Steve Partner: Let's say 'hello' to fishing's new hero

If the nation’s anglers were asked to vote for their favourite fisherman, it’s highly unlikely that he’d make it into the top 10. In fact, his name probably wouldn’t get much of a mention, full stop. But that could be about to change.

In his role as TV presenter, biologist Jeremy Wade ¬ the Suffolk-born former motorcycle despatch rider, supply teacher, art tutor, translator, public relations consultant, dishwasher and author ¬ stands on the brink of angling stardom.

Make no mistake about it, the sport has discovered a new hero.

Some, of course, had already found him. As one of the great angling explorers of his generation, he’s already been responsible for a superb piece of fishing literature (the 1992 book Somewhere Down the Crazy River is considered a modern classic), as well as two very underrated TV series.

His Jungle Hooks programmes ¬ the original chartered his search for the arapaima of the Amazon and the second followed his pursuit of mahseer in India ¬ were both restricted to the relative wastelands of satellite television and deserved a much wider airing.

Rightly or wrongly, Jeremy Wade and his unique mix of scientific know-how and penchant for the extreme (think angling’s Indiana Jones and you’ll get the idea) had slipped under mainstream angling’s radar. Until now that is. It might be a shame that it’s taken an appearance on terrestrial TV to elevate him to the national prominence some might argue his previous work deserved, but he will surely make up for lost time now. At last, at the age of 53, he’s hit the big time. And if the first instalment of River Monsters, aired last Thursday on ITV1 at 7.30pm, is anything to go by, we’ll be seeing more of him.

Show One, called Piranha, followed the premise of the rest of the series ¬to uncover the truth about the world’s most dangerous freshwater fish. Through a mix of scientific study, hands-on experiments (dipping himself into a swimming pool of piranhas was just one of the highlights) and anecdotal evidence (the fact Wade speaks Portuguese added gravitas to the Amazonian’s stories), the goal was to establish whether this predator had earned its reputation as fearsome man-eater.

As a natural history documentary it worked brilliantly. As a fishing programme, less so. And that, I can see, could have caused some disappointment among the angling fraternity.

If you tuned in expecting this to be 100 per cent wall to wall fish catching you’ll have been let down. If you thought it might have offered some instructional, technical content, you’ll have left frustrated. But if you wanted a very well produced and executed insight into an infamous freshwater species, you’ll have been educated, enlightened and entertained.

I have seen episodes two and three ¬ piraiba and catfish respectively ¬ and while there is plenty more fishing in both these shows (maybe if the schedulers had wanted to attract an angling audience they should have altered the running order to have ensured these two went first), the documentary style, quite rightly, has not been lost. If it had, the series probably wouldn’t have been picked up by terrestrial TV.

Whether it ticked all your boxes or not, do not underestimate the achievement in getting the show into this position ¬ ITV at 7.30pm is the kind of hallowed ground that no angler or angling show has reached in the modern era. And that, in no small part, is down to the presenter.

His understated, almost scholarly approach belies a man who has sought his thrills from trying to understand some of the planet’s biggest, most bizarre and dangerous freshwater fish. Inspired by a magazine article about fishing for mahseer, he went to India in 1984 and since then has made expeditions to South East Asia, Zaire and the Amazon. During these journeys he has caught malaria, been arrested for spying, narrowly escaped drowning and survived a plane crash. Not many anglers own a CV to match that.

Having such a diverse background ¬ coupled with a degree in zoology ¬ has helped shape a knowledgeable man with a sense of daring adventure that provides a screen presence rich in calm authority.

Fishing is notoriously hard to translate to TV and the trouble is the heads of programming have seen it all before. It’s no longer enough for an angler, no matter how good he is, to simply travel the UK catching fish after fish after fish. Angling porn, as I’ve heard it called, simply doesn’t cut the mustard any more.

The general public ¬ and remember, this is who mainstream TV will be looking to attract ¬ care little about raw angling ability and far more about pure entertainment. 

By taking them to foreign climes, and by adding in a mix of the giant and the exotic, together with a dose of danger, drama and swash-buckling adventure, you have all the ingredients required to tap into today’s search for the ultimate in thrills.

Like it or not, Robson Green and his Extreme Fishing show set a precedent. For all its criticism ¬ the excessive swearing wasn’t to everyone’s liking ¬ it proved a huge hit, attracting millions of viewers and two more series. Wade’s erudite manner might be mercifully different from Green’s scream-in-your-face style of delivery, and the educational value in River Monsters is in another league, but much of the show is based around the same principles ¬ namely that the audience is taken to remote shores and introduced to either dangerous, bizarre or almost unbelievably huge creatures. Both, in their own way, are as much travelogues as they are fishing programmes and for that reason alone, they have more widespread interest.

Look, anglers need to be realistic. The days when John Wilson became a household name by catching fish from the kind of waters we could all visit are over. Not because the programmes weren’t very good ¬ on the contrary they were, for their time, excellent ¬ but simply because television has moved on. Anglers might not like it, but that is a fact.

We are, therefore, left with a choice. We can either continue to gripe that terrestrial TV is inherently anti-angling (a perception the BBC, I admit, has done little to dispel) and dismantle those fishing shows that do make it on to our free to air channels because they aren’t what we’re used to. Or we can accept that we live in a different era to the one where Wilson was a perennial favourite and embrace the likes of Robson Green and Jeremy Wade as our new heroes.

Our million-strong numbers deserve representation on the terrestrial channels, and for too long we have been forced to trawl through the backwaters of satellite to find, on the whole, sub-standard programming where production values are low, presenters have the personality of a plank and success is judged not on the overall quality of the visual package but the size of fish that have been caught. And for mainstream TV that’s simply not enough.

If we don’t get behind shows like River Monsters ¬ and if the viewing figures reflect this ¬ then it won’t just be these individuals that disappear, but angling on terrestrial too.

And its next incarnation, in a world where soaps, talent shows and reality-driven drivel dominate the schedules, could be a whole lot worse.