It’s been really interesting talking to and debating with anglers and non anglers alike who tuned in on Sunday to watch the return of our favourite sport to the BBC with the first episode of The Big Fish presented by Matt Hayes and Ben Fogle.
This was a show that promised us a series “that explores the incredible world of fishing, looking at its variety of fish and their behaviour in distinct environments, and revealing surprising animals and stunning landscapes.” It was not, and never going to be, a technical fishing show or a serious competition pitting expert anglers against each other. What the BBC intended to make was a high quality travel and wildlife programme which delivered good entertainment through the medium of fishing and the sort of viewing figures that a specialist angling show could never achieve.
Whilst the reactions to the first episode that came my way were overwhelmingly positive I was surprised by those who were either expecting another Passion for Angling or a programme made solely for anglers by anglers. Quite clearly they had not realised what was happening here or hadn’t paid attention. We were promised “a group of eight passionate anglers from the UK pushing their skills to the limit in six epic locations around the world” and I think it is fair to say that Iceland, the venue for the first show, certainly ticked that box. The landscape was awe inspiring, even if the weather looked a bit severe, and the local ‘angling expert’ was as easy on the eye for us guys as Ben Fogle is supposed to be for the ladies!
So my first comment to those critics who were expecting something different is to go back and look what was promised and judge it against that. It’s all here on the website and in the extensive pre publicity.
I also heard complaints about the middle segment that involved using traditional fishing techniques, in this case hand winches to jig for cod, and which will doubtless feature other forms of fish capture in other locations that are alien to most anglers.
As my old friend Stuart Morgan, barbel specialist and professional film maker said:
“When Passion for Angling was on the TV there were three things present (or not as it this case). 1) there was back then a passion for angling 2) parents actually took an interest in getting their kids involved in such pursuits . 3) there was no playstation/ Xbox . We will never return to those days so nostalgia is best left as that, the good ole days. I don’t think for one minute that the motives of the BBC are to encourage more people to go fishing. It’s entertainment thats it, no more no less. It’s no different from, say, TopGear where the hard core car guys complain it’s not enough about cars and the majority watch it for the entertainment value and don’t want boring car tech talk.”
I happen to think that Stuart is spot on – but then he’s a professional at this game and knows his stuff. Anyone who paid attention or who applied to take part in this series should have realised that the BBC producers were not trying to recruit expert anglers and that the participants would be experiencing and trying out local fishing techniques and methods.
There was also a view that the ‘British Bake Off’ format somehow dumbed down the offering. You pays your money and takes your choice on this one but as someone who wants to see angling successfully returned to mainstream TV, rather than being tucked away on cable channels with tiny audiences, I can well understand why this tried and tested formula was used. And I have to say that whilst I thought the judges decision to vote off Geoff Maynard in the first episode was somewhat harsh the competitive element of the show was not overplayed to the extent that it detracted from from the overall appeal of seeing anglers enthusiastically fishing in a tremendous environment.
Before I offer my own view of The Big Fish let me put all the cards on the table. Along with John Bailey and others I was auditioned as a potential presenter and I have no hesitation in saying that they made the right choice offering it to Matt Hayes. He is by far the best and most experienced person to take on this challenge and I also like the involvement of the outside broadcaster Ben Fogle. He may not be an experienced angler but he has a big following and Matt explaining various angling techniques to him and describing what is going on informs the audience in a nice, easy way.
My non fishing friends liked the first episode and are planning to watch the series which I take as a good sign. There was also a very thoughtful piece from my colleague Tim Mcpherson of Sussex Angling Media published here:
I particularly agree with Tim that the choice of competitors was balanced with a good mix of backgrounds and fishing skills without the inclusion of an unwatchable ‘fishing bore’. They seemed to interact well with each other initially but let’s see how that works out over the coming weeks with rigours of tackling challenging venues and locations.
I understand why some anglers were disappointed but I would urge people to think of the bigger picture. There are 1001 distractions out there for youngsters nowadays which make it all the harder to get kids to take up angling as a pastime. However, it is a simple fact of life that mass exposure on mainstream TV does drive up participation and that must be something we have to welcome and embrace.
As a wise man once said: “we have to live in the world as we find it – not the world as we want it to be”. I personally would like to see a weekly angling TV programme with expert anglers explaining their latest techniques followed by film of them putting their skills into action and then a studio discussion about what worked best and which waters they would be fishing next week. And of course we had that on Sky with Tight Lines, expertly presented by Keith Arthur, but sadly it is no more. Even when we get our own angling shows we don’t support them in sufficient numbers to sustain them. We just have to accept that, with the arrival of You Tube and the plethora of on screen media opportunities, programmes aimed at the dedicated angler just ain’t going to cut it on mainstream television.
Part of my job is to try and get angling and angling issues out there into the national media and to support efforts to give our sport as wide a platform as possible. As I’ve said TV exposure drives up participation and the decline in junior rod licences shows that we certainly need more people to take up angling. That’s why I and the Angling Trust have been promoting The Big Fish and why I have been encouraged at the number of non and occasional anglers who have said they enjoyed the first programme. The producers are using a proven format with credible presenters and I see it is now getting a repeat showing at the prime time of 5pm on a Saturday night.
As to my own verdict?
It’s great to have angling back on the BBC and I think the first show was pretty good with some fine camera work, good production values and a stunning, if cold, location. But most important of all lots of non anglers liked it and I hear the viewing figures were good at over one million. I’m also told that the Iceland episode was one of the weaker shows and that the series gets stronger week by week. The producers made it crystal clear from the start that this was never going to be a technical fishing show aimed at the dyed in the wool angler. Those programmes will never make it on to mainstream TV in this day and age and we just have to accept that times have changed. The Big Fish is as much about the people and the places as it is about the fishing. It is an entertainment programme with a format that pulls in the viewers and I wish it well.
So what did you think and will you be tuning into the Cuba episode on Sunday?