"I have never done anything like this...it's like a prehistoric rock gig."
It’s a long way from the Wide Awake Club to Walking With Dinosaurs but it’s a journey that Michaela Strachan has taken firmly in her stride.
In the kind of career swerve that would prove too much for most telly types, the popular BBC wildlife presenter plays Huxley, a passionate palaeontologist who acts as a kind of hands-on guide for arena audiences as the wonders of the dinosaur world are wheeled out in front of their eyes.
Given that the $20million stage show rattles through an astonishing 200 million years of history in under two hours, that’s no mean feat really.
She’s the only human character on stage amid almost 20 stunningly realistic animatronic dinosaurs, and she races through her role alongside the raptors, the Stegosaurus and the mighty Tyranosaurus Rex with all the bubbly belief and enthusiasm she brings to just about everything she does.
As the latest, and apparently final, production of the hugely popular prehistoric stage show prepares to roar its way into the SSE Arena in Belfast next weekend, I met up with the diminutive 52-year-old to get her take on a career that just keeps on growing.
“I’ve never done anything like this before,” she tells me in a compact dressing room deep in the bowels of the O2 Arena in London. “I’ve done theatres but never anything like this, oh my goodness, it’s a different beast. It’s like being part of a prehistoric rock gig!”
It’s the kind of career curveball that even the woman herself finds hard to fathom.
“If I look back to when I was on children’s TV and the Wide Awake Club,” she says, flashing me that trademark smile, “I wouldn’t have dreamt that I’d be doing a programme like Springwatch and talking about British wildlife. I wouldn’t have dreamt that I’d have 15 years on The Really Wild Show. I kind of tumbled into things a little bit.
“I was in theatre, that’s what I trained for, doing musicals and then I tumbled into doing Saturday morning telly 32 years ago and then I sort of tumbled into wildlife and then that became my career and my passion and even this, Walking With Dinosaurs, I’ve fallen into this as well. So I’m lucky and this brings all my disciplines together.”
To get up to speed for her role she took a look at old footage of the show on YouTube. Impressed as she was, she doesn’t feel it really did the production justice. “To be there experiencing them as live animatronic dinosaurs is incredible,” she says with genuine enthusiasm. “It’s very, very different to seeing it recorded. It’s an incredible spectacle.”
Having already played to audiences of over nine million people in 250 cities, this is unquestionably the biggest and best dinosaur show in the world and with that quality comes a lot of pressure for everyone involved in the production.
On a personal front the presenter’s life hasn’t always run quite as smoothly as her career. In 2014, during a routine mammogram, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and forced to undergo a double mastectomy. Once again her positive outlook helped her deal with the aftermath.
“I’m completely over it,” she says firmly, “I look at l ife as a horse ride. Some of the time you’re going to be trotting and it’s really pleasant and you’re smelling the roses and thinking gosh, life is great.
“Then there are times when you’re going to be cantering and you’re going to be gripping on to that saddle thinking I really don’t like this speed, I’m not enjoying it, I wish I could go back to trotting.
“Then you’re going to be walking through some of it and you’re going to think to yourself, this is so boring, nothing is happening, only to do a jump and fall off and end up thinking, oh my goodness, am I ever going to be able to get back up and into the saddle?
“Your attitude towards life changes but for me it was a diagnosis rather than a health issue I think. I forget that I had it a lot of the time.”
Now fit and well she’s able to put everything into her nightly exertions for Walking With Dinosaurs, even if the old nerves still rattle a little when show time comes around.
“I still get slightly nervous coming out,” she says honestly. “It’s a massive black curtain that you stand behind and just before you come out, all the lights backstage go off and then the curtain opens, you walk onto a dark stage and suddenly the lights come up, the spotlight is on you, you start your piece and you’re the only person on this massive stage being looked at by thousands of people.
“This really is a theatrical performance whereas on telly you can ad-lib and so if you go wrong, it doesn’t matter, just ad-lib your way out of it. I’m very used to that. If you go wrong here then it stuffs the dinosaur cues up, stuffs the music cues, the lighting, everything — you just cannot go wrong. You have to get it right, word perfect every night.”
It’s a pressure that brings out the very best in cast and crew, though, with some of the dinosaur set pieces genuinely stunning to behold. Michaela is right there in the middle of all the madness, talking us through the different ages of dinosaur history, dodging flailing Stegosaurus tails and weaving around a baby T-Rex like an Olympic athlete. At one stage she even sticks her hand deep into a pile of prehistoric poo, much to the amusement of the younger audience members.
“The kids love that bit!” she says smiling again, “although I have to wonder about the accuracy of that because when I put my hand in there’s a loud squelchy noise. Would it have been squelchy for a herbivore?”
- Walking With Dinosaurs – The Arena Spectacular, runs from Friday, August 31 to Sunday, September 2. Tickets are on sale now from the box office and www.ssearenabelfast.com