Martin Hughes-Games is a presenter on the much-loved BBC nature series, Winterwatch. He chats to Gabrielle Fagan about outwitting a lioness...
Martin Hughes-Games is crouching on a riverbank bundled up against the cold in a variety of layers and a hat.
“Is this my dream job?,” he says through chattering teeth.
“Yes, without any doubt.”
That said, as he prepares to wade into the icy cold river below, he does admit, “it gets jolly cold at times, and sometimes I think enviously of Michaela and Chris who are probably cosy and warm indoors.”
Because Michaela Strachan and Chris Packham, Hughes-Games’s fellow presenters on Winterwatch (and Springwatch and Autumnwatch) the hugely successful BBC2 series charting British wildlife throughout the changing seasons, are not so exposed to the elements. It is Hughes-Games’s role to stay out in all weathers giving an on-the-ground eye view of nature.
“Did I get the short straw, probably. Obviously it’s because I’m the toughest presenter on the team,” jokes this genial man, who five years ago stepped into the spotlight after being a producer/director for more than 30 years.
“Michaela feels the cold really badly so I don’t think it would be right for her, and Chris certainly wouldn’t want to ruin his clothes – think of the Prada,” he says, light-heartedly referring to the latter’s love of designer and quirky clothing.
“I’m the third element, they’re real showbusiness, whereas I know my place. I’m the approachable, get down and dirty one, while Chris is intense, and Mick is incredibly bouncy. Getting out there and living it for the audience watching at home suits me and they definitely wouldn’t find it so comfortable.”
Although too modest to describe himself as such, Hughes-Games is clearly the natural action-man of the trio. Even in his spare time, he likes nothing more than conquering mountains – he’s an avid climber – and is trained as a rope access technician.
“It means I’m able to hang by a rope off bridges or buildings hundreds of feet up, it can be useful assessing risks and finding obscure birds nests,” he explains cheerfully.
He’s also a keen motorcyclist, who successfully competed for several years, and now owns 12 bikes.
This innate sense of adventure means Hughes-Games, 57, relishes every minute of getting within a whisker of nature’s wonders, whether it’s immersing himself into the waters of the River Dee, Aberdeenshire seeking otters, or trying to fathom how Great Tits, once famous for pecking the tops off milk bottles to sup the cream, learn their behavioural skills.
His passion for wildlife began in childhood in Bristol, when his doctor father encouraged him to explore the countryside and he went on to take a degree in zoology.
“I remember my gran said ‘well done’ at the graduation ceremony, and ‘now which zoo are you going to work for, darling?’” he says with a smile. Uncertain, too, of his career path, he found himself, by chance, sharing a house with a student actors from the Bristol Old Vic, including Greta Scacchi and Amanda Redman, while Daniel Day-Lewis and Paul McGann, were frequent visitors.
“Mandy got me my lucky break into TV. She’d got a job on a small BBC drama and kindly organised an interview with a producer which led to my becoming a researcher. It was the start of an incredible adventure,” says Hughes-Games, who went on to make documentaries and programmes focusing on animals and their habitats across the globe.
“I’ve had some hair-raising moments. In particular, when I was in Africa and literally stumbled on a lioness and her cubs, because of the long grass I hadn’t see her lying there,” he says.
“Female lions will instinctively attack if they fear a threat to their young and her ears went back, her teeth bared and she was growling. I could visualise the headlines, ‘TV man mauled by lion’ – but thankfully she slowly retreated.”
There’s more too. “Undoubtedly the worst moment of my career was seeing two members of my crew almost crushed by a thousands of tons of ice falling around their boat in the Arctic. Their escape, as blocks of ice the size of fridges fell inches from them, was miraculous.”
With such experience, it was perhaps only natural that in 2009, when Bill Oddie left Winterwatch, Hughes-Games, then a producer on Springwatch, stepped in. Initially, it was as a narrator, but his natural empathy and ability to describe the minutiae of nature unfolding before him led to where he is now.
“I vividly remember my first appearance in front of a camera, when I thought to myself, ‘Martin, can you really stand up in front of around three million people and make this work?,’” he says.
“It was nerve-racking, but it’s addictive. It’s fantastic having the opportunity to enthuse the great British public about natural history, and its challenging because there’s no script, no autocue and it’s live.”
He, and his two fellow members of the presenting team, more than make the most of the challenge though.
“We all have brilliant fun together. I can honestly say I never laugh as much in the year as I do when the three of us are filming,” he says.
“Chris and I are always joking and going off on a tangent and Michaela can get quite cross with us. We’re a good balance. The cards we carry around for the show, as aide memoirs, are so revealing of our personalities.
“I know they’ll kick me out in the end, that’s the way it goes. I’ll have to man-up and just do other things.”