Wednesday 17 July 2019

Irish star Bonnin tipped to replace David Attenborough

TV host Liz Bonnin is widely tipped to one day replace the legendary wildlife broadcaster, writes Joe Shute

Liz Bonnin, whose family moved to Dublin when she was nine years old, says she would ‘never be suited to a regular job’*
Liz Bonnin, whose family moved to Dublin when she was nine years old, says she would ‘never be suited to a regular job’*

Joe Shute

The first time Liz Bonnin encountered Sir David Attenborough in his natural habitat was at a primate conference 15 years ago. "I stuttered when I spoke," she says, wincing at the memory. "I felt like I was back at school and in trouble with the headmaster."

The next notable occasion was two years ago at a television awards in Bristol, and Bonnin mentioned both wildlife presenters had recently been in the same deep ocean submersible (her in Galapagos; he in the Great Barrier Reef). "It was the first time I was able to hold a conversation with him fairly decently," she recalls.

And then there was last year's Blue Planet II premiere, in which Bonnin was asked by the BBC to interview her hero on stage. "I asked him a question and he swivelled round in his chair and looked so closely at me it was an out-of-body experience," she says. "It was probably one of the most thrilling moments of my life."

If the whispers prove to be correct, there may yet be one more defining Attenborough encounter to come: the moment when the 92-year-old finally passes on his mantle.

Once referred to as "Lara Croft meets David Attenborough", nowadays Bonnin is tipped to one day replace the legendary broadcaster as the voice of the BBC's flagship natural history programmes. As soon as I mention this possibility, however, I am met with an arched eyebrow.

"Nobody will ever succeed him," she says, bluntly. "Everybody needs to walk away from conversations on who will be the next Attenborough. But even to learn from him and make programmes in the same organisation is to me just ridiculous."

David Attenborough
David Attenborough

Bonnin's modesty is bolstered by the clear-eyed drive and single-minded ambition that has taken her from being in a girl band mentored by Louis Walsh to one of Britain's most popular wildlife presenters. Recent credits include BBC's Galapagos and last year's Wild Alaska Live - plus she has a Master's in Wild Animal Biology and Conservation to boot.

Out of principle, she says, she refuses to discuss her age (45, according to Wikipedia). "I'm not shying away from it - I'm proud to be my age - but I have noticed the media make more of a thing of women and age. Those are things I can actively help to discourage when it comes to how women are seen."

She is similarly outspoken about the gender pay gap recently revealed among the BBC's highest earners (although her name does not appear on the list). "I find it absurd and quite shocking," she admits.

Next month Bonnin's latest series, Animals Behaving Badly, goes out on the BBC. We meet in between filming a new BBC documentary, Drowning in Plastic, which will be released later this year.

Bonnin has just returned from a trip to Indonesia as part of filming for the series, and has also visited Lord Howe Island off the east coast of Australia; on her trip she encountered rivers and shorelines choked with plastic, and filmed scientists working every night to rid seabird chicks of plastic clogging their stomachs.

"It has been a very difficult experience, one that I'm not that used to because of what we've seen," she explains. "The extent to which it is affecting the oceans is something I never really imagined. It just whacks you between the eyes in a way which it hasn't before."

Unlike the famous mellifluous tones of Attenborough, Bonnin's accent skips across the world. Interspersed with Irish, there is residual French (she was born in Paris and grew up near Nice) and, on occasion, a hint of her Trinidadian mother.

Her family emigrated to Dublin when she was nine years old in order to secure a good education for Bonnin and her sister. They attended Mount Anville, the prestigious South Dublin secondary school, while her father worked as a dentist.

At first, Bonnin says, they struggled with the culture shock and weather: "Leaving the south of France to rainy Ireland with potatoes, really?" But at school she excelled, and was awarded a place at Trinity College Dublin to read biochemistry.

Graduation brought with it an about turn: she auditioned for a new manufactured girl band, Chill, moved to London and signed to Polydor records. "I had a ball," says Bonnin. "It is my nature to grab things with both hands. I don't think I would ever have been suited to a regular job."

Chill never took off, breaking up before recording or releasing any of their work, but it led Bonnin into presenting on showbiz television - something she would do for the next decade, appearing on Channel 4's short-lived breakfast show RI:SE, and later guest-hosting Top of the Pops.

This early introduction to showbusiness made Bonnin cautious of sharing details of her private life; something she still fiercely adheres to. She speaks a little of her family - now divorced, her mother lives in England and father in Trinidad, while her sister lives in New Zealand - but beyond that maintains a silence.

"I do it for the person, whoever that person has been over the years," she explains, "and also it gives me this little space just for myself. I am actually an absurdly private person. That is precious to me."

She pauses. "I'm not like Angelina Jolie. Does anybody really care? I'm a little science presenter who likes her job."

As her 20s progressed, Bonnin concedes she began to lose her enthusiasm for life in the public eye, at which stage the job offers began drying up. So when the lads mags came calling, "I had a really long think about it," she says. "But every cell in my body was saying this is not for me. It's just not something that felt right or natural to me to do in my career."

Instead, she returned to university, finishing top of her year from her Master's from the Zoological Society of London. Following that, she got her big break presenting Bang Goes the Theory; soon, she was being commissioned to present wildlife films all over the world and admits she flung herself on to "the hamster wheel".

Three years ago, she paid the price for her relentless work ethic when her back seized up, and she was forced to cancel several trips and rest up at home, being looked after by her family and friends.

"When you don't rest enough, you begin to lose your grip on reality somewhat," she says. "And I didn't really listen because I'm driven and ambitious and love what I do."

Time away from work helped Bonnin take stock, and she believes she is now more emotionally mature as a result. "My career matters hugely to me but now I can be my best at that without burning out again," she insists.

So if not Attenborough's crown, what might her career yield?

As she becomes more outspoken on the environment, Bonnin envisages a future for herself "somewhere between conservation organisations and governments and being a voice to fast-track change."

That sounds like the answer of a politician rather than a presenter, I suggest. "The second half of my life is where it's going to be interesting," she replies, cryptically. "I feel then I will really be knowledgeable enough to make a difference."

'Animals Behaving Badly' begins on the BBC in July

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