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Jim Moir, Nancy Sorrell, Chris Packham and the fine art of birdwatching

The artist formerly known as Vic Reeves gets out his easel and brushes in a new TV show with wife Nancy Sorrell, heading out into nature to paint the birds, alongside naturalist Chris Packham

Jim Moir, Nancy Sorrell and Chris Packham. Image: © SKY UK / DRUM

The largest reedbed in north-west England is undulating in the breeze, the morning sun drying the grasses after yesterday’s rains. Walking on RSPB Leighton Moss’s raised wooden walkways, which bring curious birders right into the heart of this unique habitat, we come upon an excited little knot of ornithology enthusiasts. All eyes and binoculars are trained on a pair of small birds with long tails… but hang on, aren’t those a couple of very familiar faces in the crowd?

Gasping in unison, wearing coordinating berets, are comedian, artist and actor Jim Moir (best known to most as his arch-surrealist humourist alter-ego Vic Reeves) and his wife, model, actress and TV presenter Nancy Sorrell. Beside these exotic visitors to Morecambe Bay is another – potentially less surprising, but no less surprised – VIP. “Oh my god!” gasps naturalist (and pal to Jim and Nancy) Chris Packham. “I haven’t seen one in such a long time!”

The star turn that’s generating all the excitement is a pair of the area’s famed bearded tits. Thanks to RSPB’s management of this habitat, we’re right in the middle of one of the best places in the UK to see these birds. Around Morecambe Bay, RSPB looks after an area equivalent to 2,500 football pitches. Without their intervention, these reedbeds would dry up and leave the bearded tits nowhere to go.

Chris Packham painting
Chris Packham: “For me making things is good therapy”. Image: © SKY UK / DRUM

Still, there’s never any guarantee with it come to wild animals. Yesterday’s downpour saw the birds seek shelter, thwarting Jim and Nancy’s first attempt to view them, but today the charming little creatures – named for the long black feathers on either side of their beak that make them looks as though they sport spiffing side-whiskers – are delighting their public.

“There’s only about 600 pairs in Britain, which is the population of a very small housing estate,” says Moir, breathlessly. “It’s a bit of an iconic bird, but there’s not many. And there were even less in the ’70s.”

“When we got into birds when we were younger, they were really rare,” Packham concurs. “I remember seeing my first bearded tit and I nearly burst. I saw mine at Radipole [Lake Nature Reserve, in Weymouth]. I remember that Saturday morning, and just wow, you know?”

“Yeah, it does make you feel like that, doesn’t it?” agrees Sorrell. “I think it’s that anticipation: like, are they going to be there? And then to actually see them is just absolutely fantastic.”

Bearded tits do not like the cold, so their UK population has actually been boosted due to global warming. “It’s not really a good news story,” says Moir. “It’s just climate change. It’s like we’ve got egrets in Britain now that really shouldn’t probably be here. Because we’re not getting the weather that we should really have, they’re moving in.”

Moir, Sorrell and Packham have gathered in Lancashire today to film Moir’s latest telly outing. Decades of larking around with comedy partner Bob Mortimer in variety shows (Vic Reeves’ Big Night Out), sketch shows (The Smell of Reeves and Mortimer; Bang, Bang, It’s Reeves and Mortimer), quiz shows (Shooting Stars) and comedy dramas (Randall & Hopkirk (Deceased); Catterick) behind him, Moir had quit TV until this opportunity piqued his interest once more.

“I gave up television completely,” he says. “Because I’m 63 now [he’s since turned 64], I don’t really want to do it. I don’t want to spend 12-hour days acting any more.”

He was tempted back to the small screen by Sky Arts, with a pitch that brings together his favourite things – art, birdwatching and friends (in particular “my best friend and wife”, Nancy). The result is Painting Birds with Jim and Nancy Moir.

“This is the best job I’ve ever had, because it’s everything I love doing,” he beams.

Every week on the show, Moir paints an iconic UK bird, then he and Sorrell travel across the country to try and find it in the wild. At each of the locations, they’re joined by a celebrity fellow twitcher, and do a spot of landscape painting together. Today, that person is friend of The Big Issue Chris Packham, so we’ve been invited along to join in.

“Obviously, we’ve got shared interest in art and birds,” Packham says of how he got to know Moir and Sorrell. “And slightly off-centre humour. I like Jim’s paintings because Jim’s an artist who paints birds. A lot of people are essentially birders who paint, so they’re preoccupied with the minutiae. They might be great illustrators, but many of them are not great artists. But there’s bits of Jim’s birds which are the work of an artist rather than an ornithologist.”

It wasn’t just the chance to catch up with friends and see some special birds that drew Packham to Leighton Moss today. He also sees the project as an important way to broaden the public perception of who can get into birdwatching.

“Look at the way Jim and Nancy are dressed,” he explains. “You wouldn’t think they were birdwatchers. But they’re very passionate about birds. I think it’s actually about diversity. This is an opportunity to see that anyone can be into birds from any direction. Because all too often you’ve got people like me standing with my outdoor wear, with my binoculars, looking really worthy and wokey and serious.”

“Look at you and your dynamic jacket! You can’t talk!” interrupts Moir. “We’re talking about clothes, and you set the trend doing Springwatch and Autumnwatch.” Today in a lime green coat, Packham has indeed spent years on a stealth mission to show you can be a punk as well as a hugely respected naturalist, by sneaking band references to the likes of The Smiths and The Clash into BBC shows.

“But you know what I mean?” Packham laughs. “The thing is, we want birding and the countryside to be accessible for everybody.”

a bird on a post
Kingfisher Image: © SKY UK / DRUM

Adoring audience placated (most of whom are sporting traditional birders’ attire, it must be said), the bearded tits depart to eat more of their winter diet of seeds. It’s a sign for us to migrate too, moving across the reserve to the Eric Morecambe hide. Named for the late, great northern comedian – who was also a keen birder – the viewing spot is located on a saltmarsh area. As the TV crew set up to film Moir and Packham do a bit of landscape painting, the rest of us take in the local wildlife.

Packham points out western marsh harriers, common reed warblers, northern shovelers, common redshanks, coots. In the distance, someone catches a glimpse of an otter. There’s a huge wave of excitement when an electric blue flash flies by and lands on a post right by the hide. A kingfisher!

“Isn’t he marvellous!” exclaims Sorrell, crowding in with all of us to get a peek at the tiny bright bird.

“That is exciting,” agrees Moir, turning to Packham. “Are you excited?”

“It’s a bit overdressed for me,” replies the level-headed naturalist. “A bit Versace. I’m the avocet man. The Audrey Hepburn of birds. Simple, black and white, clean lines. This is gaudy.”

Kingfisher controversies aside, Moir, Sorrell and Packham can all agree that art has the power to change how we appreciate the natural habitat. It’s all about how it forces you to truly see what’s around you, says Moir. “When you’re painting, it makes you look more deeply,” he explains. That, in turn can add meaning and depth to our relationship with the natural world.

While Moir has increasingly made a name for himself with his paintings, it’s more of a surprise to find how committed Packham is to art. “When I was a kid, it was always art and wildlife,” he tells us. “But my dad had seen this David Hemmings film Blow-Up. And so he had this sort of aversion to art colleges. He thought they were drug-fuelled, sex-crazed… he could have been right. I don’t know. I didn’t go.”

Moir sniggers… “I went.”

“And was he right?” asks Sorrell.

Her husband’s eyes twinkle. “Yeah,” he grins.

Jim Moir and a painting
‘This is the best job I’ve ever had, because it’s everything I love doing’ – Jim Moir. Image: © SKY UK / DRUM

Packham’s art college ambitions may have been thwarted, but he now uses what little spare time he has to visit galleries, collect artworks, and create his own photography, drawings and sculptures. Recently art helped him through a very dark time, after the loss of his “best friends” – his dogs, Itchy and Scratchy.

“They’re not great drawings,” he says, unnecessarily modest as he holds up the stark black and white woodland scenes created during that time, “but they’re quite important to me. I lived in a wood where I walked my dogs. My dogs died. And I was really traumatised by it. I couldn’t go into the woods because we lived in that place as a trio. Every tree, every path, every bramble that they jumped over; everything held profound meaning.”

In the end, the only way Packham could re-enter those much-loved trails was to go into the woods at night, without a torch. “Most of painting and photography is all about light. But there was nothing bright in my life, I was really depressed. So I thought, what I’m going to do is I’m going to basically paint darkness – concentrate on the lack of light.”

Slowly, the process helped him reacclimatise, and now Packham can bring his new dogs, Sid and Nancy, to enjoy those same trees and paths and brambles. “For me making things is good therapy,” he says. “I still walk in the footsteps and the shadows of our previous life. But I can deal with it.”

Moir, too, says he finds happiness in “simple things” like being here together, in this landscape, “making sense of it” through painting.

The hope is by encouraging more people to join them in experiencing both nature and art – and nature through art – it will increase the number of people who want to protect beautiful, and sadly threatened, habitats like this one. Together we can ensure there remains a place in the UK for birds with spiffing side-whiskers. 

Painting Birds with Jim and Nancy Moir airs on Sky Arts, Freeview and Now at 9pm on Wednesdays

@laurakaykelly

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income.

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