‘HE’S got a poodle in his freezer,’ said one of my friends when I mentioned Chris Packham.
Yes, but the reason he did that after Itchy died (and it is cold storage rather than a freezer if we are being factual) is that when his twin Scratchy dies (which sadly may be imminent as he is 14 and has got liver disease), the pair will be cremated. And then when Packham passes, his ashes will be mixed with those of his beloved dogs and scattered under a 600-year-old beech tree that sits in the woods that surround his New Forest cottage home. Makes perfect sense to me.
He was a cult figure (and a little bit of a crush of mine) with a Bart Simpson haircut long before the Simpsons were dreamt up, sneaking song lyrics into his pieces to camera. Packham was on The Really Wild Show. For the Millennials amongst you, it was must-see children’s television about all manner of wildlife alongside Michaela Strachan, who back then was many a young lad’s sex symbol. And 30 years later, they probably still lust after her now on Autumnwatch.
But what an extraordinary career choice for someone with Asperger’s, formal diagnosis of which came only a decade ago for 56-year-old Packham. Now he has made a remarkable documentary about his condition, laying bare its impact on himself and others. It is called Chris Packham: Asperger’s and Me and is available to catch up.
The form of autism can take varying guises and Packham talks us through how his brain is wired and how he experiences the world; how he leaps from thought process to thought process, how he finds social situations uncomfortable and craves solitude, how he has difficulty interpreting the thoughts and feelings of others, his fixations with order (look at his coat hangers), his heightened senses and his sharp retentive memory.
He was told by his fashion designer sister Jenny to “go on TV and bore the rest of the world about animals, not just your family”. Classed as ‘high functioning autism’, he has therefore been able to manage it and carve out a successful television life. But the famous naturalist is very respectful of living with it in any form, which is seen when he goes to the US to witness how treatments and even potential cures are progressing.
His early years were painful as he struggled to fit in in Sixties Southampton, desperate not to be different. But when a boy is collecting fox skulls, licking beetles and scoffing tadpoles, you are bound to attract attention and the bullies had a field day. He talks candidly about suicidal thoughts and seeking solace in punk rock, which was as angry as he was.
Loving animals is a breeze, but he can find human relationships puzzling. He and partner of 10 years Charlotte, who do not live together, have survived as he is definitely not yet bored of her. That is probably as romantic as he gets. However, he does live in fear of losing the things he cares for and this started when he hand raised a kestrel as a boy.
His poetic and evocative way with words gives the audience this: “It was some sort of mental love missile. I just lit the touch paper and fired myself into it. It sparkled, exploded and was totally beautiful.” When the bird died six months later, it was a “catastrophic event”.
For all the trauma associated with a devotion to animals, it is heartening to see how inspiring he has been to his stepdaughter, who is now studying zoology.
It is a well-crafted as well as courageous documentary with dramatisations of Packham’s past, moodily-lit monologues and atmospheric cacophonous music.
Chris ends by going to Silicon Valley, one of the places where people with autistic traits have made a massive contribution, and where tech companies are learning to break down barriers to get to untapped talent. Kids who would once have been considered weird are running the world.
So what do you do with yourself when you have completed all seven seasons of Game of Thrones, bereft as I am? (Not bad going eh? Zero to done in two and a half months!). You can have a Jon Snow fix with Gunpowder. The only thing really missing are the dragons.
The three-part series – all available for view on the BBC iPlayer, although you might need a breather between them as the first is not an easy watch with its torture and execution – lifts the lid on the gunpowder plot and is allegedly the most historically-accurate portrayal ever produced for television.
And who better to be involved than actor Kit Catesby Harington (real and full name), who plays the ancestor he is middle named after, the mastermind behind the plan to assassinate King James I by planting explosives under the House of Lords.
Who knew but Guy Fawkes got all the glory as he was the one with the biggest pair of balls.
You might think the brutality is bang out of order, but then so was 17th century England.