Caught by the River

Caught by the Reaper: Johnny Kingdom

14th September 2018

Roy Wilkinson marks the passing of wildlife presenter, filmmaker and photographer Johnny Kingdom, who died earlier this month aged 79.

The wildly charismatic TV badger-man Johnny Kingdom died in an accident on 6 September 2018, on his DIY nature reserve in North Devon. He was 79. Despite his multiple peak-time-slot shows on BBC TV, Johnny was to the cosy and commodified world of TV nature coverage what Looney Tunes cartoons’ Wile E. Coyote was to Crufts. Only, in Johnny’s case, the wild eyes and rough edges were deployed in a gung-ho devotion to the natural world, rather than trying to exterminate Roadrunner.

With his three-legged pet deer Bambi, his lovely wife Julie Kingdom and a coterie of odd-bod rustic pals who seemed to have wandered up to Devon from deep inside the 1991 Arena documentary on Joe Meek, Johnny Kingdom was a fantastically compelling rural pub character, but one who’d somehow been given the keys to his own mainstream TV series.

Before he made his late-in-life switch to our sitting-room’s glass teat, Johnny had done National Service in Hong Kong and found employment as gravedigger, lumberjack, quarryman and poacher, all around the Devon village of Bishop’s Nympton.

Johnny was discovered by TV-land in the 1990s. People had gradually become aware of the home-made wildlife documentaries he was making and selling at markets and car-boot sales. He made his TV debut in 1993 in a documentary for Yorkshire TV, centring on Johnny’s badger-mad lust for life, enacted on and around Exmoor. This film seemed to mix a Mike Leigh exposition on the rural southwest with a Devon update of Akenfield, Ronald Blythe’s 1969 fictionalised biography of a Suffolk Village. The Johnny film was moving, odd and rare.

Johnny had his big break with the 1996 BBC series Johnny Kingdom – A Year On Exmoor. Therein Johnny would sit in his spectacularly self-built badger hide, teetering high up on old telegraph poles. He might be accompanied by his pal Tony, who resembled a rustic loon concocted by Steve Coogan. The pair would ooh and aah as they waited for the wildlife, perhaps breaking off to discuss the species they feared and despised. “I don’t like rats,” Tony would venture in his wheezing burr. “I once killed a mouse with my bare hands…” Johnny would reply in his mesmerising southwestern rasp: “Ooh-hoo-hoo, I don’t like snakes! They give me the shivers!” When his favourite animals finally appeared, Johnny struggled for words. “When I see these badgers… I get electricity in my veins.” It sounded like something Iggy Pop might ad lib on a woodland ramble.

Johnny went on to make BBC documentaries about his travels in Lapland and the Scottish Highlands. He also led celebrity wildlife safaris around his beloved Exmoor.

This writer met Johnny once, while on holiday with my wife in North Devon. “I think I’ve just seen Johnny Kingdom,” I said, almost struggling to breathe as we walked around Barnstaple’s Pannier Market. I’ve worked for decades as a music journalist and for a season or two reporting on English football’s Premier League. I’ve been adjacent to a fair few stellar figures, but I couldn’t recall being as remotely as starstruck as when making this unexpected sighting of Mr Kingdom. It turned out Johnny had a stall at the market, selling his wildlife photographs and DVDs. I, eventually, went over and had a very pleasant chat. He was exactly as he was on television –utterly unaffected, charming, a joy to witness. I felt elated for the rest of our holiday. I still feel elated to have met this man and to have so enjoyed his brilliantly peculiar nature transmissions. Thank you Johnny Kingdom, RIP.

Johnny Kingdom, 23 February 1939 – 6 September 2018