There’s a moment in Chris Packham’s new BBC documentary, Forever Punk, in which he squeezes into his badge-studded and battered 1970s leather jacket and looks truly, deeply content. The presenter is probably best known for his conservation and nature television work — hosting everything from The Really Wild Show to Springwatch like a bleached and quiffed David Attenborough — but it’s the spirit of punk that’s driven every single thing he’s done since his teens.
A rebel with a cause, Forever Punk sees Packham tracking down some of the movement’s most iconic names, like Vivienne Westwood’s muse Jordan Mooney, Sex Pistols art director Jamie Reid and Terry Chimes, the original drummer with The Clash, to ask how punk changed their lives. We spoke to Chris about how the brief but beautiful movement helped him navigate his teen years, and why Extinction Rebellion can lay claim to being the modern face of punk.
NME: How do you go about keeping the spirit of punk alive in your conservation and nature work?
Chris Packham: “Easy, I just keep fighting. I don’t give in, give up, get put off. I’m in it to get results so I apply relentless energy and determination and strive to win. For me, winning is not giving up.”
You wore an Extinction Rebellion tie to pick up your CBE – what does the future of the movement look like?
“XR represent the first real hope of making a bigger difference. I’ve been doing my bit, many others have too, but we’ve been losing. Can’t lie, we’ve been thrashed. The environment has gone to hell in a handcart on our watch. But now people are waking up and saying ‘we’ve had enough, we want it fixed and we’ll do whatever it takes to get that result’. It’s pretty punk isn’t it? That’s why I’m in. And I love a good fight against the odds!”
What did you say to Prince Charles when you picked up your award?!
“Not much. He suggested that we meet to discuss environmental issues but I haven’t been able to make that happen, and I can imagine why.”
In the film you say 1970s Britain wasn’t a happy place — but is 2020 Britain one?
“Things were ‘grey shit’ in mid seventies Britain and things are ‘fancy coloured shit’ now. I think there are real parallels socially and politically. It’s bleak. All over the world we have elected idiocracies and they are poised to kill millions of us. Back then it was the bomb, now it’s the climate. I was frightened of the next 10 years in 1977, I’m terrified of the next 10 now. Maybe that’s why I like XR so much, they are a vestige of hope.”
You speak about being a depressed teenager in the film — how did punk help you?
“It instantaneously allowed me to separate myself from my peers in a physical sense — I looked very different. I’d been struggling to understand why I was so alienated and ostracised, and it had made me both very angry and very depressed. And then I thought ‘Oh well, if I’m not part of your world I’ll make sure you are definitely not part of mine’. It was a way of me wearing my difference on my sleeve and in a defiant way. I was fighting back and embracing isolation rather than suffering loneliness.”
What was the greatest punk show you ever saw?
“A bloody difficult question. I just think I was so enormously privileged to have seen all those bands. It was all over in a flash and just a scrap of a generation were poised to be there — so many others missed out. I’m not being patronising but I genuinely feel sorry for those who never saw the Ramones, early Clash, Damned, the Buzzcocks… all of them. I’ve been going to gigs ever since, but nothing, absolutely nothing, matches the excitement, the energy and the collective power of those bands. Anyway, an answer: The Clash on the White Riot tour.”
Who was your punk hero?
“I’m not sure I ever had a single ‘punk hero’. There were bits of their fashion that I liked and sometimes copied, and certainly Johnny Rotten’s sneering and Joe Strummer’s posturing appealed too, but punk was all about finding and expressing your individuality, so I didn’t really want to be ‘like them’. I used them to help find ‘me’.”
Did your punk look and attitude ever stand in the way of your career? Or did it help?
“Both, in equal measures I think. Both the academic and media world could be pretty cruel in its intolerance and misunderstanding back in the 70s and 80s. Plenty of doors slammed in my face and plenty of backs were turned. I remember them all — because I used them as fuel. I used my anger as an energy and stayed focused on beating them. I taught myself how to soak it up and laugh at them. And it goes on… my trolls seem to think they can ‘get to me’. They can’t. I inoculated myself against hate long ago.”
A lot of the people you meet in the film are now working in caring, pastoral roles – is the legacy of punk a kinder way of doing things?
“Punks were people who wanted to get things done. In their own way. It came as no surprise to me that all these people had found something they wanted to do… and done it. And punk was never unkind, it was all about fairness and equality — racial, sexual, gender. Punk didn’t like injustice, it wanted to change the world for the better. Each of these people has been doing that and that is so heartening.”
You speak to Joe from Idles in the film. What other contemporary punk acts are you into?
“I listen to a lot of ‘the old stuff’ of course, but I like Idles and I love The Lovely Eggs! Such great people, fabulous songs, so good live. A few years ago I surprised myself by getting massively into Against Me! I thought Transgender Dysphoria Blues sounded amazing and they were also superb live. I still blast ‘Fuckmylife666’ out loud pretty often.”
‘Chris Packham: Forever Punk’ is on BBC 4 at 9:30pm, Friday January 10