Attenborough: Nature’s wonder
Surrogate grandfather for millions, there are few places in the world David Attenborough hasn’t been. He talks to
There is only one response when you tell people you are going to meet Sir David Attenborough. ‘‘Oh, my god,’’ says everyone, from colleagues to the barista who makes my morning coffee. ‘‘I love him.’’
What is it about Attenborough? What does he make of all this affection from people who have never met him?
‘‘Makes you feel bogus,’’ he says in that distinctive throaty rumble.
‘‘I mean, it’s totally fiction. Or totally unrealistic, to put it better. Because that’s not me – that’s only one tiny part of me, by which I happen to earn my living. But it’s not me. It’s false . . . I’m not different from anybody else.’’
After 60 years’ chatting affably about animals in people’s living rooms, it’s probably inevitable that he’s become a surrogate granddad for millions of strangers. He understands this.
‘‘If you are a child of 3 or 4, and you see this funny little figure on the television set and, what’s more, it remains there, more or less the same – not exactly but more or less – for all those years, it occupies a different space in your mind,’’ he says. ‘‘Not only that, but it’s associated with all the lovely things that you can think of – all the wonders of the natural world.’’
Attenborough knows how television works. He understands what makes audiences tick – perhaps even better than he understands the mating habits of pygmy three-toed sloths or the hibernation patterns of bears.
When he started at the BBC, the television landscape was as unfamiliar as the jungles and deserts he would later explore on screen.
He was 24. He had once watched a television at his wife Jane’s parents’ house, but didn’t own a set himself. At that point, not many people did.
But he was bored by his job editing science textbooks.
He had hoped his degree in natural sciences from Cambridge might eventually take him to exotic locations on research trips, but most zoologists at that time spent their working lives in
labs. So instead of ditching publishing to return to university and read for a doctorate, he applied for a job with BBC radio. He didn’t get it. But then came a phone call from Mary Adams, a producer with the BBC’s television service. Would he be interested in joining their training programme?
Even now that his age sometimes prevents him from researching and presenting documentaries in the field, Attenborough is still working on scripts. He reviewed – and in some cases rewrote – the voiceovers he recorded for his new nature series Planet Earth II.
When writing, he prefers to watch footage on VHS. ‘‘Easier to just go backwards and forwards so that you actually see the moment when the animal does something,’’ he says.
The BBC duly keeps one remaining machine and converts the digital footage to analogue so he can use it.
Mike Gunton, creative director of the BBC’s Natural History Unit, has worked with Attenborough for 30 years. ‘‘The genre . . . was almost invented by David,’’ says Gunton.
When they first worked together, Gunton wrote a script describing a particular piece of footage as ‘‘incredible’’. Attenborough told him to take it out. If it was incredible, he said, there was no need to say so. If it wasn’t, exaggeration wouldn’t help.
He says that’s the key, fewer words have more meaning.
‘‘You see, you have to be very careful. The subject you are dealing with is bigger than you are. If you start using those important pictures just as a kind of background to build your own ego as being a comedian or, indeed, being a preacher, then you are on the wrong line.’’
Attenborough’s opinions are powerful, and he’s careful about expressing them in public. For years he stayed quiet on the issue of climate change. He copped criticism for his silence, but he wanted to be absolutely sure of the facts. Nowadays, he’s certain enough to tell anyone who asks that humanity must tackle the problem – and soon.
‘‘There are almost overwhelming reasons to be pessimistic,’’ he says.
Sir David Attenborough regrets he can no longer travel as widely as he once did.
A young Attenborough – once considered a potential director-general of the BBC.