For some women it might have been the worst timing possible. When Julia Bradbury was approached about signing up for ‘the project of a lifetime’, a derring-do TV venture involving foreign travel, remote locations, wild animals and campfires, she was ecstatic.
Forget Countryfile, the programme that made her a household name, this was a global version with added oomph – and live to boot.
There was only one small – very small at that stage – problem. Julia, 41, was pregnant, and would have a baby (who would possibly still be breastfeeding) by the time filming began.
New ventures: Countryfile was the programme that made Julia Bradbury a household name
Now some women might have howled at the injustice of being offered a big career break at such a time, then quietly turned the job down. Not Julia. Fast forward a few months and she is preparing to fly to the States for a stint tracking wild bears for Planet Earth Live, billed as a kind of global Springwatch, charting a month in the life of the planet. And included in her luggage are nappies, sterilising equipment and jungle animals of the cuddly variety. Because, at just nine months old, her little boy Zephyr is going on her trip of a lifetime too.
‘It’s not the way I thought things would pan out at all,’ she admits. ‘But it turned out there were a few options. Obviously having Zeph meant I couldn’t go anywhere too dangerous. That ruled me out of taking him to Africa, but it did leave open the States. So I said yes.’
So any day now she is heading off to the wilds of Minnesota with Zeph, his nanny, and her sister (who will provide childcare) in tow. Later, her partner, 52-year-old Irish property developer Gerard Cunningham, will join them. ‘It’s the perfect solution. I love my work and I’m so lucky to be able to take my child with me. This is a way of having a fulfilling job and the family life I always craved.’
An elephant family pictured in Kenya's National Park
Julia will be tracking American black bears in Minnesota
She’s the first to admit this wouldn’t be an option for everyone. Her own mother assumed she was going to get a ‘proper TV job, on a sofa’ when she became a mum. ‘I tell her that this is a sort of sofa job – just one in the middle of the North Lakes. When I’m tracking bears Zeph will be back safely at the lodge. It’s not as if I’ll be charging out there with him in a papoose strapped to my front.’
And the alternative – giving up work – is actually more daunting for Julia. While motherhood has lived up to ‘and surpassed’ all her emotional expectations, she did find the stay-at-home part hard. ‘It’s such hard work, with bottles, the washing machine on a loop, the lack of sleep. I think I’d have gone absolutely berserk if I remained a stay-at-home mum,’ she admits. ‘I think it’s the hardest job in the world, and I’m in awe of women who can do it.’
As TV gigs go, Planet Earth Live is up there with the best. The brainchild of the BBC Natural History department, it will attempt to capture, often on live TV, the journeys of the world’s most iconic animals. Teams will be filming across Africa, America, Asia, South America and the Arctic, with the main presenters – Julia in the US, and Richard Hammond in Kenya – 8,167 miles apart. But the real stars of the show will be the animals. We’re promised lions, elephants, black bears, grey whales, sea otters, meerkats and polar bears, among others.
Julia obviously adores her little boy, and says he, too, will benefit from this adventure. ‘I’ve spent my whole life searching out new things, and I want him to grow up thinking that’s normal. When he goes to school we may have to rethink, but for now wherever I go, he goes.’
Even when he’s talking about something quite boring – like carburettors – Richard Hammond sounds like a little boy about to explode with excitement. So you can imagine how breathless he is as he chats about travelling to Kenya to track lions, fly helicopters and learn bushcraft in the Masai Mara. He’s 42, going on nine.
‘I’m beside myself,’ he says. ‘As a kid I was obsessed with the natural world. I once entered a competition to win a trip down the Amazon. You had to fill in a diary of all the wildlife you saw in your garden and I got a bit carried away. I lived in Birmingham, but my entry was full of emus and bats. That’s probably why I didn’t win.’
Well, he certainly thinks he’s hit the jackpot now. A concerted effort not to be pigeon-holed as the daft little one on Top Gear seems to have paid off. Richard gave an interview a few years back saying that he would love to front a natural history programme, but said he would ‘struggle to get such a commission’. And yet here he is. Who would have thought it? ‘I am a very lucky boy,’ he laughs. ‘Obviously I’m a million miles from being David Attenborough. The joy about this series is that it’s not my job to be the expert. The place will be awash with experts. I’ll be there to ask the questions that people at home want answering.’
Childhood dreams: Richard will be watching lions in Kenya
He seems delighted he’s secured the more remote, possibly more dangerous anchor role, camping out in the bush, and hopefully not getting eaten by lions. ‘We’ll be getting quite close, and they’ll be hungry because it’s a month before the wildebeest arrive – but I think the chances of me being the prey are slim. I’m going to have the best in the business with me. I can’t wait.’
It may not be immediately obvious what qualifications Hammond has to present a show about wildlife, since the other programme he is most famous for – apart from Top Gear – is Total Wipeout. But as he points out ‘animals are just big machines, aren’t they?’ And he does know a thing or two about animals. His first media job was with Radio Cumbria, where he read out the regular ‘sheep for sale’ slot. And these days he’s quite the country boy too.
With his penchant for jeans, waistcoats and the sort of wooden necklaces students bring home from their gap year, he may not seem like your typical farmer, but he is. In Gloucestershire, where he lives with his wife Mindy and their two daughters Izzy and Willow, he keeps a menagerie including horses and sheep. As we speak, he’s just been out ‘helping with the lambing’. Helping how much? ‘Oh, I’ve been known to take my watch off and muck in,’ he replies.
'As a kid I was obsessed with the natural world. I once entered a competition to win a trip down the Amazon,' says Richard
He actually moved his family out of London so that they could live the country lifestyle – and has bought himself a helicopter to cut down commuting times. ‘It’s practical. I do so much filming away that I can be on the other side of the country in an hour rather than driving for a day.’ All in all, what with the fast cars and the helicopters and the jetting around the world, it seems quite exhausting being Richard Hammond. He’s already been in Moscow filming this year, and says he is just back from swimming in the Baltic with seals for another TV project.
His career choices are particularly interesting given that accident in 2006 when he almost lost his life while racing a jet-powered dragster for Top Gear. Did he have to sit down with his wife and discuss the types of jobs he would consider, once he had recovered? ‘We did discuss it,’ he admits, ‘and the bottom line is that my family come first. If I thought I was risking them not having a father or a husband then I wouldn’t do a job, I really wouldn’t. But equally when you push things to the edge… that is where it gets interesting.’
Perhaps the miracle is that he gets asked to do risky or far-flung jobs. ‘I’m not the cheapest to insure,’ he says. ‘But in terms of risk assessment, I probably think of it more than most because I’ve had a very stark lesson. And at the end of the day, all life is risk. I could take a sofa job and have a studio light fall on my head.’
Unsurprisingly, he suffered depression after the accident and it took a long time for his brain to, as he puts it, ‘rewire itself’. There was a worry he’d never recover his full memory capacity. Are there lasting effects? He simply doesn’t know. ‘My medium-term memory is rubbish. But I don’t know if that’s just the way my mind works, or if it’s an ongoing effect of the accident. Like when I forget my PIN number, it might just be one of those things. Or it might not.’ However, there is little sign of him growing up, and for that he is happy. ‘Some TV jobs require you to have this cool “seen it all before” attitude. That’s not me. I like being awed and amazed by life. I don’t want to be anything I’m not.’