Whoever booked Hamza Yassin for Strictly Come Dancing last year should get a cash bonus. His victory, achieved via public voting after he finished last on the judges’ scoring in the final, confirmed that Britain felt a warm privilege in having been introduced to an unassuming wildlife cameraman who was nearly unknown before he stepped on to the dancefloor. Pure of heart and unlimited in his enthusiasm, Hamza is a pearl.
One of the perks of winning Strictly is the unspoken understanding that the winner can front a BBC documentary in their area of expertise a few months later, and here is Hamza: Strictly Birds of Prey, his guide to Britain’s most impressive raptors. Camera and tripod over his shoulder, binoculars around his neck, Yassin is on a quest to show that his home country is full of places where spotters of winged predators can find joy.
First, though, there’s more getting to know him, and it is this introductory section that provides the loveliest moments of a programme that’s basically a solid hour of lovely moments. Having arrived here from Sudan aged eight, Yassin took the bold decision to move to Kilchoan, a village on the west coast of Scotland, when he was 21, knowing nobody. The community have almost literally adopted him: a married couple called Chris and Amanda are in loco parentis, with Chris offering practical advice and Amanda emotional guidance, which was key when Yassin was in the middle of the Strictly swirl. We see footage of a rammed village hall, everyone gathered around a big screen showing the grand final. When Tess Daly says “HAMZA!”, the place goes bananas.
It’s almost a disappointment when we have to leave Kilchoan’s bosom to go and look at some birds, although the first ones aren’t far away – hence Yassin choosing the western Highlands in the first place. At the top of his list is the white-tailed eagle. “They are powerful, majestic, beautiful, charismatic, intelligent,” he says. “They are what I think of when I wake up.”
When we’ve seen those birds hunting barnacle geese – as featured previously in Wild Isles, some of which Yassin shot – it’s time to go farther afield … to Ealing, where peregrine falcons can be seen around the hospital if you know when to go and where to look. Here we get a quick insight into the wildlife cameraman’s trade, as Yassin works with two spotters, acting as his eyes when the falcons are swooping and his own gaze is consumed by the viewfinder. Soon, a peregrine is tracked down to its regular perch, the side of a railway viaduct, where it plucks the feathers from a ring-necked parakeet.
Gradually, a message about conservationism emerges. Yassin returns to the Highlands to visit the Loch Garten nature reserve, telling the story of the pair of ospreys who decamped there in 1954. Their nest was under threat from egg thieves until the RSPB mobilised, its members keeping watch in their dozens. The ospreys are still there, under loving surveillance, and these days there’s a webcam for closeups. Come together to look after these precious animals, Yassin says, also popping to Wildland in the Cairngorms, where the depleted hen harrier population could use our support.
This is not, however, a hectoring demand. Yassin, and the colleagues he reunites with on his travels, are all about the sheer pleasure of witnessing the magnificence of the natural world in person. Early one morning on the marshes of Somerset, Yassin and cameraman Simon King stand, rapt, as dragonflies – a favourite food of the migrating hobby – gather in their hundreds among the reeds, turning their wings towards the first sunbeams of the day. The location, restored as a habitat having not long ago been the grim site of industrial peat digging, is exceptional, but King explains that one need not travel to such places to feel that wildlife glow. “There’s always somewhere where the real world prevails. It can be a crack in the pavement, a park in the city. It can be the sky.” In Sussex, the photographer David Plummer has created his own haven for nature in his back garden. Yassin, disguised as a mossy knoll, gets to see and film a tawny owl.
Joining a project to conserve and monitor golden eagles in the Cairngorms, Yassin brings the good news that such efforts have seen numbers of this incredible animal rise in the UK. He used to spot them in the hide he built near Kilchoan; returning there to conclude his journey, he finds a note from fellow birdwatchers, secured in a plastic bag, thanking him for inspiring them to see the eagles too. He beams: “People are awesome. Humanity is amazing!” Watching this stirringly positive, wonderfully escapist film, you can believe it.
• Hamza: Strictly Birds of Prey aired on BBC One and is on iPlayer now.