At­ten­bor­ough: Na­ture’s won­der

Sur­ro­gate grand­fa­ther for mil­lions, there are few places in the world David At­ten­bor­ough hasn’t been. He talks to

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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

Louise Schwartzkoff.

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.

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