Lindsay McCrae - the cameraman whose work takes him to the extremes
PUBLISHED: 16:28 14 September 2020 | UPDATED: 16:28 14 September 2020
Lindsay McCrae started watching birds in the Lake District as a young boy and he is now one of the most well-travelled wildlife cameramen in the business.
When a film crew rescued a gang of Emperor Penguins in Antarctica by building them a snowy ramp to free them from a ravine, it created headlines around the world. Should they have intervened or let Mother Nature have her way?
Then TV icon David Attenborough backed their actions, saying he would have done the same, and the furore was put to rest. Quietly watching the debate – as he does everything in his working life – was one of the men wielding the spades in the snow. Cameraman Lindsay McCrae filmed Dynasties, the BBC series fronted by Attenborough.
‘We didn’t think twice,’ he says as he recalls the day of the rescue. ‘We were warned the media would pick it up but it was just another day for us.’
That day was part of a huge journey. He’s often away for weeks at a time, but this trip took his travels to another level. The 11-month stint at one of the ends of the earth meant he would miss the birth of his first child. It gave him a book deal – My Penguin Year was published last year and the paperback edition is out now. And he won a BAFTA for his work.
‘It’s in the downstairs loo!’ Lindsay says about the prize which was awarded in the Photography: Factual category.
‘I didn’t know I’d been nominated and I didn’t think I was going to win. It’s a bit different because normally these programmes get fronted by 10 people so it is rare to get it to yourself but because of the travelling to Antarctica, this was just me. It feels a bit over the top but this one has my name on it.’
Lindsay and his wife Becky divide their time between north Lancashire and Northampton in the Midlands – Becky’s family there help with childcare while Lindsay is away – but the couple knew there was one place they wanted to be when the UK lockdown was about to hit and that was on the fringes of the Lake District.
Lindsay was filming in the Galapagos Islands just a few days before but they could both see what was coming. They started swift preparations as soon as he landed back in England and reached junction 36 of the M6 just as the announcement was made by the Prime Minister.
Lindsay’s mum still lives in Broughton-in-Furness, with his dad close by in Broughton Mills. But it was primarily their love of this landscape which drove them north. This is the place which has always inspired Lindsay – and is now having an impact on his boys, Walter, aged three, and one-year-old Ernest.
‘I moved to Foxfield from Broughton as a kid and it was a mile too far from my friends!’ he says. ‘I had to fill my time. I had the Duddon Mosses to myself, there were amazing seasons with wintering birds, friendly farmers let me go where I wanted.
‘Walter is fantastic. He can identify birds via their call already. I’m not ramming it down their necks but he says ‘there’s a jackdaw’ or ‘there’s a chaffinch’. Ernest’s a bit young yet.’
Lindsay wasn’t all that much older when he started, though. ‘I wrote to Springwatch when I was 13 or 14 years old,’ he says. ‘I wanted to get them to the Lake District. They already had their location but they wanted to do something – someone my age watching birds was a bit strange.
‘Afterwards I kept in touch with the producer in Bristol. So, after my A-levels – I wasn’t very academic, I got English and geography and failed biology – the BBC gave me a job, basically making tea. I worked on Autumnwatch, The One Show, and as an assistant on Natural World, then I became a cameraman. I think I was 19.’
Lindsay is said to be the BBC’s youngest hire as a wildlife cameraman and his career has soared. He’s freelance so works for independent film companies, commissioned not only by the BBC but also the likes of Netflix, National Geographic and Apple TV.
‘I have no formal training,’ adds Lindsay. ‘This is a very cliquey industry so once you are in, you are in. It’s word of mouth and there is such a demand for natural history.’
Filming Emperor Penguins was a lifelong dream for Lindsay, who’s travelled around the world filming everything from wolves to orangutans, grizzly bears in Alaska and armadillos in Brazil.
But he says it’s not always as exciting as one would think. ‘One of my first shoots after Antarctica was orangutans in the Indonesian jungle. It was extremely claustrophobic and I didn’t see the sky for a month. I didn’t enjoy that!’
So, what does Lindsay want to do next, once all travel restrictions are lifted? ‘I’d love to see our wintering birds in Greenland. The Arctic is somewhere I’ve never done and it’s the other end of the planet. I’d film polar bears, seals, birdlife and the northern lights.
‘I just keep getting offered such crazy stuff.’
My Penguin Year is available from all good bookshops and online.