Roughing it on the river

Icon Films CEO Harry Marshall would be the first to admit that Jeremy Wade, the host of Icon's smash series for Animal Planet, River Monsters, is perhaps one of the most unlikely TV stars on the air right now.
October 1, 2010

Icon Films CEO Harry Marshall would be the first to admit that Jeremy Wade, the host of Icon’s smash series for Animal Planet, River Monsters, is perhaps one of the most unlikely TV stars on the air right now.

‘If someone told me that the son of an English vicar from rural Norfolk would be part of such a big hit in America, I would be surprised,’ he admits from the UK, where he is overseeing work on the series’ third season. River Monsters is indeed a bona fide hit – it’s Animal Planet’s highest-rated series, with its second season premiere pulling in audience numbers of 1.7 million, a considerable increase from the first season premiere, which racked up a respectable 1.3 million.

While Marshall may find it odd that Wade, an extreme angler with a penchant for catching fish that look like something out of a horror film’s props department, is a TV star in the U.S., he can ultimately see why viewers have connected with the affable fish enthusiast. Indeed, Marshall was pretty much reeled in by Wade’s charisma and passion for angling during their first meeting.

‘I’d heard of him, as he’s been something of a god in angling circles for 20-odd years,’ explains Marshall. ‘We had lunch together and he told me there was a man-eating catfish in the foothills of the Himalayas, and it was a combination of words that seemed so crazy – a fresh-water fish, eating people.’

Crazy enough for a pilot, Marshall decided.

‘I was acutely aware that if we could get the pilot right, we would have a series on our hands, as after meeting Jeremy I quickly realized he was the real deal,’ Marshall recalls. ‘He had a sort of authenticity about him and exuded an honesty. It was at a time when some presenters were caught with their pants down, if you like, sleeping in hotels when they were supposed to be out in the rough. But he was this rugged, craggy real deal.’

The rugged, craggy Wade came to angling via a lifelong interest in fishing, beginning at the age of eight. He went on to become a secondary school biology teacher and a writer, but upon traveling to India in 1982 in search of mahseer, the angling bug took hold for good. Animal Planet VP of development Charlie Foley says Wade’s authentic nature and expertise came through in the first sizzle tape Marshall prepared for him, and the idea for the pilot proved too good to pass up.

‘He’s been doing this all of his life, and I think that clearly comes across,’ says Foley of Wade. ‘He’s able to reference fishing trips at the same quarry that he’d done 20 years earlier. He’s the sort of person who’d be doing this regardless of whether or not television crews were following him, and that’s really what you look for in someone.’

As for the pilot, ‘Killer Catfish,’ Foley says the story of the elusive yet deadly goonch had an instant ‘macabre, Victorian appeal.’

‘The story was they were developing a taste for human flesh by eating the remains from funeral pyres – eating the charred remains of people had turned them onto human flesh so they were going after live prey,’ Foley says. ‘It just seemed so Victorian-terrifying and otherworldly.’

It also proved to be a difficult story to tell, says Marshall, as the first goonch caught by Wade in the Himalayas was ‘just on the wrong side of big.’

‘For me, I needed to see a fish that could conceivably eat someone,’ recalls Marshall. ‘So he went back to the Himalayas, caught another and it still wasn’t big enough. So we’d sent him back for a third time, and by this point the pilot was heavily deficiting and my head of finance was telling me we were going to make no money on this.’ Luckily the third time was the charm. ‘Whenever anyone sees that film for the first time and sees the fish pulled out of the water, it normally promotes an expletive.’

The ratings pulled in by the first season probably also promoted expletives of joy both from the network and the production company, and the second season handily built on the buzz of the first. And while both Foley and Marshall say they haven’t made many alterations to the basic format of the show in two seasons (”If it ain’t broke…’ comes to mind,’ says Foley) both the network and the prodco have learned that building in enough time in the field, or in the water, as it were, is paramount. While the production crew itself is lean and mean – Wade, a director, principal cameraman and camera assistant – it’s still an ordeal to get them to some of the far-flung locales in which the river monsters reside.

‘Yes, we have aeroplanes and power boats and whatnot but it still takes a hell of a time to get there,’ says Marshall. ‘Often these places are off the usual trail for airlines, so we do find ourselves hitching rides with flying doctors or missionaries.’ Marshall says the teams are all well-versed in natural history filmmaking and are all ‘incredibly self-sufficient.’

That knowhow translates on screen and Marshall says that according to audience research conducted by Animal Planet, once again it’s authenticity that matters most to viewers. ‘I got an email from a viewer in America who described Jeremy as a ‘dumb son of a bitch with balls of steel,” recounts Marshall with a laugh. ‘I think that was praise.

‘Audiences don’t like to see Jeremy in false situations – they don’t like to see him in an aquarium or swimming with sharks,’ he maintains. ‘And they’ll also tune out as soon as they think he’s not within a chance of catching the fish. So we never play those sorts of dramatic tricks where Jeremy’s looking despondent because at that point you’ll lose your viewers.’

‘It’s a murder mystery more than it is a fishing show,’ offers Foley. ‘I think we started invoking a lot of narrative tropes in this, and murder mystery tropes and whodunits. We also thought a lot about Apocalypse Now which may seem kind of silly but a lot of the beats in River Monsters sort of adhere to that approach – it’s a journey up a river and you’re learning about the subject as you make the journey, and the subject itself is kind of mythic and defies credulity but turns out to be real.’ Marshall also places emphasis on the show’s depiction of ‘the sweat and the bump and the grind – we want to give the audience as vicarious an enjoyment as possible of the location.’

While Marshall won’t reveal anything about the locations or the fish in the seven episodes comprising the third season, premiering in April, viewers are assured that Wade hasn’t plucked all of the scary behemoths out of the waters yet. And according to Foley, there may be other opportunities to catch Wade on the network. ‘Of course, people are really responding to Jeremy so we’re certainly looking to see what other projects we can develop for him and what else he can do for us on the air,’ he says.

‘I have to say Charlie Foley had total faith in this,’ sums up Marshall. ‘It’s just about trusting that audiences can tell who is a decent and honest person. They have to decide who they are going to spend an hour or a half-hour in the company of, and I think we have to credit them with good judgment.’

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