Chris Packham: Asperger's and Me
‘I’ve spent 30 years on the telly trying my best to act normal,’ said Chris Packham at the top of this intimate, often painfully raw documentary. ‘When really I’m anything but.’
In fact, though he was only diagnosed in his 40s, the wildlife presenter’s whole life has been shaped – for good and ill – by Asperger’s syndrome. For Packham, life is a daily struggle to keep pace with his racing thoughts and the sensory overload of hyper-real colours, sounds and smells. Finding human relationships a challenge, he lives alone, ‘hiding from the world’ in the middle of the New Forest, where he not only perceives the separate calls and songs of every bird but, being a qualified zoologist, can name them all too.
As a child, he rejected friends and embraced the natural world – eating tadpoles, licking beetles and hand-rearing a kestrel. After 40 years, he’s still traumatised by the bird’s death, and often returns the spot where it’s buried. Today, his best friend is his poodle Scratchy. ‘I love him more than anything on this planet,’ he admitted. ‘All of my love is focused on him.’
You might think that would be hard for Charlotte, Packham’s partner of 10 years, or Megan, his stepdaughter, to hear. But they are patient and understanding. ‘He’s like an alien,’ said Charlotte, who lives across what feels like a highly symbolic body of water, on the Isle of Wight. ‘It’s like he’s [just] landed.’
At school, Packham was isolated and bullied, and a series of self-portraits taken at the time show him with a gun to his head, or pretending to be dead. He has considered suicide three times in his life, but couldn’t let his dogs down.
And yet, for all the torment, he doesn’t want to be ‘cured’. He credits his Asperger’s with giving him the obsessive focus and encyclopedic knowledge that has helped make him one of our most respected naturalists. Some of the finest minds of NASA and Silicon Valley, he explained, are also autistic – proving that, though life can be difficult and bewildering, there’s also a real value to being anything but ‘normal’.
Red Dwarf, which has been running, on and off, since 1988, is now approaching Last of the Summer Wine levels of staying power. For all that, it remains a cultish concern – one I suspect is more popular with sci-fi enthusiasts than comedy fans. That’s unlikely to change with its latest run, which offers plenty of cool spaceships, but little in the way of belly laughs. Though I’ll admit the musical number featuring a screamingly camp robot Hitler was certainly… bold.
You don’t wait ages for a sci-fi sitcom, then two come along anyway. Actually, this one – about a bunch of young black south London musicians sent back to the Jazz Age via a time-travelling tower block lift (think the TARDIS with more urine) – is pretty great, and marks writer-star Daniel Lawrence Taylor as a talent to watch out for. Favourite joke so far: ‘People like us never get to time travel – it’s what white people do, like skiing or brunch’.
Published in Waitrose Weekend, October 19, 2017
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