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Wild Things Diary: 18 Feb. 2013
Drip little drop…
We’re driving through the Dales to the famous Dent Festival to film the opening shots of the Yorkshire episode. The photos from last year paint an idyllic picture; jolly little marquees with brightly coloured bunting hung between the trees, bales of hay scattered around with people sat in straw hats and t-shirts supping pints of the local ale, a band playing outside on a stage and the whole scene bathed in soft early summer sunshine.
But this is the summer of 2012 and we arrive to a slightly different scene. Sodden, flagging tents float in a sea of thick brown mud. The trees are bending in the gale and inside, a few hardy souls wrapped up in woolly hats and zipped-up waterproofs gulp coffee from flasks. On stage, a band tries to muster some enthusiasm for their unique brand of teenage angst. It doesn’t quite work and we abandon the festival as the rain lashes down. This set the scene for the Yorkshire shoot – rain, rain and more rain.
But it’s not every day that you get to fulfil a lifetime’s ambition and I’m full of excitement when, a few days later, I’m about to see wild Lady’s-slipper Orchid in Britain for the first time. I never expected to have a TV camera in my face when I did though. It’s an odd experience. Doing the science and the botany are one thing – you can just deliver the straight facts and information – but this is different. It’s much more personal.
There’s been such a build up to me seeing the plant and getting the actual moment filmed that I’m really quite nervous about it. It’s not uncommon for the director to be somewhat underwhelmed when they finally see the subjects we’re filming; it’s difficult to get a “wow” out of lichen. But he goes to check out the Lady’s-slipper Orchid and comes back with a broad grin, “Wow, that really is something special”. The botanist inside me wants to just rush off and see it, but I’m not allowed.
Every bit of my approach to the plant is filmed, usually several times from different angles. As we get closer, the tension builds. At one point, the director even hides the plant behind a huge screen as he wants my approach to be filmed from the other side. I pass by, turn around and with the camera rolling I make my final approach. My first ever encounter with this legendary plant is a carefully orchestrated dance with a cameraman, soundman and director. When I do finally see it, I still manage to lose my self control and blurt out few expletives. Thankfully, they get edited out!
For each episode, we have an outfit that’s decided on in advance (just so that our check shirts don’t clash horribly you know!). I’m wearing a very lightweight summer jacket with a new type of waterproof coating. Water literally bounces off the surface. It’s amazing. In an average summer it would have been perfect. But this is no average summer. As we film the close-ups around the plant a light drizzle sets in. This rapidly turns to steady rain, and then a downpour. Under the deluge the coat gives up and I get drenched. I can’t now change clothes – that would ruin continuity – so I just have to sit there and freeze as the water soaks in. But actually, I’m oblivious to the rain. I have seven perfect flowers of Lady’s-slipper Orchid in front of me and I couldn’t be happier.
Later, Chris arrives to film the bits about the pollination of the orchid. His wonderful Labrador, Lottie, and I have a little bit of a thing going on by now. I think she just associates me with a fun day out in the countryside, so whenever she sees me she goes a bit bonkers.
Picture the scene. I’m standing on a woodland bank with one of Britain’s rarest plants in front of me. Lottie appears above me on top of a stile that crosses the wall nearby. Our eyes make contact and she launches herself down the slope towards me. With tail wagging and paws flailing she’s just a few feet from the plant in a second. I tell you I’ve never moved faster in my life. Thank heavens for fast-twitch muscles. I clear the plant uphill in one bounding movement and reach Lottie in the nick of time, gathering her up in my arms. No harm was done but boy that was close.
There’s a major problem with the weather though. With all the cloud and rain, there are no bees. Our chances of filming pollination of Lady’s-slipper Orchid in the wild are zero. We leave Yorkshire but really need this sequence to tell the full story. If only we could find a plant in flower we could set up the shot in a studio. But where on earth can we get a native Lady’s-slipper Orchid to film pollination?
I get home that evening and there’s a message on my answer phone. Seven years ago, I was the recipient of some Lady’s-slipper Orchid seedlings, part of Natural England’s restoration project to get plants grown to a sufficient size to plant back out in the wild. None of mine have done so yet, but, in an incredible coincidence, a seedling I passed on to a colleague has flowered for the very first time. A true native Lady’s-slipper Orchid is in flower just a few miles down the road. We taxi the plant hundreds of miles to the studio where the close-up filming is being done and, after a bizarre but ultimately successful hunt for the right type of burrowing bee, put orchid and bee together. The results, pollination of Lady’s-slipper filmed for the first time on British TV, are astonishing.