Interview: Bill Oddie

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Whether you know him best for his work on The Goodies or as one of the most well-known wildlife presenters of recent years, one thing is clear about Bill Oddie: he has had as varied a career as they come. Beginning in the mid-sixties, the multi-talented Englishman has dabbled in acting, comedy, music, presenting, ornithology, and conservationism, and at the age of 71, his sense of humour, energy, and passion for wildlife are as strong as ever. He also likes to go off on tangents from time to time.

You’re coming to Australia next month for a run of shows. Tell me, what will the show consist of?

The simple answer is that I don’t really know at the moment! That’s not because I’m completely busking it and haven’t thought about it, but in a sense things are much easier these days because you can gather together clips and things, whereas before you were stuck with a couple of pieces of film or a few slides. I’m doing research at the moment to see what’s actually available, because if you try to get things off the BBC you have to go under the cover of darkness and steal it. They don’t want you having things like that without paying them vast amounts of money. There will be a certain amount of Goodies-related stuff because I didn’t come on the last couple of tours with Tim and Graham. They’ve come back twice I think – sorry about that by the way! Nobody wants them forcing themselves upon your nation (laughs). I’ve got to find out what they covered then. I think it was about five or six years ago when I came over with them and we did shows at several places, starting off at the Melbourne Comedy Festival and then we ended up doing about fifteen gigs I think, covering mainly – and I hate to call it this – nostalgia; covering how various things occurred and requests and stuff like that. But this is going to be my angle, and the great thing about that is that I can say whatever the bloody hell I like and they’ll never know! (laughs)

Will you be solely telling stories, or doing some music too?

I won’t be directly singing with anybody as such unless I burst into something vaguely self-accompanied. One of my biggest failures in life is not actually getting round to playing something that I felt like exposing the public to, but I can probably plonk through the few chords I might need for a couple of things. So, there might be a bit of music, and there may be questions about that, which is fine. I’m amazed how much appreciation and affection we still get from the audience – I was in Sheffield a couple of days ago to talk about some pretty heavy conservation stuff and I was getting asked questions about having John Paul Jones on bass for a demo I did and things like that. I hope Australian audiences will be curious about how we arrived at where we did when we started doing The Goodies stuff. There’s a big Australian connection there as a matter of fact, as most of my band at that time were from Australia or New Zealand. We were like an early-days Flight of the Conchords!

You’ve been so involved in music throughout your career; do you still follow new music these days?

Oh, God yes! I would consider myself a massive fan. I’ve been accused over the years of wanting to be a pop star, and without being unduly uppity, we were pop stars in a way. We had five or six top-twenty records, and were on Top of The Pops every week. If you’ve been reading about the scandalous times in the BBC dressing rooms and Top of The Pops in the seventies – I’m here. I might be able to shed some light on that, or maybe not!

Well in that case, shed some light!

I don’t know (laughs). I can tell you what it was like, and I can tell you about the atmosphere without getting myself jailed or something. One was aware of a certain atmosphere. Let’s face it; it was a bunch of rock bands together at the BBC, and the recordings at that time had a concert feel to them. It was the age of freedom and groupies and so on and so forth, and I personally wouldn’t have regarded most of it as scandalous, but obviously some of it was. But obviously, some things we knew and some things we didn’t.

So you’re saying there’s substance to the stories, shall we say?

It depends (pauses). I don’t mind if when we do the shows in Australia I get asked serious questions; in a way I even prefer it. We can go on forever about the day we did a sketch with a giant kitten, but if part of what the audience wants comes from other curiosities I’m fine with that. I’m happy with people asking about the seventies and if it was really like the stories, and if it’s all true. If there’s a serious side to that I’m perfectly happy to talk about it, so I’d like people to feel that my shows aren’t just about dragging up the old times. Sometimes I like to throw questions right back at the audience and see what people think, in terms of politics, music, the environment, and whatever else. Am I making it sound too serious? (laughs) That also applies to talking about mental health problems I’ve had in the last ten years; I’ve been on something of a journey it has to be said, although if anyone’s looking for salvation you won’t find it; there’s no easy cure. We tend to get the same celebrity depressives in the UK, and I haven’t made that list yet, which I’m a bit cross about! (laughs) Yes, we know about Stephen Fry and so on, but come on!

Your struggles with bi-polar disorder and depression are quite well documented. How are you these days?

I’m fine at the moment; have been for about three years now. Fingers crossed I’ve got through it. I wish I could actually genuinely say it was with a lot of help from various medical institutions, but I can’t say that. One of the big problems is they really don’t know what they’re doing, in the nicest possible sense. It isn’t a simple matter of just take these pills and you’ll be alright, you know? But it might be, and they never say that because that puts half a dozen shrinks out of a job. (laughs) A bit of cynicism is creeping in here! Anyway I’m very happy to answer questions about anything; I’ve never understood people who go into an interview and set rules – I don’t want to talk about this, I don’t want to talk about that and so on. That’s ridiculous; if somebody asks something you don’t want to answer, then don’t answer it.

You’ve had such a diverse career. Is there anything, career-wise, that you haven’t yet done but would like to?

Well, there are millions of things! I suppose as you get older you have to accept all sorts of limitations and likelihoods, apart from getting old and dropping dead, which tends to put a bit of a dampener on some ambitions. I’ve changed my mind frequently about this, but sometimes I think I would like to get back to the sort of position I was in when I was making natural history programmes a couple of years ago, although I don’t think it’s possible as they’re not making that kind of programme now. I don’t know what they’re doing up there in BBC-land, that nasty place! (laughs) So really, apart from wanting to stay around, stay compos mentis, and frankly enjoy my own family – my daughters and grandchildren. Despite every possible encouragement, almost all of them have managed to go into some branch of show business, and I love it. Get to know them, get to know their mates, and you’ll be very, very pleasantly surprised nine times out of ten. Then, a couple of times you’ll be absolutely horrified! (laughs)

Let’s talk conservation now. Do you think we – as in people – are generally improving the way we treat animals or getting worse?

It’s hard to answer this, because I think roughly speaking one could say that we know a great deal more about what the dangers are, what the threats are, how the loss of habitats is so important and that kind of thing. We know much, much more than we did when I was a kid, for example; we know what the problems are in many cases, and what the solutions are, but that doesn’t mean that people are necessarily going to do anything about it. Awareness amongst the public is unquestionably higher, backed up with far more knowledge than we used to have. However, the same overriding concerns like money and greed; in other words politicians and occasional heads of countries – that hasn’t improved and the unfortunate fact is that they’re in charge, and it’s hard to make them see sense. In Britain it’s every fucking day with our stupid government, if I can be frank. We’ve got an absolute moron as an environmental secretary at the moment, Owen Patterson, and the Prime Minister is nearly as bad. It’s like dealing with a bunch of over-privileged landowners, and the battles are there non-stop. Times have changed so much that If someone asks me what should they do to help the environment, I tell them genuinely to be a politician, if they have a mind and a stomach for it, because we got to get some people in there with the right morality.

Final question, Bill. What are your plans for the rest of 2013?

Recover! (laughs) I don’t know actually, as my whole schedule has changed. When I was doing The Goodies that’s all we did. Because I was doing the music as well, I was probably more involved than anybody, so there wasn’t any spare time. Then, for ten or fifteen years I was doing wildlife programmes, which I gather were never shown in Australia; and those took up all my time. At the moment I’m just concentrating on putting my show together and I hope the people of Australia will think it’s rather good and want a few more. I want them to know that it’s not going to be all comedy, or not all serious; believe me, if you see my attempts at swimming with seals in Cornwall, you’ll see it’s not serious. And we’re going to have a good mix of things, but it won’t be totally schizophrenic; just a little bi-polar! (laughs)


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