The showman naturalist
24 Sep 2006 0 comments. tbs.pm/2114
He was so larger than life, with a personality to match, caring, with a love of animals and conservation alike. What you saw was what you got – on and off the camera – with 100% adrenalin.
Television is such a powerful medium, so often taken for granted, and even in our own backyards, the local station may have a local lad up the road and not realize their true potential or popularity. Steve Irwin was one such local lad, who became a star of global proportions and one of Australia’s greatest ambassadors and exports.
To understand Steve Irwin, you have to understand Australia – and in particular, the state of Queensland, 15 times the size of Britain. Queensland spreads from the Great Barrier Reef and tropical Cairns to the north to the metropolitan Los Angeles-type sprawl of State Capital Brisbane to the south, which is sandwiched between the Gold Coast, the number one holiday destination in Australia that hosts Surfers Paradise, Movie World, Sea World and Dreamworld to the south and the Sunshine Coast, that houses the sub-tropical bushland, Underwater World – and Australia Zoo, the home of Steve Irwin.
The rise of Steve Irwin began when his father was contracted by the Dept of Parks and Wildlife Service to capture dangerous crocodiles in far northern Queensland and relocate them to a safer haven for both croc and man, in a reptile park in Maroochydoore on the Sunshine Coast. Irwin from age 8 was soon jumping on the back of crocs to hold them down, whilst his father would capture them to relocate them to their new home.
Whilst playing cricket at Maroochydoore State High School, Irwin, out for a duck, wandered from the field to a nearby creek and captured a red-bellied black snake,
one of the most venomous and poisonous snakes in Australia. He placed it in the bus drivers ‘esky’ ( a large, cool lunch box ) and soon caught “seven of the little beauties”
he would later recall. Later on the school bus home, the bus driver accelerated to head towards Australia Zoo, where a proud Irwin was excited to show his father his catch and who “kicked him up the bum” for endangering the lives of school friends and driver alike.
Steve Irwin’s apprenticeship had begun in earnest. Within a few years the crocodile farm grew to include other animals, and bushland, and soon Brisbane TV stations were filming national children’s TV shows from the sanctuary, for daily shows such as “Wombat” and “Totally Wild” with Ranger Stacey, from the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service. The shows were runaway hits. The Queensland bush featured predominately, with its weather – described as “perfect one day, beautiful the next”- whilst using Irwin’s animals, an ideal combination and idyllic setting for nature TV programs.
Producer John Stainton (who was also Irwin’s manager) recalls using the park for filming a commercial when the young son of the owner, by the name of Steve, approached him. The young Irwin handed John some 16 VHS tapes of his tomfoolery to view at his leisure. Stainton recalls that he could not sleep one night and at 2.00am placed a VHS tape into his machine and started to view the young Irwin, who would strap his video camera to a tree whilst jumping onto a croc. Stainton was hooked and saw this immediate potential. Australian Actor Bryan Brown described Irwin as “a mad bugger”. Stainton made a documentary with Steve in 1990 and sold it to Channel 10 where it was a ratings success, growing into the series “Crocodile Hunter”. Proudly Australian, Irwin, warts and all, was less than glamorous in his Khaki clad shirt and shorts, his imperfect speech, and his mischievous ways as he slid in mud and wrestled with crocs and snakes.
Soon Discovery Channel’s new Animal Planet invested in Irwin’s shows, and like wildfire, the popularity of Steve Irwin spread across the USA. When his shows first aired on Animal Planet the station’s subscriptions were some 225,000: within a few years they had reached a staggering 500 million across 120 countries, much attributed to the adventurous Irwin’s antics. It was fitting then that after Irwin died, Animal Planet announced the Park in the front of its headquarters in Silver Spring Maryland was being renamed ‘The Steve Irwin Memorial Sensory Garden’ and its President Billy Campbell said “Irwin … graced our air since 1996 and was essential in building Animal Planet into a global brand ”
ITV in Britain was offered Irwin’s shows in the early 1990s – and turned them down. It wasn’t until Partridge Films, part of United News and Media, whose subsidiary Anglia made the dramatically different Survival series, put a package together that ITV bought into the Irwin phenomenon.
But that was just the start of it. Irwin featured on NBC’s Tonight show with Jay Leno some 17 times in 10 years, more than any other guest, and in 2002, Hollywood came calling with The Crocodile Hunter: Collision Course. Soon Australia came around too, and Irwin was asked to appear in ads for Australian Quarantine and Inspection services, and was made the nations unofficial ambassador for tourism. The down to earth larrikin appeared in tourism commercials the world over.
Monday September 4th 2006, 11.30am
Filming aboard Croc One, Irwin’s boat, with famous Australian underwater diver Ben Cropp and Philippe Cousteau, the grandson of famous adventurer Jacques, Irwin was filming and swimming in tropical waters north of Cairns, observing stingrays from a distance, when a stingray’s tail – known as the barb – lashed into Irwin’s chest, pierced his heart and released its venomous poison into Irwin’s body. Irwin immediately pulled out the tail but within seconds was dead. Taken back to Croc One, a doctor tried in vain to resuscitate Irwin. Producer John Stainton, who has the entire freak attack on film, expected Irwin to start shouting “get off me” but then realized it was all too late. Steve Irwin was dead, aged 44.
By midday Australian Eastern Standard Time news was breaking of Irwin’s death, and a stunned silence fell on all who listened to radio and TV bulletins. Radio stations switched to interviews, tributes and music, but TV was caught unaware: usual stock footage of elder statesmen was readily available on film in case they died, but not that of 44 year old Irwin. There was disbelief as realisation spread that this larger-than-life character was no more. By 6.00pm the national network bulletins were coming live from outside the Zoo, where a shrine, memorial and sea of flowers were placed as a tribute to Irwin. Over the following week the flowers engulfed the zoo entrance in scenes recalling those that followed the death of Diana, Princess of Wales.
Channel 7 paid tribute that Monday night with footage, interviews live crosses to the USA and NBC (of which channel seven is an affiliate). By the Monday evening AEST, BBC Breakfast and GMTV led with tributes to Irwin as did Jay Leno on NBC and Larry King Live on CNN. Animal Planet rushed marathon specials out across its network. In the UK, where Irwin was already a household name, The Times ran a full page obituary calling Irwin “exuberant and a highly knowledgeable natural historian”, calling him “an ambassador for conservation”. The Sun referred to him as “one of the world’s top naturalists and an Aussie icon whose childlike enthusiasm touched a chord worldwide”. Virtually every other British daily ran articles and obituaries and at Australia House so many calls were received about Steve Irwin that neighbouring Queensland House opened its doors for British fans to sign a special Book of Condolence.
As producer John Stainton sat with his best friend Steve in a Cairns mortuary, and then escorted his mate’s body home by plane for the six hour flight to southern Queensland, the Premier of the Queensland Government, The Hon Peter Beattie, offered Irwin’s family a State Funeral, which the family declined saying Steve was just an honest down to earth bloke with a love of life, and who would not want the fuss of a state funeral.
Some overseas could not understand Beattie’s offer of a state ceremony, but the reason was simple: Irwin had become not only an international star but an ambassador for Queensland and Australia itself, promoting both tourism (Australia’s single greatest export) and his love of Australia, in addition to being a noted conservationist.
The federal government too was in awe of Irwin’s work. The Prime Minister, the very conservative John Howard, respected the conservationist’s work and during a state visit by President Bush, invited Irwin as part of a mere handful of other prominent Australians to meet the President at a state BBQ. The President of the United States himself was another fan of Steve’s. In Hollywood, even big-name celebrities would get excited and chant “My God, it’s the Crocodile Hunter.” In terms of branding, Irwin was Australia: .a generation of Australians had grown up with, and was educated by, Steve Irwin”.
Despite his enormous wealth, Irwin ploughed his income back into his zoo, buying land for conservation, and protecting the environment both in Australia and overseas.
The University of Queensland was, at the time of his death, about to bestow a professorship upon him for his knowledge and dedication to conservation and the environment.
Saturday 9th saw Irwin’s body taken from a nearby funeral home for a private burial at the zoo. So tight was the security that the media missed it all, a news helicopter catching just a police escort to the zoo. On Wednesday 20th September a simple public memorial was held at the Zoo. Broadcast live on local TV at 9.00am, the memorial started with tributes from the prime minister and the premier. CNN and Animal Planet broadcast the memorial live worldwide to an estimated 500 million audience. Bus drivers in Brisbane dressed in Khaki for the day as a mark of respect for the croc hunter. Schools were given permission to show the memorial broadcasts too.
But the day belonged to Steve Irwin’s 8 year old daughter Bindi, who addressed the memorial with a heart wrenching speech. Bindi, a normal 8 year old, but one who is way ahead of her years with her knowledge of animals and the environment, ended the public memorial. Already signed to Animal Planet, Bindi’s tribute demonstrated that she has the same sense of showmanship as her father.
A final word from Australian actor Russell Crowe says it all, ” He was the lead story for 5 nights running on CNN and had marathon reruns on Animal Planet for the last week or so, and that’s not bad for a zoo keeper ”
Steve Irwin 1962 – 2006, leaves behind wife Terri, daughter Bindi, 8, and a son Bob, 3, to carry on his life’s work and inherit a legacy that few will likely ever match.