Gillian Burke grew up in Kenya, where she spent her childhood watching wildlife, followed by a move at the age of 10 to Austria. She has been a wildlife filmmaker working on a range of programmes for the Discovery Channel and Animal Planet.
More recently, she has worked as a narrator, voice-over artist, and now a presenter for Springwatch.
Following appearances on BBC’s Springwatch, Autumnwatch and Winterwatch in 2016/2017, Burke joined the Springwatch team as a main presenter in 2017.
How were your first shows on Springwatch?
Everyone was so welcoming and they’re a brilliant team. There were about 120-140 people working on Springwatch, and I felt like it was my first day at school when I went to eat lunch in the canteen! I was very nervous for the first live show, but the whole team has been so supportive and lovely.
Following your biology degree at Bristol University, how did you move into natural history filmmaking?
In a very roundabout way. After my degree, I set off to do a PhD. We were trying to find ways of monitoring pesticide resistance in populations of livestock pests. With hindsight, I guess my heart wasn’t in it. I then applied to do a marine fisheries policy Masters degree, but was the only applicant. So I temped, and did all sorts of strange jobs.
Whilst I was at university and then later whilst temping, I would often walk past the NHU [BBC Natural History Unit, in Bristol] and would glance up, and think about the programmes they made there. One day, I stopped and actually wondered if I could end up working there.
I did *a lot* of work experience, which eventually translated into my first job. It was working on a series called Living Europe, made by an independent company called Green Umbrella. One of the reasons I got the job was my ability to speak some German, French and Spanish, and my entomological background, as there was a shoot about wood ants.
Ironically, one of the reasons I thought I could get a job in natural history filmmaking was my ability to speak Swahili. But to this day, I still haven’t done any in shoots in Kenya!
Do you have a favourite British species?
It’s difficult to choose, but I suppose that the animal I really have a strong affinity with is the swallow. There’s so much historical and cultural symbolism around it, but for me, whenever I see them come back, I think about where they’ve been. They make their home in the same two places I call home, and when I see them, I always have a little smile. I like to imagine what they’ve seen during their journey.
You’re a qualified PADI-advance diver, with over 100-logged diving hours. How did you get into diving?
I’d grown up in Kenya, but spent the school holidays in the Seychelles where my grandmother lived. I spent a lot of time in the water, and snorkelled as soon as I was old enough to be let loose in the water. When I was young, I watched 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and it absolutely captured my imagination.
As soon as I left secondary school (which was in Austria), I got my first summer job as a waitress in a restaurant and used my wages to train as a PADI Open Diver in Croatia, and progressed from there.
As well as scuba diving, I also recommend snorkelling, it’s a great experience and can give more freedom than scuba diving at shallow depths.
What would you say is your favourite or most memorable diving experience?
One of my most memorable experiences has got to be when I was diving in the Seychelles. We had gone out to dive site around a granite mound called shark bank and came closer than I would have liked to a massive bull shark.
Have you had any moments in filming where something has gone wrong?
Take your pick! I remember working on a series about snakes, and I arranged the first shoot which was to film king cobras in India with Romulus Whittaker. They were captive breeding the snakes and reintroducing them into suitable habitat. We got to the location, and would be filming in the enclosure where they are reared. We wanted to film natural behaviours, such as courtship and mating, and I remember we were in the enclosure and given a final health and safety briefing before a snake was released.
I suddenly realised I wasn’t sure if I was ready – what if it turned out I had a phobia? This huge snake bolted out of its box and practically bounced around the enclosure, before calming down and nosing about. I saw that actually they are very endearing, almost cat-like in some ways, and I was going to be ok.
Going back to your childhood, is there a favourite wildlife memory you have from Kenya?
I don’t know about favourite, but a very early memory is of being in thick vegetation in Nairobi National Park. My dad used to take us there a lot, and he was driving through the thick scrub and unwittingly drove up alongside a rhino which was grazing and facing away from us.
As soon as he realised, he switched off the engine and we watched it with fascination. We suddenly heard a snort from the other side of the vehicle. There was another rhino, only a few metres away, and it wasn’t happy about us being there! I remember my dad quickly reversing away!
Do you have any pets?
Growing up we always had lots of animals, at one point we had seven dogs, an orphaned vervet monkey, a rescued squirrel and a tortoise. I would love a pet now, and I’ve discussed it with my kids. I would love a dog, but I want to know that I can look after it properly, but I don’t know yet how to make it work [due to being away filming]. Fortunately our neighbour has a small dog called Betsy that we sometimes take for walks, and she often makes herself at home at ours.
Is there a particular natural history book that you would recommend to others?
I first read Biophilia by E.O. Wilson whilst at university, and actually reread it again recently. He wrote it during the 80s, and sets out a lot of topics that we are discussing today, such as mass extinction. It is really beautifully written, and one of my favourite parts is the theory that we are hardwired to want to connect with nature. At the root of our human experience is the need to connect with other animals and lifeforms.
You’re part of a gospel choir now. How did you start doing that? Do you have a favourite song?
I started singing with the choir to keep my voice in good nick, so what drew me to do it was very practical. As I started to sing these songs, what really struck me is that the music, born out of human suffering, is so hopeful. I would like to think I’m an optimist, but as with everyone, life throws curveballs and in these times, the music reminds me to find hope.
Hands down, my favourite song has got to be ‘No ways tired’.
If you weren’t a natural history presenter and voice-over artist, what do you think you would like to do?
In another life, I’d love to have been a backing singer.
Is there any question you wish you got asked in interviews?
Not particularly, but there is a question I get asked a lot which almost caught me off guard to begin with – how does British and Kenyan wildlife compare? Surely giraffes and elephants are more exciting?
I am slightly surprised by the question, as I don’t see wildlife that way. I’m not fussed about the scale of things, whether it is megafauna or on a microscopic level. Every single species has its own unique story – from the second it is formed, the struggle is to stay alive and pass its genes onto the next generation. To me, every species is fascinating. The lifecycle of a micro-moth is equal to that of an elephant or blue whale. They are all fascinating – there’s always a rich vein of stories to be told.