Bill Oddie on the good times and the bad times

By Greg Bruce

Television comedian-cum-birdwatcher and writer Bill Oddie talks to Greg Bruce about his path through fame and depression.
TV presenter Bill Oddie.
TV presenter Bill Oddie.

Of the many things we think about when we think about Bill Oddie - his absurd comedy gambollings with The Goodies, his later birdwatching and nature shows, his conservation work, his terrible musical hits, his bipolar disorder and two suicide attempts, the enduring facial hair that inspired Reading Football Club fans to develop the chant, "Bill Oddie, Bill Oddie, rub your beard all over my body" - writing is not usually one.

His most recent book, Bill Oddie Unplucked, now more than a year old, is a collection of short articles mostly about nature and wildlife. They're generally quite light and jolly but let's be honest, his best writing is not for the page. Nor is it musical, although several of his songs made it on to the charts a few decades back, including the particularly ridiculous hit, Funky Gibbon. For a while he had a blog and more recently he's taken to Twitter, where his tweets mix sport, birds, sexual innuendo, conservation, mental health and animal welfare activism. But his best writing, of course, was for The Goodies, the surreal and critically under-appreciated television show of the 1970s and early 1980s.

The Goodies grew out of the same bunch of ludicrous Cambridge University performers as Monty Python. Both achieved big fame, although Monty Python became more famous, got more critical acclaim and earned more money.

"They're far too rich," Oddie says, on the phone from his home in England, ahead of his appearance at the Auckland Writers Festival. "I get very cross about it. Eric [Idle] in particular annoys me, in the sense that he was my best mate for ages in London and I was regarded as the main musical person, but just because he could plunk a guitar better than me, he'd start writing songs and they'd shoot to the top of the hit parade and are still going. That's not a thing a friend would do."

A 1963 Guardian review of the Cambridge University Footlights show that helped propel Oddie and the other Goodies to fame, contained the following line: "In Bill Oddie the company has a real discovery; a slightly more dazed version of the young Mickey Rooney, a dazzling comic who should go far." John Cleese was also in the show, but was only named by the reviewer as a sort of afterthought.

The Goodies' sense of humour attracted many adjectives over the years, many of which Oddie didn't like: Zany, knockabout, wacky. "I used to hate all those," he says. He liked "surreal".

"It was a lot cleverer than people gave it credit for."

I told Oddie that my 1980s primary school class had loved The Goodies and he said, "You were the target. That's spot-on."

"It's not done specially for them," he says, but kids are a better audience in many ways. They're more open-minded. They're very unlikely to come in and say, 'What's this programme? Oh for God's sake, it's totally ludicrous.'"

More than 30 years after the end of The Goodies, Oddie is perhaps better known as a birdwatcher. He thinks his interest in birds may have grown from his childhood home life. "For a while," he says, "I was very much a loner, my family life was pretty tedious, my mother was in a mental home, I was just with my granny when my dad was off to work, so I spent a lot of time on my own. I really would despair and go off in the local woods and the countryside."

New Zealand audiences may not realise quite the extent of his obsession with birds, but it's obsessive. He's hosted myriad bird and nature-related television programmes and has written myriad books about birds. He's travelled the world looking for birds. He's spent long, uncomfortable nights in bird hides in foreign countries, waiting to catch the merest glimpse of a single rare species at dawn. He's had run-ins with police while birdwatching.

He's also represented or served on the council of a number of charities and non-government organisations, including the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, League Against Cruel Sports, Compassion in World Farming, Worldwide Fund for Nature and Friends of the Earth.

His most well-known role in later years was as presenter of popular BBC nature shows Autumnwatch and Springwatch, from which he was sacked in 2008 as a result, he thinks, of a manic phase of his as-yet-undiagnosed bipolar disorder. During his final season on Autumnwatch, he was, he writes in Unplucked, "ultra-critical, domineering, over-confident, impatient, etc".

Because depression is relatively easy to understand, it can be easy to misunderstand the potential harm that can be wrought by bipolar's other, more friendly seeming side. In Unplucked, he says the manic and belligerent episodes are frequently thought of as "character".

After his presenting gigs finished, he became depressed and he spent much of 2009 in bed or in psychiatric hospitals. He attempted suicide twice.

"You atrophy for a while," he says now. "There's no feeling or anything. I remember being given all the rhetorical questions: 'What about your children?' I literally sort of shrugged and said, 'I don't care.' You look back at that and think, 'Jeez, that's a terrible thing.' It's awful to be in that kind of condition."

He credits lithium with bringing him out of his depression within a week or two, and says he now takes care of his health the same way anyone would - watching what he eats, cutting down on the booze, getting some exercise, "remedies for the well people" he calls them in Unplucked.

But the consequences of what he used to be like are still being felt. "These days, people who should know - like my family - say that I am a much more amiable person. I am also out of work."

Somebody like Oddie is never completely out of work though. Just reflecting on his life could be a full-time job. He has a lot to say and not enough time to say it. At this year's Writers Festival, he's doing three events, which is more than what almost anybody does at the festival, but he's disappointed that he's not doing more.

"The thing is, you don't get very long. I don't mean in life, although you don't get very much in life either."

He's willing to take advice on what to talk about at the festival, but he's been leaning towards something reasonably serious, because he pictures a roomful of literary people.
"On the other hand," he says, "the organiser just emailed, five minutes ago, to say, 'Can we have a catchphrase on the card saying, 'ludicrous is good'?"

"Yes, I'll go with that," Oddie says he told them. "In some cases it is."

Bill Oddie is at the Auckland Writers Festival on Thursday, May 12 (Lunch with Bill Oddie, Sails Restaurant, noon); Friday, May 13 (Goodie Bill Oddie, ASB Theatre, 7pm); and Saturday, May 14 (Into the Wilds, Auckland Art Gallery, 1.15pm). See

- Canvas

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