5-minute interview with BBC's Ben Garrod
PUBLISHED: 14:41 30 January 2017
'With So You Think You Know About Dinosaurs' coming to the Cotswolds in February, we speak to evolutionary biologist and 'master skeleton builder' Ben Garrod
What was it that kicked off your interest with dinosaurs and, of course more specifically, bones?
I’m a very big advocate for kids being geeks and I really think we should be proud and take it back from the bullies. I’m a geek and always have been, in fact I was that child who went to school with weird body parts to show my teacher.
When I was three my grandfather gave me a mole’s paw in a matchbox and told me not to tell my mum. I kept it for ages, and poor mum and dad eventually found it when it smelt my bedroom out! I’ve had a fascination with the natural world from a very early age; my dad found a fossil – a tiny belemnite (a little bullet-shaped fossil that used to have a squid in it) – in North Norfolk when I was about seven. I remember him telling me that it was at least 250 million years old, so this tiny bit of stone changed everything for me.
Are you hoping that children will bring their parents along and get involved as a family?
Yes, definitely. I’m very keen to put across that this isn’t a children’s tour; the way I’ve oriented it is that I’m a lecturer in a university and so I want to do this as an educational thing for kids and not to patronise them at all. What I want to do is treat the kids like the little experts they really are, and present it in an accessible format.
I hear it’s to be interactive?
Yes, that does terrify me slightly. They’ll have the opportunity to talk, engage and ask questions, but at the same time I will be telling them about stuff they’ll have no idea about – which is great!
Have you taken this out on tour before?
Nope, but I have been testing it out on friends, family and kids and they all love it, which is quite nice.
I love the fact that you’re known as a ‘master skeleton builder’ (as well as evolutionary biologist, of course)…
[Laughs] Yes, that’s not actually my professional title; I’m an academic, I worked with chimpanzees for a long time in Africa as well as building skeletons. What I am keen to get across is that it doesn’t matter what your background is – rich or poor, black or white – there’s nothing you can’t do. I was the first in my family to go down an academic route in any way, and suddenly I found myself in the Congo at 19. There’s nothing kids can’t do; they just need to be able to believe.
You had a 3D print of your own skull made for Secrets of Bones. What did it feel like seeing it?
As a presenter you’re always thinking ‘what do I say next?’, ‘do I look alright?’, ‘am I coming across OK?’... but at the moment when I saw the 3D print all that disappeared and I thought ‘Wow, that really is me’! It was, in a weird way, like looking in a mirror for the very first time and seeing the real me.
Do you still have it?
Yes, it’s on my desk in my study – I think I’m one of only two or three people in the world to have their own skull!
Here’s a question my 12-year-old daughter Carmen wanted me to ask you: ‘If you could have any unanswered question about dinosaurs answered, what would it be?’
Oh, what a good question! What I’d really like to know more about is courtship. What we often can’t interpret is behaviour; we can guess what it was like but really don’t know. Also, one of my big questions is concerning the huge dinosaur that David Attenborough and I worked with on our programme: it was five storeys high, weighed 87 tonnes, and laid an egg smaller than a half¬sized cantaloupe melon! How?!
What was it like working with David Attenborough?
Terrible! [laughs] No, it was absolutely wonderful, and not because he’s ‘Sir David Attenborough’ but because, even though he’s 90, he’s as excitable as a five-year-old when he sees a new species or fossil. To work alongside him was wonderful; to film alongside him was terrifying… when he walks into a room he’s just a normal guy and then you hear ‘that’ voice when he talks to camera – the one I grew up listening to.
What else do you have lined up for 2017 and beyond?
In January I have a programme going out on Radio 4 called ‘The Human Hive’ [available to listen to now on BBC iPlayer], and I have some rather exciting BBC commissions coming up which I can’t say too much about, other than the first one will be on BBC2 around April time. I’ve also been commissioned to write some science books for kids and adults, and am hoping to be at Cheltenham Literature Festival later in the year.
What’s the most surprising fact you can give us about dinosaurs?
Right, OK, if I say to you ‘Close your eyes and think about T. rex’, do you think about a big, green, scaly thing? Most of us do, particularly of our generation; we instantly think of Godzilla or early Ray Harryhausen models. We now know that T. rex was brightly coloured – possibly orange with white stripes – covered in feathers, and the head and tail would have been level… much more horizontal and aerodynamic than you’d expect. And I bet you’d expect it to roar? Well, we actually think that T. rex would have sounded more like a pigeon!
And, it so happens that velociraptors – you know, those terrifying predators from ‘Jurassic Park’ – were about the size of a turkey and were also covered in feathers, so if you want to have your mind blown by the wonders of new science don’t miss Ben’s show.
So You Think You Know About Dinosaurs is coming to Cheltenham Town Hall on Saturday, February 4 (0844 576 2210, www.cheltenhamtownhall.org.uk) and Malvern Forum Theatre on Tuesday, February 21 (01684 892277, www.malvern-theatres.co.uk).