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Thursday
Dec152011

Into the Wild Meets: Mark Evans

Mark Evans has been involved in some of the most interesting and groundbreaking science television of recent years, including 'Inside Nature's Giants', 'Nature's Wild Feast' and 'Brave New World'. Needless to say, Into the Wild is a huge fan of his work. Today we meet Mark and find out about how an obese cat launched his television career, his thoughts on natural history television and why he loves cows so much.

Into the Wild: Your career has been hugely varied. But what was your dream job when you were growing up?

Mark: Without any question, all I ever wanted was to be a farmer. My dad was an agricultural and mechanical engineer, so I spent my whole childhood working on local farms and for me it was the ultimate combination of access to machines, that I could drive when I was 11, and access to working with animals. I came to the realisation fairly quickly that I wasn’t ever going to be able to afford a farm though, leaving the only other opportunity to work with the farming community through a scientific job, as a vet. So that’s where that came from.

Into the Wild: So the next step was getting your veterinary degree.

Mark: Yes. But I flunked my A-levels first time round. I got too involved in restoring a car, so I can’t even blame it on anything rock 'n' roll like drugs or women. The veterinary schools wouldn’t go near me with the results I got, so then I spent a year working 9 to 5, 5 days a week in a library in Warwick reading my A-level textbooks until I re-sat the exams the following year, when I got the 2 A’s and a B that I needed. It took the kind of discipline that quite frankly I’d not shown before or since. I just decided that I had too much invested in my own self-respect.

Everybody knew I really wanted to be a vet, and everyone expected me to succeed in it, so shooting myself in the foot like that was a big wake-up call. The only university back in 1981 that would even consider taking resit applicants was The Royal Veterinary College in London, which is where I went.

Into the Wild: How did you become involved in television presenting?

Mark: It was strange really because I’d never been interested in television or the media at all, and I was always incredibly camera-shy as a kid. Obesity in dogs and cats was emerging as a massive animal welfare problem, and it was something that really interested and frustrated me as I found myself performing surgery on fat animals, which I thought was utterly ridiculous and preventable. So having been in practice for a few years, I set-up one of the first weight-watchers clinics for these animals in the UK, helping people get their pets to a healthy weight. It turned out to be a phenomenal success.

Then one day I was watching a morning television show on which they were running a competition to find the fattest cat in the country which they were planning to award a huge cake. Amazingly I managed to get through to the producer of the show and proceeded to give this woman an earful about how appalled I was that they were doing it. Having forgotten about the whole thing, I then received an offer to appear live in the studio where I would meet this obese cat and its owner.

So I went and did it, and it went down well. It was a completely unplanned and hugely effective way to reach many more people than I would ever be able to talk to in the surgery. In a country full of animal lovers, it went down incredibly well telling this lady live on air that “if you’re fat and overweight, then that’s your problem and choice, but your cat is dying as a direct result of your actions”. So realising the potential of this medium, it was very much a calculated decision to learn about the process, come up with ideas and just generally do everything I could to exploit television.          

Into the Wild: As the main presenter of Channel 4’s BAFTA award-winning ‘Inside Nature’s Giants’, which has been your favourite episode so far?

Mark: That’s really tricky because each one has been special for different reasons. There are two that stand out really. When we did the elephant, which was meant to be the first to air, the concept of dissecting and opening-up an animal like that during a prime-time slot was both exciting and nerve-wracking. There was always a chance at that stage that it could go down badly and that it would have a really negative impact on our careers. At the time I was the chief vet at the RSPCA. It was unchartered territory. In this first episode we did it in front of an audience of about 200 veterinary students in this incredible pathology suite with a huge glass wall and tiered auditorium. The sense of theatre and absolute mouth-open expression on all of the students face as we took out the digestive system and laid it out on the floor was so dramatic and amazing.

The other one that stands out was out on location for the great white shark in South Africa. We dissected this massive one-ton shark right on the edge of the rocks with these huge crashing waves coming in.  

Into the Wild: What can we expect to see next on the show?

Mark: There are four more to go out in the New Year. There will be a hippo from Zambia, a baboon in South Africa, a kangaroo in Australia, and a jungle expedition special from Borneo.

Into the Wild: You were also heavily involved in ‘Hippo: Nature’s Wild Feast’. Explain the idea behind this unique show and why it's different to your typical natural history documentary.

Mark: I suppose it was originally driven by trying to make natural history more accessible. In terms of the ‘blue chip’ programs that the BBC is so brilliant at producing, natural history has been predominantly driven by film and camera technology. As new technology comes out, previously documented things get filmed again, but with the new technology. The classic example is the meerkats in the Kalahari Desert. They’ve been studied so much now that they’ve become completely habituated to human beings. I actually spoke to a camera man who does a lot of filming for the BBC and when I asked him where he’d been, he told me he’d just got back from filming the meerkats again, but this time in 3D. That is how natural history has worked, and thanks to the BBC’s Natural History Unit, it’s given us a phenomenal view of the world. But I have to put my hands up and say that about 20 minutes into those programmes, I actually start to get a bit bored and I think that’s because there’s no real story.

A lot of my history in television has been making much lower budget, fast turn-around, accessible and populist factual television. From a personal point of view, the reason I got involved in this program was to bring that approach to a natural history audience, but also to a potential audience that do get bored by those classic blue-chip programs. We wanted to give them something more exciting and which made them go “wow”, but for a different reason. Viewers are learning and witnessing things they haven’t seen before, and there’s that sense that they are actually there with you and joining you on an expedition to try to discover something and answer some questions. It’s a very different style and approach to making television. On the hippo episode of ‘Nature’s Wild Feast’, we did 7 days of 24 hour live online streaming and produced a 90 minute film in three weeks. It would probably take the guys making Frozen Planet about 3 weeks to get 10 seconds worth of an iceberg crumbling for instance. It’s a completely different mentality in terms of how you make programs and I find it very exciting to be involved in.

Although I would consider myself a social media and online virgin, I find the whole multi-platform broadcasting approach very exciting, and that’s definitely the future of television. To learn about all that after 20 years of conventional broadcasting is a new big challenge, and the hippo ‘Wild Feast’ is an excellent example of how both online specialists and conventional broadcast specialists are now having to collaborate, and it was just brilliant.     

Into the Wild: We’ve seen an elephant and a hippo feature so far. Can you tell us what’s next on the menu?

Mark: There’s lots of development going on at Channel 4 and several independent production companies at the moment, and we will be doing something pretty spectacular next year. I can’t say any more than that though.  

Into the Wild: Intriguing. In a similar vein to ‘Nature’s Wild Feast’ though?

Mark: A similar kind of vein yes, but sort of on steroids if you like…it will be bigger and bolder than anything you’ve seen yet.  

Into the Wild: Do you get much of a say in terms of which animals you feature on these shows?

Mark: On ‘Inside Nature’s Giants’ I am involved in the development process. In the last series I pushed very hard to get the racehorse featured, which stood out like a sore thumb when compared to some of the other species we looked at. But I thought it was really important that, given how we were celebrating all these incredible wild living species, many of the most amazing animals are ones that we are very familiar with. The response to that show was remarkable, and a lot of people got in touch, including the Queen’s bloodstock agents, telling us that they were embarrassed at how little they really knew about horses previous to watching the show. That was magic for me because that’s what it’s all about.

Into the Wild: Would you agree that these programmes are revolutionising the wildlife documentary?

Mark: I don’t think that’s for me to say to be honest. I like to think that they are, but I guess it’s down to the audience to say whether they are or not. I think ‘Inside Nature’s Giants’ definitely opened a whole new chapter in natural history in terms of approaching it from a completely different angle. I think that has been recognised, if not by the audience, then at least right across the television industry. I know for a fact that there are lots of commissioning editors at other broadcasters that have subsequently said that the one show they wish they could have commissioned would be ‘Inside Nature’s Giants’. So that obviously feels really good from our point of view given how nervous we were before it went out.

If it does take natural history in a different direction and it engages potentially a different audience as well as bringing people along that have a hard-core interest in natural history, then that’s great. From a personal point of view, something I look for in any project I get involved in is about the influence that it could have on young scientists. Will watching this make young people making career and educational decisions say “wow, that’s a cool subject”? If we can do that, then it’s a major ticked box for me.      

Into the Wild: What has been the highlight of your wildlife/science television presenting career so far?

Mark:
I’ve been very lucky over the years, and I’ve worked on well over 1000 programs, so I’ve had so many amazing experiences. The one big thing that has stood out over the 20 years in television was to win the BAFTA for ‘Inside Nature’s Giants’. It felt utterly extraordinary to be stood up on stage in front of such an eminent group of program makers and broadcasters. We were up against programs of the like of ‘Yellowstone’ and other incredibly shot blue-chip series. The fact that we won, which was totally unexpected, was truly incredible. We won quite a few awards for it last year, and with each one we were there thinking it’s nice to be here, but we don’t have a hope in hell of winning. It was weird. I felt like we shouldn’t really be there, but the industry thought that we should, and that was special.

Into the Wild: Besides these programmes, Frontier is also a massive fan of the ‘Brave New World’ series which focuses on cutting edge science. Which of the many amazing projects and discoveries featured so far have surprised you most?

Mark:
You cannot watch a series like that and not say to yourself “shit, science is cool”. That was my overriding feeling about the whole thing. To be part of that, with such an eminent group of science communicators, I’m sure I was just making up the numbers. I remember seeing a script where my name appeared just below David Attenborough’s, and I just thought that I have to have that piece of paper and get it framed.

But the films that I did, like the brain-controlled wheelchair that I covered in Switzerland, were just incredible. To me, that was a good example of doing a program where you’re not just talking about it, but you’re actually doing it. One of the great privileges of what I do is that I get to spend time with some incredible people, whose knowledge and expertise in their areas of science is just mind-blowing. That’s one of the great enjoyments of this roller-coaster career of mine, those moments that money can’t buy.

Into the Wild: Do you have a favourite animal?

Mark: Cows. I mentioned before how domestic animals are often taken for granted and for me the cow is a classic example of that. These animals have been bred to be milking machines, often at a huge cost to them from a welfare perspective, and we’re so reliant on them. Yet they’re such brilliant animals to spend time with. Biomechanically, physiologically, functionally and anatomically, they are fascinating. Their digestive system for example is so much more complicated than ours. For me, they encompass what is interesting about biology and about animal systems, and I think we owe them a huge debt. We shouldn’t take them for granted.    

Into the Wild: You’ve obviously travelled extensively throughout your career. Which has been your favourite country to visit?

Mark:
Again, that’s a tricky one. My favourite places are those without people. I’m not big on crowds. I adore the outback in Australia, that’s an incredible place. We filmed the kangaroo and camel dissection in a place called Marla which is about 4 hours south of Alice Springs and about 4 hours north of Adelaide. That’s a really great place – just a truck stop, a few bedrooms and a café…brilliant.

My other favourite place is Zambia. I’ve done both hippo films there, and I love it, I love the people. It’s often described as the real Africa, and to me it’s exactly what I always imagined Africa to be like. I came back from Zambia about a month ago and I’ve still got withdrawal symptoms and I’m still wearing the same shorts that I was wearing out there.    

Into the Wild: Which country would you most like to visit that you’ve never been to?

Mark: That’s interesting actually because given what I just said about not liking crowds, a place that really fascinates me is China, particularly out of the cities. The other place I’m keen to go to is Ethiopia because I’m very interested in hyenas and there’s some really interesting studies going on in a place called Harar, so I’d love to go and check that out.

Into the Wild: Which Frontier project would you most like to go on?

Mark: I’d be very interested in the marine projects because that’s something I’ve never done. Along the years I’ve picked up various different licenses, but never my diving certificate. So I’ve often missed out when we’ve been filming in places where there has been an opportunity to film underwater, which has been frustrating for me. It’s a big challenge for me as well, because it’s the one environment where humans are completely out of our depth. But I will do it this year because otherwise I’ll continue to miss these great opportunities to see a whole world that I’ve had no experience of at all. Of the Frontier marine projects I’d probably have to go to the Fiji Marine Conservation and Diving project. It’s a very exotic location that I’ve always thought would be cool to visit. So diving in Fiji sounds good to me. 

To find out more about Mark and his work, visit his website or follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

Interviewed by Alex Prior

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