September – Thinking outside the box – By Nick Tomalin

First of all I must apologise. I ended last month’s article by insisting that you really must getout and enjoy nature. I suggested that getting off your collective backsides and departing the house would provide a bountiful hamper of natural history wonders. I had the gall to dictate that a new experience lurks behind every back door. Whilst I still hold true to this assertion, it dawned on me this month that not everything that shapes our interests and excites our enthusiasm need be externally based. And though I appreciate that staying indoors does not necessarily indicate sitting in front of the TV, there is something to be said for the occasional spot of armchair viewing.

Part of my realisation came when I found myself torn between watching Rafa Nadal at Wimbledon on BB1, Andy Murray on BBC2, France losing to South Africa in the World Cup on ITV, and Countdown on Channel 4! Now I must confess two things here: first, I am a big fan of sports, with football, tennis and hockey being my passions; second, I am a huge geek, and love nothing more than to test the old grey matter with a dose of mental arithmetic or word puzzling. Countdown, or 15 minutes thereof, tends to be a regular feature and ideal mid-afternoon biscuit break from work! So this was indeed a difficult position to find myself in. In the end I opted for a few minutes of each (especially the conundrum), finished my work and went to play tennis.

So although I made the most of the fine conditions, I do recognise that there are some things that you simply don’t want to miss, for a variety of reasons. This was highlighted even more during the England football matches, when beaches, gardens, parks and paths all emptied, despite the stunning weather. No doubt there were some amongst you who made the most of this unseasonal exodus and enjoyed these magnificent places to yourselves in the absence of screaming hoards. Perhaps you even caught up with goings on later. The programmers would have you believe that everything is now ‘unmissable’, with the introduction of online viewing, instant playback and home recording, but for live events such as sport, it seems somehow less exhilarating watching back after the action is over.

The second reason behind my swift backpedalling was that I recently spent a few delightfulevenings socialising with colleagues and volunteers in the county, and wondered whether wildlife film-making may have had anything to do with our collective interest. Again, I maintain that you can’t beat getting out and indulging in it for yourself, but with the improvements in technology now on offer to the production teams (and to FIFA!), there are many more sights and sounds that can be captured and beamed, streamed or DVD-ed into our homes. As a kid I would sit amazed at each new programme and the proximity to wildlife, often far away, that this allowed me. Even now I look forward to each new Attenborough series, although the great man seems to bring an air of depth and authenticity to natural history that I’m yet to discover from other presenters. I don’t watch much of Springwatch or similar programmes, but I don’t suppose they are aimed at me. What they do well is bring in the next generation of conservationists and wildlife enthusiasts, as Sir David did for me 20 years ago (though I suspect Kate Humble will never quite achieve the same status!).

There is no doubt that TV can be a powerful tool to educate, communicate, and entertain, when used wisely. There is also little doubt that it is over-used and abused for that very reason. The cynics amongst you may claim that the small screen is simply another form of propaganda, no different to, say, writing regular articles for your local community website! And you would be right. But with such a wide audience just a remote control click away it is not surprising that most organisations, including the RSPB, clamour to feature in the schedules as much as possible. In fact I wonder how much the world of multimedia is likely to change in the next few years. I hear more and more about tweeting, blogging, and social networking (which I would like to see shortened to ‘snetworking’) than ever before, and imagine that this is now the best way to reach a technologically gifted populous.

I don’t suppose many of you would argue that the defining moments and abiding memories of your life were based around the box, but many of us will have seen world events unfold in this way. Where it is not possible to be there in the flesh, as it happens, it does not mean that we have to miss out altogether, as those who witnessed the moon landing or 1966 world cup final would hopefully testify. And though it may have been all the more enjoyable had we taken that small step, or perhaps been on the pitch thinking it was all over, to have missed out altogether would have been a tragedy.

Though I would never substitute the experiences I’ve had in the field and when travelling forplasma widescreen versions, I am sure that part of what makes them so memorable, interesting and enjoyable for me came from what I’ve learnt on TV. How many natural history enthusiasts have never seen a wildlife programme? How many sports fans don’t watch live coverage? And how many people in need of mental stimulation fail to turn to quiz shows to stretch their minds? Of course there are other ways to nourish the hunger, but sometimes you just have to put the feet up and relax in front of the box. I just hope the quality work of the natural history unit and others continues to inspire and encourage people to go out and soak up these experiences for themselves. After all, the next one may be lurking just behind the

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