his wife from various, obscure locations around the globe, which left the young Gordon amazed and fascinated as he had never ventured further than the Scottish mainland. One day after being let down by his assistant, Nick offered the seventeen- year- old Buchanan a job that would change his life forever.
“Nick asked me if I would like to go out to Sierra Leone for a year and a half to assist him while he made a series of wildlife documentaries for the popular Survival series. There was just one snag. He said I would have to stick it out to the end. There would be no opportunity to come home early, even if I absolutely hated it.”
Gordon admits Africa was a big culture shock. “ I wanted to come home every single week. But I stuck it out and gained a huge amount of experience. After a while the young Gordon went a bit feral with an Indiana Jones hat, long pants, a big leather belt and jungle boots. “By the end I was walking around barefoot in nothing but a pair of shorts, building a hundred and fifty foot rickety towers up into the rainforest canopy to film from without a single safety rope. “Yes, it was crazy,” he admits.
In the evenings, Nick and Gordon would climb back up the homemade tower to drink local beer, get drunk and hang out with a menagerie of wild animals from a not so tame wild cat to Nick’s pet otter. More importantly, Gordon blossomed under the friendship and praise he received from his mentor.
“Nick was the first person who gave me any encouragement. I don’t blame my mum, but what Nick did was life changing. He was a great friend and mentor. Sadly, he died from a heart attack in Venezuela in 2003.”
After five years of working for Nick in Africa and South America, Gordon knew it was time to cut the strings from his friend and mentor and branch out on his own and go after his own assignments.
“I still didn’t know enough about the craft of filming, but I went into massive debt to buy my own camera kit and I landed an assignment with Granada to film some wild weather sequences. Unfortunately, the director was not impressed. “ He told me my work was so terrible they couldn’t use any of it.” Luckily, Gordon was given a second chance. “A few months later, they needed some more footage, and it wasn’t ‘you’re an amazing cameraman’ – it was ‘ you are the only Scottish cameraman we know – so don’t screw it up!’ This time I took a great deal of time and crafted every shot. Once you do this properly, things snowball.”
For the next few years, Gordon became a sought after wildlife cameraman, contributing to Big Cat Diary, The Natural World series and then Spring and Autumn Watch, where he famously filmed foxes in his home city of Glasgow, and emerged as a star in front of the camera, not just behind it.
Perhaps there is another important distinction between Attenborough and the new breed of wildlife filmmakers like Gordon. While Attenborough rarely strays into sentiment or personal opinion, we see Gordon variously cry, exclaim, laugh out loud and even intervene to save the life of an abandoned bear cub in the Black Bears of Minnesota. While Attenborough has sometimes been critisised for not stating clearly where he stands on environmental issues, Gordon makes no secret that there is a zealous campaigning angle to his filmmaking.
As to that famous crying incident during the tiger documentary, he says, “I wasn’t using emotion as a tool. “It was really exciting and really tough to make that programme. They were tears of relief. I had spent months in one of the most remote, beautiful parts of the world. I was relieved. It was authentic, and I am happy with that.”
For his next series, Gordon will travel into the secret land of Burma, to make a three part programme for the BBC in search of lost herds of elephants and to discover new species.
The Polar Bear Family and Me is a three part series on BBC Two, 9.30pm on the 7th, 8th and 10th January 2013. www.bbc.co.uk
Copyright Alison Jane Reid January 2013/2016 Personal Pictures of Gordon courtesy of Gordon Buchanan. Copyright Alison Jane Reid/Gordon Buchanan. All Rights Reserved.