Making a world of difference: Liz Bonnin on bringing her science show to the live stage

Liz Bonnin never dreamed of being a TV presenter. Now she is one of the leading advocates for science on our screens, writes Esther McCarthy – and she’s about to bring it to a live stage at the 3Arena

Liz Bonnin, natural history, science and environmental TV present on the BBC, grew in the south of France but moved to Dublin when she was nine and encountered a huge culture shock as she spoke no English when she arrived. (PA/BBC/Freddie Claire)
Liz Bonnin, natural history, science and environmental TV present on the BBC, grew in the south of France but moved to Dublin when she was nine and encountered a huge culture shock as she spoke no English when she arrived. (PA/BBC/Freddie Claire)

Liz Bonnin never saw herself as a TV presenter. She imagined her future in academia, nurturing her passion for science, nature and discovery with the help of a curious mind and a lab coat.

It was a passion first honed near her childhood home on the mountains of Provence, and later encouraged by her science teachers in Dublin. But as fate would have it, she would find a way to marry the two.

Now one of our best-known TV exports, the qualified biochemist and wild animal biologist has become a respected star, informing and demystifying how nature and our planet in shows like Bang Goes the Theory, How the Earth Works and Blue Planet Live.

Early presenting jobs on Top of the Pops and with Zig and Zag on The Den — and even a stint with short-lived Irish girlband Chill — were a lot of fun, she remembers. But science, her true passion, was always her goal.

“I had no plan - but I’m so glad I had no plan,” she says when we meet in Dublin.

“I was lucky enough that I knew I loved science, so when I did biochemistry, I worked super hard at that and put everything into it.

“In my 20s, I skimmed through lots of different things but I gave all of those things my everything. It doesn’t mean that you have to be stringently following one path because it means you close off doors that might open, that might lead you to something really wonderful. I never planned to be in television, was singing in a band, then I was in RTÉ working and loving the whole experience still my 20s thinking: ‘Sure, this is the time to be doing all this stuff’, always knowing I was going back to academia.”

Indeed so determined was she to do so that she later returned to college, taking a master’s degree in wild animal biology and doing a research project on tigers in Nepal in what she describes as the best year of her life. But chance and the small screen weren’t done with her yet.

“When I was doing my masters I thought: ‘God if I could tell a few of the stories that I really care about, about conservation, science on television, wouldn’t that be great?’ And I swear to you, it’s all about timing. My first job at the BBC after my masters was this science series called Bang Goes the Theory. If they hadn’t been in preproduction, just as I finished my exam, I probably would be working in conservation. I would never have returned to television. It was just timing and being open to it.” 

In the coming months, she will take on one of her most treasured jobs yet — hosting Planet Earth II Live as the hugely successful show goes on tour, including Dublin’s 3Arena on April 1. It’s her first foray into hosting. The City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra will accompany, playing the music of Hans Zimmer, who scored Planet Earth 2 Live. 

“I’m as nervous as all heck and I’m going to probably cry at the first rehearsal because I get so moved by the music and the images anyway. To have that with a live orchestra, I am already getting shivers. At a time when there is so much negativity in the world and we are all quite afraid and we don’t know about our future, it is a chance for all of us to come together and celebrate the natural world.” 

Liz, whose mum is from Trinidad and dad French/Martinique, can vividly remember her wonder at nature as she played with her sister in the mountains near her home outside Nice in the South of France.

“Nature worked its magic when I was very young, I was growing up in the mountains with my sister and we were outside all the time. We just basically spent all of our days outside with our two dogs. There were hedgehogs and birds and snakes and spiders. I was always obsessed with understanding how everything worked. Nature had already sown the seed of me.” 

Moving to Ireland at the age of nine was, she freely admits: “a huge culture shock.” She spoke not a word of English, but despite struggling in the early months, made lifelong friends and found teachers who encouraged her love of science. Two of her aunts had gone to school in Ireland, and her parents wanted their children to have a good education, prompting their decision to make a new home here. But it was a huge change. 

“I had been outside all the time. The food was very different. For about a year, I struggled and I didn’t know English. I had to learn English from scratch once I got here. It was hard for a year, but my besties from school are my family. I really value and cherish my friendships I made ever since I moved over here.

“I also went to a school that had great science teachers in Ireland. It was there that I found biology and chemistry really easy because that’s what I was interested in. I didn’t find physics so easy, by the way, or maths. But I was very lucky that I was encouraged by my teachers. So I understand the value of that.

“Now, I do a lot of campaigns to get more equality with regards to unconscious biases. Even teachers who are well-meaning with regards to science, can have unconscious biases where they encourage boys to do maths and physics and tech engineering and girls to do biology. Science is a way of understanding the natural world of which we are part. For me, science goes hand in hand with just us being human.” 

Currently based in the UK, Bonnin is home to launch Specsavers’ new OCT technology, a machine that allows opticians view the eye more closely than ever before and detect eye conditions up to four years earlier. It’s the kind of tech development that sings to her curious mind.

“I’m short sighted. I’ve always known the importance of getting regular checks ever since I was about 15. I also got a weird eye infection about eight years ago where I didn’t know what it was. I was using monthly contact lenses at the time, the cleaning fluid started irritating the eye and just kept on getting worse. I didn’t know what was happening. It was actually really scary because you imagine the worst. They took very good care of me at the time. But it really made me appreciate how precious our senses are and not least our eyesight.

“The beauty of this technology is that it can spot abnormalities before any symptoms arise. It takes about a thousand pictures at one time using light and then processes it using amazing technology. It’s a bit like an MRI. Not only is it multilayered, but it’s also 3D. So you’re getting an absolute comprehensive image of the eye that can pick up any abnormalities before you as a patient even know there’s something up.”

She’s been working for the BBC for eleven years now, focusing largely on environmental films in the past four, and what scientists and environmental experts have been telling her both on and off camera frightens her. It has made her a passionate supporter of environmental causes and a huge fan of Greta Thunberg.

“I love her. She is shaking up the status quo that needs to be shook. I was painfully aware of our conservation crises looming — they were in full force already. Every single scientist was telling me we’ve got a massive problem, so I already knew we were in trouble. But since making more hard hitting environmental films, I now understand how the world works. And it’s not pretty.

“Here you have this young Swedish girl who sits outside her houses of parliament by herself with a placard. And you have millions of people galvanised in Sydney, in New York and all around the world because of this one individual. I think she’s a hero. I think she’s extraordinary. She cuts through the noise. And let’s take a long, hard look at the people who don’t like what she’s doing.

“For me, if you care about your children and your grandchildren, if you have any conscience about how we treat each other, about the place of all these incredible animals that we share this planet with, it’s about what it means to be alive, about what sustains us. If you have an understanding of the natural world, then you know which side of that line you must stand on.”

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