Interview with Dallas Campbell: Science is for everyone, not just scientists

Date 26.07.2018

Since leaving the University of Northampton in 1992 as a drama student, Dallas Campbell has had a long and illustrious career in broadcasting and is well known for presenting science programmes such as the Science of Stupid, Bang Goes the Theory and BBC1’s documentary Supersized Earth.

During his career he has scaled the world’s tallest building the Burj Khalifa, dived down the sewers of Mexico City and  flown to all four corners of the Globe.  Reporter Sarah Becker caught up with the man whose personal mission is “to show that science is for everyone, not just for scientists.”

This week Dallas was awarded an Honorary Master of Arts from University of Northampton, Dallas was presented with his award by Dr John Sinclair, Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and joined the rest of the graduating students in celebration.

How do you feel about being given this honorary award?

I’m extremely honoured.  Even though I’ve been working in television for over 20 years, the news came completely out of the blue.

What have you been doing  this year?

I’ve been filming a series of Science of Stupid which I’ve been presenting for a few years now, and I’ve been touring around the country promoting my book, Ad Astra: An Illustrated Guide to Leaving the Planet which came out in October 2017.  In April I was speaking at  the Edinburgh International Science Festival,  and in March at the Leeds Festival of Science.  On 30th June, I’ll be talking about How to Leave the Planet, at the National Space Centre in Leicester.

What gave you the idea to write a book about space and space travel?

I used to present a science series called Bang Goes the Theory and I became particularly fascinated in  the space stories I covered.  There is something intrinsically attractive about stories about space travel. The idea of space exploration, going beyond the earth, discovering new frontiers is something that has resonated with human beings as long as we have looked up in the sky.

I also became very interested in how the history of space exploration has been influenced by war, conflict, ideology and art and the book reflects this holistic approach.

Your career has taken you to many different countries around the world.  What have been your personal highlights?

I did an amazing  documentary series for BBC1 in 2015 called Supersized Earth which shows how ambitious engineering projects are changing the face of the earth. Supersized Earth was a massive series for BBC1 and for me personally it was life-changing. I had access to things I wouldn’t normally see. Over the three years we filmed it, we shot in over 20 countries worldwide.  In one episode I was plummeting the depths of Mexico City’s 110 mile-long sewage system,  the next I was standing on top of the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa, a towering 0.5 miles up above Dubai, and jumped off.

The crew became a bit like Lord of the Flies trying to push the frontiers of TV broadcasting to make programmes that captured hair-raising moments. We pushed to get the shots.

You left the University of Northampton in 1992 with a degree in Drama. How did you get into TV  broadcasting?

After I left the University of Northampton I moved to London and started out as an actor. My first job was with Jimmy Nail in Spender. Then I worked on TV programmes such as Casualty and  Holby City but I quickly I became bored as I found I was using a very limited part of my brain. To be a good actor, you have to live and breathe acting and I was always interested in other things.

I first became interested in science TV presenting after having worked with Ken Campbell, the director of the world’s longest play we were working on – a 29 hour long play called The Warp.

It was around this time, I came up with this zany idea to do a comedy science show called Dallas in Wonderland. The idea was to get someone who was really bad at science to go on an odyssey of discovery. I cast myself as the idiot and we pitched it in to Discovery and made a series. We actually did three episodes before we were canned as Discovery thought we were too weird!

In 2007 I came back to the UK, with my tail between my legs but not for long.  I was approached by Channel  5 to present The Gadget Show which I  presented for about three years before being asked by the Head of Channel 5 to spearhead Bang Goes the Theory.

All the TV shows that I’ve done are based on the central idea that science is for everyone, not just for scientists. I am in it for the lay person.

What are your thoughts on being back in  Northampton?

It’s amazing being back. When I was a student here, I had such an awesome time although looking back my life was a small bubble consisting of the Kettering Road where I lived and the University. I had a little motorbike. My bubble was very small compared to the world I’ve seen since.

What does the future hold for you?

More of the same I hope!  I love exploring the world.

The next series of Science of Stupid is due to be commissioned and I am going to write another book.