River Monsters a whopper for Icon Films

By Rebecca Burn-Callander, The Telegraph  

The remote Kali River in the Himalayas is home to a flesh-eating monster that has carried out fatal attacks on Indian and Nepalese villagers over two decades.

Seven years ago, a fisherman set out to find the river-dwelling creature, catch it, and solve the riddle of what had been eating the swimmers. The fisherman’s name was Jeremy Wade.

He has now become the frontman for one of the most successful fishing series of all time, River Monsters, which has been broadcast in 100 countries in 20 languages.

Created by Bristol-based Icon Films, River Monsters is now the top-rated show on US cable channel Animal Planet, and attracts up to 2.8m viewers when new episodes are premiered in the UK on ITV. 

 “When I heard there was a man-eating fish in the Himalayas, that was all I needed to hear,” says Icon Films co-founder Harry Marshall, who runs the business with wife Laura. “We know that there are things in the sea that can eat you but the idea that you could be thousands of miles from the ocean in a river or lake, and be swallowed whole by something really appealed to me.”

Wade found the culprits: Goonch catfish that had become supersized after eating half burnt human remains discarded from funeral pyres on the river banks, developing a taste for human flesh.

While finding the identity of these monsters was easy, catching a maneater proved challenging. “We had to send out three expeditions,” says Mr Marshall. “The first one we found couldn’t eat a kitten. It was only on the third trip that we caught a fish that passed the 'f--- me!’ test.”

Icon Films now runs six expeditions a year with Wade, travelling to the Congo or deepest darkest Amazonia to find their river monsters.

“It takes a month to plan the expedition,” explains Mrs Marshall. “Filming takes another month and unfortunately there’s only one Jeremy Wade, so we’re limited to how many we can do.” 

 There are now seven series of River Monsters and the eighth is set to debut in 2016. The show has become a global phenomenon with so-called “super-fans” watching episodes again and again, claimed Mrs Marshall.

This isn’t surprising given that fishing is the world’s most popular pastime and in 2013, anglers of all types spent $48bn (£32bn) on bait, gear, transportation and lodging in the US alone.

One interview with Jeremy Wade on YouTube has attracted a million views and Icon is now poised to tap into the online River Monsters fanbase by creating its own YouTube channel.

“That brings it all under our control,” says Mrs Marshall. “We’re also using new technologies like Meerkat and Periscope [live streaming tools]. Recently we used Meerkat to film Jeremy fishing in the East River in New York.”

The River Monsters book has been translated into Hungarian, German and Bulgarian, and smartphone apps and merchandise are also on the way.

River Monsters’ success in the US has opened a lot of doors for Icon. “It’s a noisy clacker to wave around,” says Mrs Marshall. “We can walk in and have fruitful conversations anywhere in the States now.”

US broadcasters prefer to buy programmes with “talent” attached, which is a boon once your star has risen, like Wade, but can be challenging for a company that usually finds and develops new talent in-house. “We don’t make programmes with Ant and Dec,” says Mr Marshall. “It can be an impossible situation when three quarters of US programming has talent attached but we like a challenge.”

It’s tougher to do business at home, according to these entrepreneurs. The company, which celebrates its 25th year in business this year, makes natural history programmes for the BBC and inserts for The One Show, but being based outside London has been difficult.

“There’s a London-centric view with commissioning,” says Mrs Marshall. “Everyone wants to work with people nearby and most of these companies are in the capital.” 

 Filming a series like River Monsters also brings its own challenges. The teams are usually small – just five or six people. But they are often travelling into the most inhospitable parts of the world. “On one occasion, our sound recordist was struck by lighting in Guyana, which removed all the hair from his legs,” says Mr Marshall. “For our new Primal Survivor series [which will be broadcast on the National Geographic channel], we filmed with a tribe in Equador, who hunt monkeys for food using blow pipes.

“We filmed a hunt for a couple of days and they eventually caught one and my daughter, Daisy, who was filming with us, was presented with the boiled arm of the monkey to eat.”

There are many dangers when filming in the wild but it is often not the fish that pose the greatest threat.

When the River Monsters team arrived in a remote village in the Congo, they found that the chief’s brother had disappeared on the same day. Jeremy Wade who speaks Lingala, the native language, was later lying in his hammock when he heard the villagers plotting to stone them all to death for murdering the man.

“Fortunately the brother had just been out on a bender and came staggering back eventually so it was all fine,” says Mr Marshall. “But these things happen in remote places.”

Suffolk-born Wade, 58, is a hugely experienced fisherman, and has been catching fish since the age of seven. “He never cheats,” says Mr Marshall. “If he doesn’t catch a fish, he goes back until he does.

“He doesn’t dive into the water to get it like Ramsay [Channel 4 was forced to apologise for featuring a staged seabass-spearing scene in Gordon Ramsay’s F-Word] or pay a member of his crew to dress up like a bear and run around camp like Bear [Grylls].”

“He’s only failed to catch a fish once in seven years,” he adds. “He’s a quiet man who carries a very big fishing rod.”

According to Mr Marshall, the success of Mr Wade defies the rules of broadcasting. “For a quietly-spoken, white-haired Brit in his fifties to become an Indian-summer sex god was never likely,” he says. “But in a world where people can watch orcs battling sea monsters or [James Cameron’s 2009 film] Avatar, viewers know everything can be faked so they just want the truth, some authenticity in a world of deception.

“These days everyone shouts to be heard,” he continues. “Sometimes it’s good to whisper.” 

This article first appeared in The Telegraph April 28th 2015 

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