Wednesday, 09 May 2012

Earth calling Julia

Countryfile's Julia Bradbury has taken on the biggest project of her career: hosting BBC One's Planet Earth Live. She chats to The Lady about the joys of a new baby, safeguarding our countryside and her obsession with, er, plastic bags

Written by Jo Dunbar

Most mothers with a nine-monthold are getting to grips with sleep deprivation and the perils of a crawling baby. Not Julia Bradbury. Despite having her young son Zephyr only last year, she is fizzing with enthusiasm about the BBC’s next wildlife offering: ‘It’s about as ambitious as it gets – it’s irresistible and terrifying all in one!’

And it’s easy to understand Julia’s excitement. Planet Earth Live is a globally live wildlife show that will see Julia presenting from Minnesota – the home of black bears and their cubs – while co-host Richard Hammond will be based in Kenya, transmitting action of a family of lions. With live shows being broadcast three times a week, viewers will be able to see the progress of the animals and their young (as well as lions and bears, sea otters and grey whales are being filmed) more closely than ever before.

Julia explains, ‘It’s a very important time in the animal kingdom calendar – a lot are emerging with their offspring, cubs are taking their first steps, hibernation is ending. It’s going to bring the audience closer to the animals. Blue Planet and Frozen Planet were immensely popular. This takes things one step further.’

Only a huge TV project like this could have drawn Julia back to work just as she hoped to take maternity leave: ‘I’ve been thrown in at the deep end. I had these plans of taking six months off but it didn’t work out. Almost straightaway I was filming The Great British Countryside with Hugh Dennis. Zephyr came on the road with me because I was breast-feeding.’ And he will accompany Julia to Minnesota. ‘I couldn’t have done it any other way. He’s a tiny thing, changing every day.’

Julia’s keen for her son to grow up with knowledge of the outdoors – something many children don’t have: ‘It’s very important to me for him to spend time outside. Already, he loves being in the garden when we are in Rutland, visiting my parents, as often as possible. I hope he has a healthy blend of rural and urban life.’

Becoming a mother was something Julia, 41, feared may never happen. After suffering with endometriosis, realising she and her partner, property developer Gerard Cunningham, were expecting a baby was amazing: ‘The fact I fell pregnant was, for me, a miracle and I was overjoyed. If I’d started earlier, I’d have absolutely gone for four children. Right now the prospect of juggling everything while doing the biggest show of my career, is very daunting.’

Despite her worries, Julia’s getting into the swing of family life, balancing TV commitments with not missing important moments in Zephyr’s development. To complete the picture, there’s also a miniature schnauzer called Lottie. ‘We have a shared family dog. She goes between all of us. If my sister is away, she’ll stay with my mum and dad or with us. She’s very adaptable and the right percentage of dog in your life.’

Being asked to present Planet Earth Live marks a high point in Julia’s 15-year TV career. She has a varied CV, with stints on Watchdog and walking programmes, before finding her niche. But she appreciates all the different work: ‘I’m certainly not someone who can claim to be an overnight success. I’ve worked hard to maintain that diversity so I don’t get pigeonholed.’

Indeed, ‘getting pigeonholed’ can be a threat to women working in TV. No one could have missed the ageism row last year when three female Countryfile presenters claimed they were discriminated against because of their age. Julia, who herself admits is ‘the wrong side of 40’, has her own thoughts on the matter: ‘Should there be more older women on television? Yes. But only if they’re good at what they do. There’s no point just doing it as a numbers exercise.’

She points to the US attitude to women on TV: ‘America seems to be more accepting of an older woman who has authority and credibility. ‘A lot of the anchors over there are women: Christiane Amanpour, Katie Couric and Barbara Walters – she’s 82! I think we as a nation are accepting that, and TV commissioners really do have to start thinking in a different way.’

Given her Countryfile role, Julia has a strong opinion on our environment. She, like many of us, is concerned about how we preserve the planet and how we can harness alternative energy: ‘I’m passionate about the world we live in and the enormous burden of the population.

‘We can’t keep using the earth as a bottomless pit. We need as wide a variety of renewable energy as possible. I’m sceptical about nuclear energy. What do you do when that energy’s used up? Wind farms are just a percentage of the solution. I’m hoping our young scientists are going to find ways to create solar energy.’

Closer to home, as President of the Campaign to Protect Rural England, Julia’s keen for more of us to protect our countryside. ‘Preserving it is a very controversial issue – there is no simple answer. As Bill Bryson said, we are very lucky to have preserved what we have. Over here we have a great attitude to the outdoors. That’s something I want to encourage. The more people who feel passionate about the countryside, the more likely they are to protect it.’

And Julia has one issue that she’s very passionate about: ‘I’m obsessed with plastic bags. I hate them. If someone buys a newspaper and a Mars bar and accepts a plastic bag from the guy behind the till, I say ‘No you don’t!’ They look at me as if I’m mad. But that’s my thing.’

Planet Earth Live is broadcast on BBC One on Sundays, at 7.50pm.

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