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Interviewing Ben Garrod of "Secrets of Bones"


It seems like I've known Ben Garrod for ages. I can't remember when he first got in touch, but it was ages ago, and we've been in touch ever since. We take the mickey out of each other all the time on Twitter, but he's been an amazing help with rearticulating Vulpy, identifying bone injuries on my golden eagle skull and on my fox scapula.

When we met last summer at the Grant Museum, Ben told told me that he had a TV series coming up but it was still a big secret then. That TV series is  the six-part "Secrets of Bones" on BBC4 at 8.30pm on Tuesdays, and episode four is tonight. Ben's really busy at the moment, but he agreed to do an interview with me about the series. Read on to see what he says about why the hero shrew is so amazing, why explofing roe deer femurs are scary, and what it's like to hold your own skull !

Me: How did the series "Secrets of Bones" come about ?

Ben: Well, it all came about quite unexpectedly! I had appeared on Springwatch (a BBC programme that a lot of great bone collectors appear on !) and then featured in a BBC Earth Unplugged video - speaking about bones, naturally. Then, about a year ago now, the BBC Natural History Unit got in touch and asked whether I'd like to front a six part series on the skeleton -  where we were planning to look at 'the natural world from the inside out' . . . how was I going to ever turn that down?!?!

I found myself a few months later sat in the BBC, helping develop stories and looking over the scripts and then a few weeks after that, we had started filming. It all happened so quickly, really!

Me: Where did you start when you were planning it out ?

Ben:  I received a phone call from Aaron, the Series Producer - he introduced himself by saying 'erm, I've never made a wildlife series before'. Trying to avoid my initial panic, I just replied 'that's okay, neither have I'!!! We kinda went from there, really. We then teamed up and after gathering a great crew, the next step was to look at all the stories we wanted to include and then try to separate them into clear episodes. 

We had dozens and dozens of stories and the saddest thing was that we had to drop a few - either because they were too costly to film, or would involve filming in places we weren't visiting or because they just didn't fit in with the other stories. We eventually agreed on the six episodes and started finalising the individual stories from there. It was an amazingly dynamic processes and stories and scripts were changing right up 'til the last minute - sometimes even on the day of filming!

It was cool to find out that Paolo Viscardi, who was the fact-checker on my book, was also the fact-checker on the series. Paolo's been quite a big influence on me because of his blogging. What was he like to work with ?

Ben: Paolo is a star! It's as simple as that! He's one of these amazing individuals - where you find a great mix of endless passion and limitless knowledge, combined in one person! When I was asked who would make a good scientific consultant, I couldn't think of anyone - only Paolo . . . and he would make a GREAT scientific consultant, not a 'good' one! 

He's been a mate for a few years now, so we were able to fire ideas back and forth but that didn't stop him from being tough where it was needed. I felt confident that when this series went out, the scientific integrity of everything we say had been through someone I look up to and trust. Paolo is a genuine ambassador for the natural world and for the pursuit of science. We were incredibly lucky to work with him; a true 'Bone Geek'.

Me: Is it weird seeing yourself on screen ? Is it scary wondering what people will say about each episode afterwards ?

Ben: It was only weird the very first time I saw myself on camera after the first day or two filming - ever since then, I've just dealt with it. If you're going to worry about how you look or whether you sound like a muppet, presenting may not be for you. I have an accent and dress in a way that is a blatant  disregard to fashion but I couldn't care less, really. 

The important thing is the content of the show. People aren't watching it for me, they're watching it for the content. I dressed in the same clothes throughout the series, so that the attention of the audience WOULD'T be drawn away from the science on TV. And it's not scary wondering what people will think - there will always be people who either disagree or who don't like you, in life - presenting is no worse. 

Already, I've learnt that it pays to have a thick skin in terms of what some people say. I went into this thinking 'I care about what my mum, dad and brother think ...as long as they like it, I'm happy. Anyone else is a bonus'. That seemed a sensible approach to me.

Me: When the programme has been on I've been following the #secretsofbones hashtag on Twitter and it's cool to see such a wide range of people following, from proper scientists to university students to people my age like me and Findlay Wilde and Melanie. When you were planning the programme, did you have an idea about who would be the kind of typical person watching it ? Who did you aim it at ?

This question would be better aimed at the Series Producer or the Exec - but I'll give it a go! As with any audience, there are certain demographics associated with particular TV channels and I was excited to be offered the BBC4 slot . . . admittedly the viewing figures won't be as high as something like BBC1 or 2 but on the flip side, it allows for great academic content that would otherwise be hard, if not impossible to include. 

It was aimed at a typical BBC4 audience (you'll have to ask a 'proper' TV person what that is) but we tried to make it even broader by using 'fun and interesting' music, a tone for the series that was light and inviting and even with me as the presenter, they would have thought 'right, this guy appeals to a certain audience' . .  .again, I've no idea what sort of audience I appeal to. Basically, we wanted as many people as possible to watch. Not just the people who were already interested in the topic but almost more so those people who would otherwise not have watched it.

Me: I watched episode 3 last night, which was about comparing flying mammals wings with bird wings which was very cool and well done. Did you ever come across anything you wanted to explain, and you thought, wow, this is tough, I don't quite know how to make this complex idea simple enough to understand ?

Nope! That's my rather flippant answer but in a way, it's true...the team were so good, that we were able to explain quite complicated ideas and theories in a way that was simple, yet effective; interesting and still accurate. We didn't shy away from Wolff's Law, the pentadactyl limb, bone physiology or a whole host of potentially complicated topics! And that was largely down to the ability of the team we had here.

Me: What is it like to hold your own skull ?

Ben:  WEIRD! I had my skull MRI'ed and then 3D-printed for a story on the evolutionary changes in the human jaw - it was a great story based at UCL with Dr Carolyn Rando and we used 'my' skull to see where modern humans fit in with the changing trends.

I had a script and piece to say to the camera when I was about to meet my skull for the first time; I opened the door to the 3D printer and lost all my words - it was so weird! Suddenly, I came face to face (literally) with my own skull; my own mortality! And it really fascinated me (and weirded me out)!

I look at skulls for a living and suddenly, I was reading this skull in front of me and could see my own story . . . I could see past injuries, past operations and physical characteristics that make me who I am. Seeing that there was a bit of a special moment. My reaction on screen really was a genuine one - wait until Episode 5!

Me: It seems that I already know a lot about people who appeared on the series because I follow a lot of the same people as you and Paolo on Twitter. Did you know most of the other people who appeared beforehand ? Is the bone community quite small ?

Ben:  The 'bone community' is relatively small and the bone community who are using social media is even smaller - sadly! I did know a lot of the contributors and most were fiends or colleagues (or both). I knew Dr Nick Crumpton from Cambs Uni, Dr Sam Turvey from ZSL, Dr John Hutchinson and Dr Carolyn Rando beforehand and wanted to work with them all - either because their research was awesome or because I knew they'd be great on screen (or both) and the same went for many of the museums - I wanted to include as many of my favourite museums as possible, to really highlight both the important roles of museums and the amazing things they have inside.

Me: Has anyone got in touch on Twitter yet to tell you that you've got it all wrong and evolution 
doesn't exist ? I know some other natural history TV presenters on natural history get messages like that.

Ben: This may have happened already, yes. I try to be as accommodating as possible. The way I see it is like this . . . I'm not in this for a fight! People can believe what they want. I believe in evolution and that we are bipedal, sentient apes, descended from specific members of the primate tree. If you don't believe that, then happy days, that's your call. 

I do have an issue when people are offensive about it or abusive though. We can revel in the fact that we are all different and can discuss these differences like rational people or we can get petty about it. I'd rather keep rational (not least because it might actually allow me to change their minds haha)! I think some evolutionary biologists are as militant and narrow-minded as the very people they are arguing against and that just seems counter-intuitive to me.

Me: Was there anything that you wanted to get in the series but didn't manage to ? I wanted to get baculums [penis bones] in my book, but it wasn't allowed because it was aimed at children.

Ben:  I wanted the hero shrew in the series! As if you can stand on one and they won't 'break'! I also wanted the horror frog, because of the way they break their finger bones and push the jagged edges through their skin to stab potential predators! (Chris Packham talked about this frog on Natures Weirdest Events)

And to top it off, I had heard that the skeleton of the frigate bird is lighter than its feathers. For various reasons, we didn't include these stories and they were some real corkers but that's fine - that just means we need a Secrets of Bones, Series 2 haha!

Me: Do you feel famous yet ?

Ben: Nope! And nor do I want to, especially! Sounds weird, but I don't really like being the centre of attention (yup, I did say it sounded weird). I've been recognised on a train twice and in a pub but that's it so far. Luckily, I look very different apparently when I wear my glasses and seeing as I didn't wear them much in the series, I look quite different 'in the street'. I'm sure I'll be demanding limos and specially-painted dressing rooms for my next series haha but for now, I'm very happy just to have made the series and for people to take genuine pleasure from watching it.

Me: If you had to impress someone right now with your knowledge, and you had to do it with three bone facts, what would they be ?

1. We have 206 bones in our bodies as adults but when we're born, this number is around 280.
2. Did you know that the frigate bird has a skeleton which is lighter than it's own feathers ?
3. How much force can a roe deer femur withstand before it shatters and terrifies a TV presenter? Yup, 1.7 tonnes!

Episode 4 of Secrets of Bones is tonight (Tuesday) on BBC4 at 8.30pm. There are six episodes in total. Ben is on Twitter as @Ben_Garrod and on Facebook too. And yes, I put the gorilla skull picture next to "What is it like to hold your own skull" as a joke !

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