Bill Bailey goes wild in the jungle

Bill Bailey talks to TV & Satellite Week about heading to the Far East to retrace the steps of unsung Victorian naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace in Bill Bailey‘s Jungle Hero on BBC2 this Sunday…

When did you first become aware of Wallace?
“Fifteen years ago when I was trekking through Indonesia. I got married there, and my wife and I have a real affection for the place. On our second visit, we discovered that the area that we were in was called Wallacea. I thought: ‘Why was such a huge area named after this chap Wallace?’”

What do you admire about him?
“First my admiration was for his endeavour and boldness. Then I realised that he’d contributed hugely to our understanding of the natural world, but somehow he’d been forgotten. He’s mentioned occasionally as a postscript to The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin, but came up with the theory of evolution by natural selection independently.”

What did you hope these programmes would achieve?
“My mission was to bring Wallace to a wider audience, and let people see what an amazing man he was. Whereas Darwin was born into a wealthy family with social connections and never really had to work for a living Wallace had to leave school when he was 14.”

What were the most memorable wildlife encounters you had on your trip?
“Some black macaques came and checked me out, which was a bit unnerving as they’re small, but have huge teeth. It was the adolescents, like lary teenagers daring each other to go and poke the white wizard. They look a bit handy, like streetfighters. One of them sniffed my ear and it was all I could do not run screaming out of the forest.”

You also saw some birds of paradise. What was that like?
“There was something quite magical about trekking through a ‘deep dark forest’ as Wallace describes it and finding these amazing almost implausibly lavish creatures conducting this ridiculous display every morning at dawn to attract a mate. Very few people have seen it because they are so inaccessible.”

You’re seen tucking into some rather unusual local dishes. Did you like them?
“I’ve eaten a few odd things in Indonesia – sago grubs, which are big, wiggling maggots, and durian, a stinky fruit which smells absolutely rank. Eating bat was a new one for me. I asked what it tasted like and was told: ‘It’s a bit like rat’. I said: ‘That’s not helping…’”

What was it like meeting David Attenborough for the unveiling of Wallace’s portrait?
“He’s a hero and I was very touched that he came to the unveiling. I told him I’d seen Wallace’s flying frog, and he said he’d never seen them fly. I thought: ‘I can’t believe I’ve found something that David Attenborough hasn’t seen!’ He’s been round the planet several times and looked under every rock.”