I have to confess something here. I have a bit of a crush on a man.
No, I’m not gay. In fact, most men have crushes on other men at some time or other. It’s called a Man Crush, and it’s something that most straight men would not admit to, but it’s time we all ‘fessed up to having them. It’s the love that probably should speak its name, but only when not making eye-contact with other men who might take the piss; it is very much dependent on who you admit it to (pro tip: probably not a good idea to mention it to all your matey man banter oi-oi mates up the pub, when you’re drinking beer and talking about tits, or sportsball, or cars, or guns, or something equally manly, because there will be a gale of raucous, manly laughter and total denial from all the other men present that they have Man Crushes. You should know by now that most of your manly male friends are fucking liars, and this proves it).
A Man Crush is not necessarily sexual. It’s an intense admiration for another man. It could be for his sporting prowess, or for his acting ability. It could be for his sense of style. In essence, it’s a sort of hopeless schoolboy longing, a sort of ‘I want to be this man, and if I can’t be him, I want to be with him, and if I can’t be with him, I’ll imagine what it’s like to be with him’. You want him to be your mate, or you want to be in his gang. For a rather touching take on this, watch Ken Loach’s ‘Looking for Eric‘.
Looking back, I’ve had many Man Crushes. I think any man born after, say, 1971 could legitimately say that they had a bit of a Man Crush on Han Solo or Indiana Jones, and that probably explains Harrison Ford’s slightly ornery offscreen demeanour, and visible wariness around fans.
A Man Crush is more about association with an impressive hero figure. Many men have Man Crushes on someone who can kick a ball impressively. Some men have Man Crushes on someone who can appear on television or film without screaming in terror. I suppose you could have a Man Crush on a male politician, although I’m struggling to empathise with that one. Mine have tended towards the likes of David Attenborough or Jim Henson – benign father figures who seek to enlighten and entertain the world. My current one is, however, more directly relatable. He’s more or less my age, he has an interest in wildlife (like me), he’s strapping and fit (unlike me), he’s intelligent and knowledgeable (in my case, it depends who you speak to); he’s Backshall, and his first name is bloody Steve.
Steve. What a man’s name! Not a Derek, or a Malcolm, or even a Michael, and definitely not Simon. Steeeeve. It’s a punch to your prostate gland: “Steve Backshall” – BLAM! Ooof.
Now, I know lots of Steves. Big Steves, and little tiny Stephens – good chaps all. But Steve Backshall is all of them rolled into one, crumbled up, mixed with tobacco, wrapped up in paper, and sparked up like a fat spliff. He’s a spliff of Steves, a Steve-Reefer, and I’m getting high on Stevesmoke.
I should explain that this does have something to do with fatherhood. I knew from an early age that being a father meant becoming reacquainted with children’s TV. This is something I sort of dreaded, because as far as I could tell, children’s TV in the 21st century seems to include an awful lot of shouting. Well, the truth is somewhat more complicated than that. Yes, there are shows that appear to be a bunch of fart gags linked together by skinny foetuses yelling at me, but there is brilliance there too: Sarah & Duck. Old Jack’s Boat. Horrible Histories. The reboot of Dangermouse. And many others.
But before I discovered all that, I stumbled across Deadly 60. I figured it was a programme I could bear to watch, and that Alice, even though she was still only about one year old at the time, could get something out of it as well. I knew the format (bloke runs round the Earth looking for scary and cool animals), and I’d seen him on other programmes, the sort where a bunch of naturalists camp out in some Heart of Darknessy bit of our planet, and collect specimens of hitherto undiscovered creatures. George McGavin usually shows up on programmes like that, and I have a Man Crush on McGavin’s beard, but that’s another story.
And so, for the first two years of Alice’s use of speech, Steve was forever known as “Ded Sickty”.
I liked Deadly 60, and I liked Steve’s way of doing things. I liked his derring-do. I liked his constant enthusiasm. I liked that he got up close to interesting animals that don’t usually figure on kiddie-centric programming (A Secretary Bird – a bird that kills snakes by stamping on them with gloriously long feet, and has a call that resembles a baritone saxophone!! A Mantis Shrimp – a feisty tropical arthropod that punches its prey to death!!). I liked that he occasionally got bit by piranhas, caiman, and – my personal favourite – when he got bit by an irritated anaconda live on his Saturday morning version of the show, Live and Deadly, and carried on talking to camera with blood pouring down his wrist and not at any point shouting “get this fucking bastard off me!!” at the crew.
Also, I liked that while he occasionally got a bit too close to the animals in question, he never did the Steve Irwin thing of actively antagonising a poor creature into a rage. If Backshall got bit, you suspect he just got in the way and had to take responsibility for it.
Most importantly, his programmes tell me things I don’t know. I like wildlife, and I like to think I know a bit out about the natural world, and the animals that live in it. Not wishing to sound arrogant, but I know my animal trivia and facts, and you can test me on them.
If a wildlife telly programme tells me something I didn’t know before (like, I dunno, sparrows kill their prey with small rocket launchers they conceal up their cloaca or something), then it’s a programme worth watching. Deadly 60 tells me something new at least once every episode.
After a while, I realised it wasn’t just the programme, it was him that made the programme appealing. Even I have to admit he’s pretty scrummy. He’s perfectly toned in a way that I’m not. If his chunky abs and impressive stocky frame resembles the structured and sometimes rugged landscape of the British Isles, mine resembles Dartmoor – a central massif rising out of the lowlands, with a high plateau and deep wooded crevasses.
He’s got an endearingly cheeky grin. He has top bantz with his camera crew. I read up on him on Wikipedia – oh no, he smashed his spine and feet climbing up some rocks in the Wye Valley!! Wow, he’s a black belt in Jujitsu, and went to Japan to study it, probably on a lonely mountaintop with a white-haired mentor teaching him how to crush another man’s windpipe! He has led incredible missions into the jungles of South America!! He’s climbed Mount Asgard on Baffin Island!! There’s much to admire about him.
And then there was the time when, just this year, he cried on camera because his soon-to-be-wife, Helen Glover, won a Gold Medal at the Rio Olympics. There he was on live TV, with a camera shoved in his face, and he burbled about her hard work and sacrifice, and he unashamedly lost it. And I just might have lost it a bit with him. And who wouldn’t have in similar circumstances? I totally would have blubbed if my beautiful Sarah had won a Gold Medal in the Olympics (her chosen sport: 100m Cheerful Grin At How Lovely Things Are).
Even the hardest bloke, with no hair or teeth, with words tattooed on his knuckles with acid, in the roughest pub in Britain, would have at that moment given Steve a gruff embrace, and saying “It’s all right, mate. Your lass done great” in a slightly choked voice.
(OK, I won’t watch everything Steve’s done. I refused to watch him on Strictly because I want to preserve the dignity of the man in my own mind. And anyway, I prefer him in khaki shorts to yellow spandex).
If you play the game of ‘The Celebrity You Want To Go Out For A Pint With’, you wouldn’t want to go for a pint with Steve. He’s not the sitting around indoors-type. Pints are fine at the end of a long day’s filming in Costa Rica, but in the UK, Steve is probably not up for sitting about and chatting. Not Steve. Not when there’s nature to be looked at! Steve is the guy you want to go on a nature walk with.
I imagine myself and Steve striding across the delicate countryside of the Cotswolds, binoculars in hand, looking at the wildlife. Although in reality, what would probably happen is he strides on 30 feet ahead up one of the steeper hills shouting “come on Dan, there’s a great view from up here!” while I puff, wheeze, gasp in his wake. There he is, charging on, exhorting me in his relentlessly cheerful way, while my chest burns. I love you Steve, but fuck’s sake, stop being annoying and slow down.
Steve Backshall (ooof, there goes my prostate again) is pretty much the kind of guy I think any reasonable feller would want to be. His programmes are usually top notch. He’s an entertaining and clever bloke. He knows his shit. He doesn’t swear on live TV when a giant snake bites into his hand. He’s a charmer, he marries Olympian heroes, and the sort of jolly and practical chap you’d need after a plane crash in the jungle. Ray Mears would be too stern. Bear Grylls would just annoy you with his relentless superiority. Steve would get you out alive, and you’d get to stop and admire the (probably venomous) butterflies along the way.
Sometimes, when I feel blue, and my wife is either nowhere nearby or too asleep to be disturbed, I imagine Steve giving me the thumbs up and an encouraging grin (maybe I should get that as a motivational poster?). Thanks for that, Steve. I know it’ll be all right. There’s a great view from the top of that mountain.