Dave Pearce’s first job in TV was guiding a small crew on the North face of Everest in 2006. Naturally! Here Dave talks to Amy Walker about working with Bear Grylls and managing family and working life: “I’d just left the services and the expedition leader needed someone to guide the camera people. I’d been to Everest before, summited in 2003. I’ve always loved the mountains, and had a draw to the bigger ones, so it was a total privilege.”
“Rupert Day was the PD, the crew were Brits less two Canadian camera ops who had good backgrounds in mountain photography. The show was a doc following British service people making an ascent of the west ridge of Everest. We had to turn back close to summit.” I ask if this was disappointing, but Dave Pearce is definitely one of those guys who treats triumph and disaster both the same: “It was the right decision or people wouldn’t have come back. Base camp right below north face. It was completely different from the first time I summited – this time there were [TV] people who had not been in that extreme altitude environment – there were budget constraints, so there was just me guiding the camera team [the climbing team guides rotated] and we spent more time going up and down the mountain – I lost a lot of weight keeping them safe and filming…” Eventually the camera operator turned back, so Dave picked up the camera himself “I took camera and filmed what I could – at 8000m alone, waiting for the others to come up the mountain – no one in the world was higher than that.”
It was a tough first TV gig by most people’s standards but it didn’t put him off. The appeal for Dave was always the challenge, but with TV “I liked all the different layers of challenge.” Acting as liaison between a TV crew and servicemen was a challenge he was well-placed to handle, but leaving his family was “Harder at the start… you get desanitised to it – my oldest was 14. Youngsters – all they need to know, is that you’re coming back. As long as they know you’re coming back that’s all that matters. Normal routine is best – long difficult goodbyes makes it worse.”
Dave spent three months on the mountain with a satellite phone – “Calls home from camp were one a week from the sat phone or less, on the mountain less. Jane [Mrs. Pearce] had been through that before during my 25 years in the British Commandos – if you’re used to it you have a way of dealing with it. Writing a letter by yak would arrive at the same time you get home.”
Pearce didn’t have a plan to work in TV at all. But soon after the Everest trip Bear Grylls contacted him to work on the Man V. Wild show – “I turned it down initially because I had another commitment. They wanted me to fly out tomorrow, typical TV…” They managed to make it work eventually.
Pearce also took part in an expedition to Greenland with Bruce Parry – this time in front of camera. “We were reenacting the Scott and Amundsen race to the Pole in period kit. On a personal level it was really interesting to me to see what it was like living on the ice cap in that way with dogs and sledges. It was a hard environment – when I look back on the camera ops on that trip who weren’t really up to it. I think what they wanted was splits on the team but we had a right laugh and had to work together to survive. We’re still all great buddies now.” Because the aim of the show was to replicate the experience of the period the on-camera team were allowed no communication at all outside the camp for 3 months. Whilst Pearce enjoyed the experience, he is modest about his on screen presence “Being on screen is not a motivation of mine… Bear’s a good example of someone who is very good at talking to camera.”
What’s it like working with Bear Grylls? “You never know what it’s going to be like from one day to the next – I love his passion,” says Pearce, “He’s got incredible energy and presence – a bundle of energy and drive and let’s get it done. Bear’s a very talented guy in the outdoors – he has amazing balance and co-ordination. He’s the easy part I find, it’s obviously sorting the cameras that’s trickier. We work very collaboratively – he’ll have his ideas most definitely – we discuss the risks and our different approaches – I try to work around him, add a bit, take a bit away. Together we can add 50% more to what either one of us would think about individually.”
“Man v Wild was a good formula, it worked – we wanted to push the boundaries with the creative content and ways to do things. There’s no point doing something unless you push boundaries. That’s the show I’m most proud of. Yeah because there were so many components – and a well-oiled team.”
The people are Dave Pearce’s motivation for staying with TV. “I could only operate in the genre of tv I work in – I like the people. Some people can’t handle it because it seems dysfunctional and the creative side doesn’t seem organized – I like it because it’s so different from my background – boarding school and the Commandos are institutionalized – I like the mess of tv. I love trying to make things happen – “you’ll never do that” is a red rag to a bull. I love the rigging of big stunts – cameras in right places – sometimes on hoof – often a river higher than when we recceed – so we are trying to find different places on the fly. Bear is a master of that too.”
Pearce deals with that pressure with the attitude “’It’s only TV’ – it’s about making sure that everybody knows what’s going on so we are all safe. In years of Man V. Wild we’ve had a broken nose and a couple of cracked ribs – that’s the underlying thing for me [the safety.] The shows are a great by-product of that.”
Pearce has a routine for safety on set – “The recces beforehand are really important so that we plot the day and the director gets the best out of it. Then on the shoot I always give a quick brief – so everyone knows what is going to happen. I work with a great team – I always make sure I’ve got adequate resources – where the cameras are going – is [climbing / safety] kit correct – everything is double-checked and everyone’s tied in properly. When the event is happening there is minimal chat – people aren’t on the radios when the cameras are rolling, and there is strong leadership in place.
I love it when everyone is ok and the camera guys and director are saying ‘Whoa! that was great!’”.
Pearce is careful, and experienced but he isn’t complacent, “Situations that worry me most are rivers and glaciers because they are dynamic – always moving. Hanging someone off a 300ft cliff – I wouldn’t say it’s basic but the risks are minimal but people swimming down rivers with cameras is at some point out of control.”
When I speak to Dave Pearce he has just had an email from Bear telling him that their latest episode of Bear Grylls’ Wild Weekends, produced by betty and featuring Stephen Fry, will go out in primetime on Christmas Day. He is typically modest about it. “TV is a lot of hard work but worth it. There are lots of other shows going on. Bear is always pushing for the next project and growing things.” Dave Pearce will be there with him, a steady force, he’s got Bear’s back, and having worked briefly with him I’d say you can trust Dave Pearce to bring you back alive.
Bear Grylls’ Wild Weekend with Stephen Fry will TX on Christmas Day, 8:30pm, Channel 4