From the archives: Bill Oddie, the birdman Of Hampstead

01 April 1998

Bill Oddie found sanctuary in bird watching to eascape a traumatic childhood. It's a passion that still fills him with joy



Bill Oddie is best known for two things: being a "Goodie" and being a birdwatcher. One requires a sharp sense of the ridiculous, the other a solitary dedication.

Read our interview with Bill Bailey, another funnyman with a keen interest in birds

The two, you’d think, would be incompatible. But both attributes have been part of the make-up of this remarkable man since he was a tiny lad in the smoky Lancashire town of Rochdale.

Oddie describes his childhood as "rather dull"… then goes on to tell some horrific stories about it which, despite the off-hand manner of his recollections, must have had a traumatic effect on an impressionable young boy. "Yes, I had a mother and father," he says, "but only in a biological sense. My mother vanished from my life early on and in peculiar circumstances. She was a schizophrenic. She disappeared when I was about four. She wasn’t committed until some time later but she just wasn’t there. "

"I only have about four memories of her and one of those was when she was in a mental home and didn’t know who I was. Another was when she came to visit us – and was forced screaming back into the car to return her to the institution. "Despite that, I found my home life rather dull most of the time… but with occasional vivid, dramatic, weird, disconnected scenes.

"For instance, I remember coming back from school in Rochdale, so I could only have been about six or seven, and finding the whole place smashed up. Little fragments of white crockery covered the floor, like a Greek restaurant. It was my dad’s best set of china and she had smashed the lot, as well as most of the house."

"The floor was white – but covered with my dad’s blood. And that was a visit home by mother, leaving her calling card before she disappeared again. ‘See you in another five years! "

"That sounds so awful. But it was disembodied that it really wasn’t. Because she was never there it was far less traumatic for a young child than it sounds. What you don’t know you don’t miss so much ..."

Bill’s mother is long dead. His last memory of her is from the age of about 14, by which time his father had moved to the Birmingham suburb of Quinton. Did his childhood become more stable after that?

"Not really. Because with my mother not around, the granny from hell arrived. Maybe she had always been there – and may have contributed to my mother going mad for all I know. "

"Although I was brought up by my dad, we both had to make do with this bizarre old woman who dominated everything. She felt she could run the place but she really wasn’t able. This wiry little lady dominated her son and he resented it, but let her. Her death probably released my father from his terrible fate."

"A week after her death, he came out of his shell and opened up the front room. We had never had anyone in the house, friends or strangers, and it was odd to see him with a few pals he had asked round from work. "

"I had never seen him with friends and I had never had any of my friends in the house. It had never been homely enough to ask anyone."

It sounds like a solitary existence for the young Oddie, an only child and a self-confessed "bit of a loner". But there was one tremendous compensation. His overriding and enduring passion for the world of birds. He would no doubt describe the theory as psycho-babble but Bill Oddie’s love of all things that fly free may have been born of the dark constrictions on his childhood.

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It is certainly nothing he normally talks about. In fact, I’m sitting in his leafy conservatory at his home in Hampstead to ask him questions for Saga Magazine about bird watching. And only bird watching.

He is making a second series of his TV programme Birding With Oddie to be screened in May, and the producer Stephen Moss, has warned me not to dwell on his private life – or about his Seventies’ hit series The Goodies. Moss is a close friend and fellow "birding" fanatic, so I planned to take his advice. Except that, in a rare removal of the private mask, Bill Oddie talks freely about his mad mother, his dominated father and about the granny from hell. He also talks about The Goodies.

"It annoys me so much," he says. (Oops, I’ve mentioned them). "No, don’t worry – I’m very proud of having been a Goodie. As long as people don’t expect me still to act like one."

"What annoys me is that the BBC have utterly forgotten us."

Bill, with ex-Cambridge University pals Tim Brooke-Taylor and Graeme Garden, made 100 shows which were perpetual hits between 1970 and 1981. They have a worldwide fan club and Tim spends hours on the Internet dealing with enthusiasts. In terms of gags, they were also laugh-a-minute good value. "So why have the Beeb not screened a single repeat series?" bemoans Bill. "We’ve had endless Dad’s Army and Are You Being Served? – both great comic series - but no Goodies."

He adds: "The three of us are still good friends. We meet up from time to time – and are generally asked, ‘When are you coming back as The Goodies? "

"Sadly, they forget that we have all aged (Bill is now 56) and we can’t really dash around and fall about like loonies as we used to. It would be like asking an international footballer to return to the pitch 30 years after his last big match!"

Nevertheless, Bill does do a lot of dashing around. Every May a strange phenomenon known as "Bird Racing" takes place, and it’s nothing to do with pigeon fancying.

The aim is to spot as many different species of bird in 24 hours, usually to raise money for conservation projects. Bird watchers around the world take part in these marathons, often going without sleep in pursuit of record sightings.

"One team I was in beat the British record at the time: 160 different species in 24 hours. That was Norfolk, but I’ve also bird raced in America, Africa, Australia and Hong Kong. The most exciting was Kenya, where 700 species were spotted in 48 hours. Planes, boats and fast cars were used. "

"It was quite hairy at times. I was in a six-seater plane flying through a thunderstorm with everyone thinking the end was nigh when suddenly I looked out of the window and saw a Martial Eagle... overtaking us!"

Most of Bill’s birding adventures are closer to home, however. He says: "The best is often on your doorstep - literally."

And, as he has proved in his own compact Hampstead plot, simple planning can turn even the smallest and simplest of gardens into a bird sanctuary and says anyone can do the same. "Don’t be too tidy, let nature take over a little and leave seed heads on flowers; create a pond, the tiniest pool will draw the birds. Put up several nest boxes and feeders and don’t just feed in winter, feed all year round, especially in very dry or wet spells. And it helps not to have a cat!"

During his childhood, Bill found his own sanctuary studying the bird life of the quiet cul-d-sac where the family had moved when he was seven. "I persuaded my father to buy me a pair of binoculars and a bird book," he says, "and I was hooked."

"Of course, I started like every other boy in those days, I’m ashamed to say, by collecting birds’ eggs. But then I discovered the delights of Bartley Reservoir, near Edgbaston. I spent every spare waking hour there through my early teens. Looking back, I have to admit that it really was a bit of a dump, but I thought it was a magic kingdom."

Didn’t being a "twitcher" (as bird watchers hate to be called; they prefer "birders") tend to put off the other sort of birds that teenage boys normally pursued?

"Birding often gets saddled with the image of the twitchers – obsessives in anoraks with nothing else in their lives. But to me as a kid, birding was extremely therapeutic. It was also good for image...."

"You see, I passed my test at 17 and had to borrow my dad’s car to get to the various birdwatching sites. A car was a bit of a bird-puller in those days. And I knew all the country back roads, of course. I spent as much time in the back seat as looking out of the windscreen!"

So Oddie, the hunky rugby captain of King Edward’s School, Edgbaston, was never mocked as a twitcher but instead waltzed off to Cambridge with the head prefect of Edgbaston Girls’ High across the road.

He later married actress and jazz singer Jean Hart, mother of their daughters TV actress Kate Hardie, 29, (a mixture of Hart and Oddie), and Bonnie, 26, a dancer and choreographer.

The marriage ended after 10 years but, for the sake of the children, the couple set up home next to each other - with a communicating door. ("We admired what they did for us but often thought they were mad," daughter Kate is quoted as saying). Bill and Jean are no longer neighbours but are still good friends.

Bill’s second wife, Laura Beaumont, is also multi-talented; she is a children’s writer and illustrator, a TV scriptwriter and presenter on TV’s Collectors’ Lot, radio’s Going Places and on Talk Radio UK. Their daughter Rosie, 12, is also, according to Bill, "very creative."

Bill himself collaborates with Laura on a television series for children but it is for his own TV shows: Ask Oddie, Bird In The Nest and the previous series of Birding With Oddie that he is best known.

It means a lot of time away from home filming in the wild. But when Bill gets a break, he likes to take the family on a get-away-from-it-all holiday.

Not bird watching, surely?

"Yes, always," says Bill. "I try to persuade them to go to Norfolk or the Scilly Isles which are two of the most wonderful places for birds. But neither Laura nor Rosie like birding, so I often have to tempt them with Disney World, Florida. The place is surrounded by lakes and unspoilt nesting grounds. So even if they insist on spending all day on the rides, I can still get up early to study the bird life."

Who wins most often in the holiday stakes? Scilly Bill or the Disney girls?

Laura points to the walls of her kitchen - which are covered with 500 mementos of Mickey Mouse!

A new beginners’ field guide, Bill Oddie’s Birds of Britain and Ireland, is published this month (March 1998) by New Holland, £12.99.

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