The Deadly 60 presenter engages young naturalists at the Ulster Hall with sharks and rhinos, but isn't too fond of Giant Pandas
The last time an iconic outdoorsman came to the Ulster Hall to give a talk – Ray Mears, in November 2010 – the evening was hijacked by the meandering presenter Brian Black. There is no such annoyance with Steve Backshall, who stage-manages the July 5 visit of his A Wild Life tour to Belfast down to a tee. It’s just him up there, for a start, and the audience Q&A session is exactly that, with no inane interjections from a local wildlife 'expert'.
For Backshall, who spends his life traversing the globe meeting nature’s 'scariest' creatures (as well as competing in extreme adventure sports), it must be torture to be cooped up in a dimly lit theatre on a scorching July afternoon. But with several hundred animal-loving children (and their parents) to entertain and educate, the star of CBBC’s Deadly 60 series and National Geographic’s 'adventurer in residence' gets straight down to business.
Striding purposefully onto the stage, the tank-like 39-year-old regales us with tales of encounters with some of Earth’s top predators, showing video highlights of his various television series to illustrate proceedings. Putting the 'mentalist' in 'environmentalist', Backshall is seen handling a black widow, swimming amidst a lemon shark 'feeding frenzy' and being bitten by a caiman while tracking anacondas barefoot in a swamp.
Elsewhere, he negotiates a kayak through a pod of 'bubble-netting' humpback whales, takes part in a tribal initiation ritual which involves him putting on a pair of gloves filled with aptly-monikered bullet ants and is hunted by a pack of Komodo dragons.
This isn’t just a vicarious thrill ride, though, and Backshall cannily threads an ardent environmental agenda throughout proceedings. He also offers words of encouragement to the audience to get out and experience the natural world. ‘The only limit is your own creativity, your own drive,’ he enthuses.
The second half begins with a plug for Backshall’s new book, the fictional Tiger Wars, before moving into some revealing commentary about his screen career. Backshall admits that Deadly 60 was conceived as a purely populist enterprise, and that he is no more specifically interested in predators than he is in, say, goldfinches or goldcrests.
Still, he knows what side his bread is buttered on, so is happy to answer the crowd’s questions as to his favourite mammal (the grey wolf), shark (the tasselled wobbegong) and bug (any species of parasitic wasp that lays its eggs inside other animals). He’s rarely stumped, even when a precocious child asks, ‘Are there any animals that are useless?’ Backshall decides on, ‘The giant panda'.
Indeed, the only time the charismatic naturalist seems truly stuck for words is when someone enquires if he has a favourite vegetarian animal. Stumped momentarily, he eventually plumps for the Asian one-horned rhino.
Then, after around two hours, it’s over. For the engaged youngsters here today, though, the adventure should continue. As Backshall himself says, ‘The wild world goes on for ever.’