Feature: Michaela Strachan going wild at the Arena

Michaela Strachan and a penguin

Michaela Strachan and a penguin - Credit: Archant

“MICHAELA Strachan you broke my heart,

Michaela Strachan you tore me apart,

Michaela Strachan you broke my heart,

When I was twelve.”

For boys (and some girls) growing up in the 1980s, having a crush on television presenter Michaela Strachan was almost mandatory, a trend reflected in the above song by Scouting for Girls, but she herself cannot understand how she became a teen crush.

“Do you know what’s funny? If you look back on some of the stuff I was wearing, you’ll wonder why, as I wore some really hideous stuff!

“I mean, the fashion in the late ’eighties was truly bad, wasn’t it? I seriously look at myself back in those days and think oh my word, how did that ever happen? But you do get people like Scouting for Girls writing a song about having a crush on you. I look at myself at that age and think I was so not sexy! I guess maybe on Hit Man and Her, but certainly not when you look at me on The Wide Awake Club – I’ve got Batman boots on, I’ve got loads of ribbons in my hair, I’ve got a silly little rah-rah skirt on…”

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Michaela Strachan is not difficult to interview. In fact, she doesn’t really stop talking throughout our half-hour telephone conversation, displaying much of the enthusiasm and excitement which made her a household name first for children’s television, and eventually as a leading wildlife presenter.

I was speaking to Michaela while she was at her mum’s in Surrey, having stopped off on her way back from filming Winterwatch in Edinburgh before returning home to her family in South Africa, where she has lived since 2002.

Despite having been an almost constant presence on British television for 25 years, it’s difficult to convince her that she’s actually regarded as something of a TV legend.

“Doing these interviews has been quite an insight because you do it for so long that you forget the impact you have on people. For instance, today I was in the airport and someone came up to me and said, you are a legend, and I certainly don’t think of myself as that because it’s a job I’ve been doing for 25 years, and although I realise I’m hugely privileged and I love it, I forget that’s sometimes how it’s viewed.”

Getting into television seems difficult enough today, but it was even harder when there were just a three channels back in the 1980s, so Michaela’s big break on madcap morning show The Wide Awake Club was even more remarkable.

“Basically I had trained in musical theatre and was in a show in the West End called Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, which we’d toured beforehand, so I’d been in it for 18 months when I heard about an audition for The Wide Awake Club.

“I remember having one of those lightbulb moments once when I’d been watching children’s telly and thought you know I’d really like to do that, not really thinking it would ever happen. Then I heard about this audition so I phoned up. I did have a slight connection – and it’s all about the connections! - in as much asTthe Wide Awake Club had come to my musical theatre college and filmed ‘a day in the life of Fame’, which was very popular at the time, and after that they asked if we could perform on the show as a dance group.

“I think we only went on twice, and did a dance to Wake Me Up Before You Go Go, so that was my connection, and gave me the chance to say I was one of the dancers and I’d like to have an audition for the series. To my amazement I got offered the job! So I really fell into it. I did the audition thinking it would be very good experience for me, I didn’t really think that was then going to be my first entrance into telly and children’s presenting.

“It sort of rolled on from there. I think one thing to say is that in those days, and we’re talking 25 years ago, there were only three channels – BBC1, BBC2 and ITV – and so if you were watching telly at 7.30 on a Saturday morning, you were either watching the testcard, or you were watching us. So as a presenter you became established very quickly, especially if you were on a programme that was on every week. I mean, nowadays, there are so many channels that you can be doing a really good programme and still nobody’s heard of it or heard of you. So it all sort of snowballed from there…”

Alongside the legendary Timmy Mallett, Michaela won over audiences from the start, but was that really her?

“I think that sort of thing you can’t fake. You either are that sort of person or you’re not. Someone like myself, someone like Timmy Mallett, we are “up” people, we’re very positive, enthusiastic and energetic people. Obviously it calms down as you get a bit older (and you need a chocolate biscuit to keep you going!) but I don’t think you can put it on. You think I’m energetic, I might have been double As but he was triple As! And again, I still know Timmy now, and he’s like me, he’s calmed down as he’s got older, you just do don’t you?”

Success on children’s television led to an unexpected break on late-night series Hit Man and Her, when she joined music guru Pete Waterman on a tour of various provincial nightclubs from Warrington to Doncaster.

“I don’t quite know how it all happened that show, because we did it as a six week run originally, and it turned into four years. Again it was such good fun! I was in my early-20s and to be paid to go to a nightclub every week and have a laugh… I mean don’t get me wrong, it was working, but it really was just good fun to do and introduced me to a whole new world to children’s telly!

“I don’t know how I got away with it because on ITV in the late-eighties and early-nineties you could watch Hit Man and Her in London at the ludicrous time of 4-5 o’clock – they only took an hour because they were far too trendy to take two hours at an earlier time – and then at 7.30 on Sunday morning I had a show called Michaela on Sunday which was a pre-school programme where I sung things like The Wheels On The Bus Go Round and Round. I mean, people must have thought I’d had too much to drink watching that! That girl was just in a nightclub!”

Working alongside Pete Waterman could have led Michaela down a more musical route, but although she had limited chart success with two singles, he had nothing to do with them.

“He was pretty big because Stock Aitken and Waterman were massive then. I mean Pete Waterman is known more now for being a judge, isn’t he, and being an impresario, whereas in those days SAW were huge and were being talked about all the time! A lot of people presumed he produced my singles, but he didn’t, he didn’t want to! Thanks Pete! It was London Records actually, and they weren’t a massive success, let’s be honest. I thought one of them was quite good – Happy Radio was a really good track, and I think it surprised them that it went in at 67 or something, but they didn’t really promote it and it went out again. I could have so easily have gone down that career path!”

After kickstarting her career as a wildlife presenter on OWL TV, she was offered a slot on The Really Wild Show, a series she worked on from 1992 until it was cancelled in 2006.

“At that time in my life I was ridiculously busy! There’s no way I’d have the energy to do what I did then now. I mean I didn’t stop! I think my life was in a suitcase, but I had an absolute ball.

“For OWL TV they wanted a well-known children’s presenter to front it, and so they asked me. As a result of that I got offered The Really Wild Show and as a result of that became known as a children’s wildlife presenter and then a wildlife presenter. But my background was musical theatre, and my passion and knowledge has grown with the programmes I’ve done.”

Michaela’s time on The Really Wild Show not only cemented her reputation as a wildlife presenter, but also sparked her enthusiasm for animal issues: “I got paid to go round the world and look at wildlife, and we had such fun! Some of my best friends now are people I worked with on The Really Wild Show and I think it’s because friends are people you connect with, and if you connect with someone that you’ve also had pretty life-changing experiences with you’re going to be friends for life.

“What I’m most proud of are the things which we started to tackle before the series was axed. We started to look at animal issues, and that was my role and it’s something I’m very interested in. We did a special on the bear bile industry in China, we did a special on the bushmeat trade in Cameroon, we did a special on Antarctica, and then when we did the programme I also looked at animal issues and what the problems were. I was terribly proud of that – I can’t say I enjoyed it because some of them were tough to film.”

Over the following years, she worked on further wildlife programmes including Countryfile, Postcards from the Wild, Michaela’s Wild Challenge, Elephant Diaries and Animal Rescue Squad.

Her work on Orangutan Diary introduced her to the work of Lone Droscher Nielsen, who runs a reserve for orphaned orangutans in Borneo, and came to become Michaela’s greatest inspiration.

“These are people who give up their lives to go and live in difficult places to save species – you’ve got to admire someone like that. They totally devote their lives and I think people’s perceptions of going to work in an animal sanctuary is ‘ooh it must be lovely to cuddle the little baby orangutans’, well yeah, some of the staff get to do that but if you’re running the place you’re lucky if you get to. The rest of the time you’re trying to sort out political problems, you’re trying to change perceptions, you’re trying to change old ideas, it’s really tough.

“A programme like Orangutan Diary is a really good example of how to do conservation in an entertaining way, because there you have all these fantastic baby orangutans all making you laugh, but why are they there? It’s actually really sad the reason why they’re there, and then you can go into the conservation angle before bringing people up again by having more shots of baby orangutans doing funny things. It’s very difficult to do conservation or animal issue telly without being terribly depressing. That programme and Elephant Diaries was a brilliant way of being able to still make a very watchable and entertaining show but getting the message across.”

Years spent encountering animals ranging from spitting cobras to wild cats led Michaela to put together an illustrated book of poetry for children, drawing on her experiences with wildlife.

Michaela Strachan’s Really Wild Adventures - The Book of Fun and Factual Animal Rhymes has now been adapted as an interactive stage show which arrives at the Alban Arena on February 19.

“They’re all poems that I’ve written about experiences I’ve had while filming animals. There are numerous different poems, and after we wrote the book we thought it might be nice to make it into children’s theatre. You know there’s a real culture for children’s books being turned into theatre, you’ve got The Gruffalo, The Stick Man, Tiger Comes To Tea and all those books, and I’d seen Stick Man and it really inspired me to do this as a children’s theatre show. We sent the book to Malachi Bogdanov, who’s our director and does a lot of children’s theatre, and he said ‘I totally get it, it’s going to work and it’s going to be brilliant’.

“It’s a one-woman show with the audience, in one poem we get a dad up from the audience dress him up as a polar bear and pretend to put a tattoo on his bottom, that sort of thing!”

It may be 25 years since Michaela Strachan first appeared on our screens, but despite the passing of time she has lost none of the infectious enthusiasm which first won over television audiences, including the members of Scouting for Girls…