Actor, writer and TV host Dallas Campbell knows how to make science cool and exciting. Whether it’s through crazy stunts on Bang Goes the Theory, a look at how the world works on Supersized Earth or the bizarre world of airports in Airport Live, his passion for the subject is infectious and his joy for experimentation, regardless of the outcome, is apparent.
During this recent exclusive interview with Collider, Dallas Campbell talked about how he got involved with Bang Goes the Theory, when he became interested in science and scientific experimentation, working with the other hosts, what it was like to never know the outcome of the experiments ahead of time (they never did test runs), that science is always being reviewed, how he ended up working as a TV host, and just how lucky he feels to have such an awesome and fun job. He also talked about his high-octane TV pilot for BBC America, called Dallas in Wonderland, that he hopes will get picked up in the States. Check out what he had to say after the jump.
Collider: How did you get involved with Bang Goes the Theory?
DALLAS CAMPBELL: It’s a boring story. I was doing another show, called The Gadget Show, which was a technology show. The head of the channel moved to the BBC and asked if I would go with her to do this show. Certainly, in Britain, on the BBC, we have a very strong culture of science television. We had a very long-running series, called Tomorrow’s World, which ran for a hundred years. They stopped doing Tomorrow’s World about 10 years ago, and there was this impetus to redo Tomorrow’s World again. But, we wanted to do something different. Tomorrow’s World was more about gadgets and the future. We really, really wanted to do a science show, particularly for non-scientists. There is this slight gap with science as a thing that only scientists do. You don’t have to be musician to listen to music, and you don’t have to be a filmmaker to go to the cinema, but somehow when we think of science, we think of it only as an academic discipline.
There is so much wonder and joy in science, about understanding how the world works and why the world is the way it is. It’s not just for academics. It is a thing that’s available to everyone. So, we wanted to do a show that really deconstructed the science of everyday life, and the science of the universe and beyond. We wanted to do a show that anyone could watch – kids and parents. We wanted to make a show that was available for everyone, but with science at its heart. We wanted to make people not scared of science. When you mention the word “science” to people, they immediately conjure up boring classrooms and struggling at school, and we wanted to get away from that. The arts and the sciences actually come from the same part within us. It’s a curiosity about the world, and exploration. Why do we all embrace the arts, no matter who you are, and yet we think of the sciences as elitist? So, it’s very much an everyman’s show.
Was science and scientific experimentation something you were always interested in?
CAMPBELL: Yeah. I grew up watching Tomorrow’s World and Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, so I was always very, very interested in science, in the broader sense of the world. I was awful at science at school, as a subject, because I didn’t have the discipline. But, I was awful at music, as well, and I loved music. So, I wasn’t naturally a scientist, but I was always fascinated by how the world worked and why things were the way they were. The thing I loved, particularly, was the mystery of science and the idea that science doesn’t know all the answers, but it is a process of finding out. It’s not like science will give you the right answer and science knows everything. I love the mysteries of it. What we don’t know, I find infinitely more exciting than what we do know. And at the heart of science is experimentation. Science doesn’t care what you think. What’s important is experimenting and actually working stuff out. That’s why I find it so exciting. The fundamentals of science is experimenting, and that’s what we wanted to do with Bang.
What was it like to work with the other hosts on the show?
CAMPBELL: We didn’t know each other before we started. The BBC got a whole host of people together. We did a day where we all got together at one of those parks with obstacle courses and downhill mountain biking. It was years ago, but there were about 30 of us, and there were games and prizes. As hosts, we all needed to be able to get on, but also fulfill a very specific function. Not only is Jem [Stansfield] one of the most brilliant minds I’ve ever met and worked with, he’s good looking and can build stuff. He will fit in at the café doing calculus on a napkin. His ability and his skill with numbers is just extraordinary. He is amazing. So, Jem’s function was to build and explore, using his hands. He explored the limits of engineering and what’s possible for one person to do. And Liz [Bonnin] comes from an academic background in bio-chemistry. She’s someone who’s worked in science, from an academic point of view. And Yan [Wong] is a very renowned evolutionary biologist. And then, there was me. I’m not an academic, but I’m someone who has a great passion for science and wants to convey the idea that science is for everyone. I was very much the laymen, trying to find stuff out because I’m curious about the world.
Were there any particular experiments that you were most concerned about, or most excited about?
CAMPBELL: Yeah, all of them. When we first started, I remember Jem wanted to build a vortex canyon in Episode 1, so that he could create this explosion that would make a beautiful vortex ring, or smoke ring, in the air. No one believed it was possible, and Jem wasn’t sure if it was possible. He’d done the math and reckoned it would be, but it was going to cost an awful lot of money to build the damn thing. And the BBC was like, “Who is this guy? Can we just throw money at him? We don’t even know if it’s gonna work. Nothing is guaranteed.” Particularly with Jem, there was always the possibility that it might not work, and we might have just wasted a lot of time and a lot of money, but that’s the genius and brilliance of Bang. There was always that element. We were making it for TV, but we didn’t know. We didn’t plan it in advance. We just hoped for the best. We approached everything with crossed fingers.
With the experience you had with this show and all the things you got to do, were there things that you learned about science and how it works that you keep with you now?
CAMPBELL: Yeah. Science doesn’t end. That’s the one thing I learned. People thing of science as spitting out right answers, and that’s it. It’s always under review. Everything that we know now will be changed in 10 years time. People think of science like somehow that’s the answer, and that it’s all about right answers, but science is a lens that we look at the world through. It is based on fundamental things, like experimentation and review. We don’t care what you think or believe. It’s about data and looking at evidence. It doesn’t matter how solid you think your data or evidence is, it’s always subject to review. Newton had a very good description of gravity, back in the day, and then Einstein came along and dug a little bit deeper. Science is like peeling an onion. You go deeper and deeper and deeper, and it doesn’t stop. It’s not like you will get to a right answer. It’s always up for review, and that’s what I love about science. It is an ongoing process. So, I see science in a different way. Those people who are scared of science or are a bit dismissive of science tend to not really understand what science really is, which is the most beautiful, most elegant and most creative way of looking at the world.
Because you had also worked as an actor, how did you end up working as a TV host?
CAMPBELL: I’ve always been a bit of a dreamer. I’ve always loved to look and seek, and explore and find out. As an actor, that’s a huge part of it. But, I’d missed science and what it was all about because I was too busy trying to think of other things, when I was at school. I was too busy trying to be James Dean. It was only later in life that I started reading Popular Science and I worked with a director who was very involved with science. That’s when I started to appreciate what the science thing was all about, how exciting it was and how beautiful it was. When I was acting, as a hobby, I would devour popular science books and keep up-to-date about what was going on in the science community. And then, suddenly my hobby became my job. I didn’t one day say, “I’m not acting. I’m now going to be a science person.”
I wrote a series in America, called Dallas Campbell’s Guide to the Impossible, and it was basically the idea that, normally when you watch a science program, it’s somebody very clever, telling you stuff, and I wanted to do a science show as someone who knows absolutely nothing about science, but who finds stuff out, with this journey of discovery, along the way. I thought it was quite a good model, and it turned out that it was a good model. So, I went back to the UK and did development work for TV companies there. And then, I ended up presenting, slightly by accident. I didn’t say, “I want to be a presenter.” I very specifically wanted to do science television. All of that was 100 years ago, by the way. But, because I was so passionate about it and because it was such a natural fit, it became my job, and acting suddenly fell by the wayside. It’s still sitting there, on a backburner somewhere. It’s not that I never want to do it again, but I’m having too much fun doing this.
I’m very lucky. If you go through life and actually get to find out the thing you want to do, you’re very lucky, and I’m very lucky that I get to do this. I’ve found the thing in life that I adore, which is working in science television. It’s just a big adventure, really. It’s amazing! If you love what you do in your work, you’ll never do a day’s work, in your life. I constantly pinch myself and go, “Really?! They’re going to pay me to make a film about that?!” So, it was sort of by accident and sort of by design, but here I am, many years later. Bang was the series that really ignited my career. Because it was done in short-form, we got to cover so much ground and give such an extraordinary perspective of science. I’m incredibly thankful that I did Bang, and that I continue to do shows like it.
So, what’s next for you?
CAMPBELL: Dallas in Wonderland is hopefully a show that I’m going to be doing with BBC America. It’s a bit like Bang, but a bit more high-octane. It’s a half-hour show that will cover all kinds of different things. Hopefully, we’re going to be doing that, but we’re still in pilot stage, at the moment. That’s my next big project. The thing is that I love being in America. I love America. I absolutely adore working in America. I’m at my happiest when I’m in the States. I’ve got a lot of great friends there. So, I was out in L.A. doing Dallas in Wonderland. I flew back from L.A. to London, landed at Heathrow, stayed at a Heathrow airport hotel, did four days of live television from Heathrow for this BBC series, called Airport Live, about how an airport works, and then got back on a plane and flew back to L.A. for a day, and then flew back. So, now I’m dead.
Many people try to avoid airports, but you’ve decided to do a show about them?
CAMPBELL: We did a series last year, called Supersized Earth, that’s a BBC/Discovery co-production and I really hope that BBC America screens it. It was basically a series about how the world works and how the whole planet has changed, in a single generation. In my lifetime, the population of the world has doubled. And the middle episode was about travel and how we move around. We’ve only had aircrafts for a hundred years, and yet look at us. So, I’ve become absolutely fascinated by this strange, bizarre world of airports, air travel and transportation. It’s interesting. I’ve never felt scared of flight, ever. It’s really weird. I don’t know. They stick a gin and tonic in your hands and I just think, “Life is good!” Statistically, 2012 was the safest year to travel on a plane, in the history of aviation. Not one major passenger plane crashed. It’s pretty amazing. And when you see them being taken apart and you see the work that goes into keeping those things in the air, you think, “Wow!”