For an hour on Thursday evening it felt as if I’d been transported by time machine back to 1984 or thereabouts, and that I was watching the freshly-launched Channel 4. But no, it was 2015 and I was watching Chris Packham’s Natural Selection on BBC4, a one-off chatshow in which Chris Packham of Springwatch fame hosted a discussion in which his guests were the conceptual artist Jeremy Deller and activist George Monbiot.
If you missed it catch up with it on iPlayer before it disappears. This was an hour of the most intelligent and critical discussion I’ve seen on TV since the days when Channel 4 was a grown-up TV channel hosting critical debates about serious issues, not the moronic, attention-seeking waste of tax-payers money that it has become.
I can only hope that Packham gets a regular series after this show, which he introduced as a conversation with two of his heroes – both dedicated to resisting complacency , both – in Packham’s words – ‘intelligent and highly creative’ and sharing with him ‘a desire to use anger creatively’.
The discussion which ensued challenged accepted verities, and was entertaining and witty at the same time. Packham came prepared with video clips that illustrated highlights of his guests’ work. The trio’s conversation focused on their shared concern with social and environmental injustice, and the best means of protecting nature which their work often celebrates.
Like Chris Packham, I regard Deller and Monbiot as giants in their respective fields. In November 2013 I was overwhelmed by the exhibition at Manchester Art Gallery curated by Jeremy Deller, All That Is Solid Melts Into Air – a personal journey through the Industrial Revolution, exploring its impact on British popular culture, and its persisting influence on our lives today – while George Monbiot’s columns in the Guardian provide incisive reports from the battlefronts in a mad and maddening world.
Packham began with a timely reminder of one of Jeremy Deller’s most audacious artworks – the reaceation on 17 June 2001 of the Battle of Orgreave on 18 June 1984, perhaps the most significant moment in the Miners’ Strike of 1984/5. The day after this broadcast, the IPCC announced that it will not mount a formal investigation into allegations of criminal wrongdoing by police even though it has found evidence to suggest that police officers assaulted miners at the mass picket, then perverted the course of justice and committed perjury in the failed prosecutions which followed.
We set out to join the picket lines
For together we cannot fail
We got stopped by police at the county line
They said, “Go home, boys or you’re going to jail”
Which side are you on, boys?
Which side are you on?
Explaining to Chris Packham the idea behind his re-enactment of this confrontation, Jeremy Deller recalled that he had witnessed the event as a teenager on TV. He saw the re-enactment as having the quality of a war scene rather than a labour dispute. After two years’ research, the re-enactment was staged with about 800 historical re-enactors and 200 former miners who had been part of the original conflict. He described it as ‘digging up a corpse and giving it a proper post-mortem.’
Moving on, Packham probed an aspect of Deller’s work which I had previously overlooked: how his concern with social inequalities and the roots of Britain’s identity in its cultural and political history is interwoven with an anxiety for nature and landscape on these islands. Packham cited Deller’s bouncy castle Stonehenge that toured Britain a few years back: called ‘Sacrilege’, the interactive, bouncy artwork was at once a homage to Stonehenge and a critique of English Heritage which – at the time – offered the public only restricted access to Stonehenge (remember the 4-mile exclusion zone around the stones at the the summer and winter solstice?). Discussing the work today, Deller accepted that access to the ancient site had been improved since, but that the work was primarily a representation of Britain’s history, culture and sense of humour. Probably built between 3000 and 2000 BC, and probably designed as a place of worship and celebration, Deller turns the mysterious stones into pure enjoyment – ‘a way for everyone to learn about these places in a quite a silly way’.
As another example of this strand in Jeremy Deller’s work, Packham’s chose the giant mural he designed for the 2013 Venice Biennale of a Hen Harrier clasping a blood red Range Rover in its talons.
On one level an apocalyptic vision of the natural world wreaking vengeance on humankind, Deller agreed with Packham that he also had a more specific target in mind. As the mural’s title, A Good Day for Cyclists, suggests, it was also intended as an angry attack on the owners of bloated and expensive 4-wheel drive SUVs.
But, more than that, it was a political statement in support of one of our most endangered birds, a pair of which had been shot some years before on the Queen’s Sandringham Estate in Norfolk. Observed by passers-by, it later transpired that Prince Harry and a friend were the only people known to be shooting that day. Unsurprisingly, following a police investigation, no action was taken. As Deller wrly noted, ‘If you or I shot a hen harrier in Britain, we would go to prison for six months. Someone got away with it. And that bothered me.’ The work provides an example of how Deller integrates questions of class and political power with his concern for landscape and nature.
Questions of class and political power, and their connection with environmental issues, has been central to the George Monbiot’s writing – as a columnist for the Guardian and in articles on his own website. But Chris Packham began with a video – made by Monbiot for a TED talk in 2013 – which Packham admitted had made him ‘sick with envy’. The film, Packham said, rose to the challenge of explaining complex science in a relatively compact and speedy way.
In How Wolves Change Rivers, Monbiot explains how, when wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park after a 70-year absence, something interesting happened: the rest of the park began to find a new, more healthful balance. The wolves set off a ‘trophic cascade’ that altered the movement of deer, allowed trees to spread, stabilized the banks of rivers making them less susceptible to erosion, and attracted scores of new animals to the area (beavers, rabbits, bears, bald eagles and more).
Packham and his guests discussed the need for wildlife documentaries not only to focus on the wonders of the natural world, but also to probe and challenge the impact which powerful landowning and corporate interests have on the environment. Monbiot raged against the ‘sanitised picture’ presented in Countryfile – ‘these millionaires posing as peasants, salt of the earth sheep farmers, given total carte blanche to present themselves as they would like themselves to be seen’.
Monbiot spoke movingly of a close encounter with a bottlenose dolphin in Cardiff Bay, just when he thought his number was up, and of how, without his column and articles to write, ‘I would go mad – my head would explode’.
I’ve got to write to get things off my chest, but also because we’re dead for a very long time. We’ve got one shot and not to use it knowing what’s happening to this extraordinary, wonderful and amazing planet, and the extraordinary, wonderful and amazing people that live on it; just to stand back and not to do anything, not to take this one amazing chance we’ve got to try to change it, to try to stop the bad stuff, to try to create a vision of something better and work towards that … well, we might as well give up now, because that would be a total waste of our lives.
Monbiot admitted that ‘we’re all up against forces much bigger and more powerful than we are’. But, when Packham interjected that ‘we love that David and Goliath thing’, Monbiot admitted that he found the day-to-day reality sometimes grinding and quite soul-destroying.
Look at the power of the fossil fuel industry; look at the power of big landowners; look at the power of so many groups who I see as destroying the conditions which make life worth living, which make this planet habitable, which allow other species to live here. They are so big and we’re so small.
Chris Packham responded to that with a quote from Aldous Huxley – ‘Being contented has none of the glamour of a good fight against misfortune. Happiness is never grand.’ – before thanking his two guest and concluding that he didn’t ever want to see either of them happy. The show is on iPlayer for 28 days; don’t miss it.