‘Tarzan married the wrong Jane’
Primatologist Jane Goodall has been the subject of more than 40 films. Ahead of the latest, she talks to Amelia Abraham about being a cover girl and how she went from ‘dreaming a man’s dreams’ to living her own
Growing up in Britain during the second world war, Jane Goodall was often told her dreams were just that – fantasy, unrealistic, unachievable: “I had read Tarzan and fallen in love, although he married the wrong Jane, the wretched man,” she jokes. “I wanted to live with wild animals and write books about them. But people would say: ‘How can you do that? Africa is far away, we don’t know much about it. You don’t have any money. You’re just a girl.’”
Now, at 83, the celebrated British primatologist tours the world giving lectures on what she has learned over five decades of chimp study in Tanzania.
Angelina Jolie, Colin Firth and Judd Apatow are vocal fans. Michael Jackson, she says, wrote Heal the World about
‘I wanted to live with animals and write about them. But people would say: How can you? You’re just a girl’
her. Goodall just wants to get on with the job of better protecting our planet from the effects of climate change, but now her schedule has been interrupted by Jane, a film about her life
(of which there are now more than 40). She sounds mildly annoyed when she tells me she recently had to pause her activism to travel to the Hollywood premiere of the documentary, which is directed by Brett Morgen and scored by Philip Glass. “Brett and Philip did such a good job,” she concedes, “I feel I need to support people who care that much.”
In the film, Goodall’s own passion for the chimps is captured on 16mm by her former husband, the late wildlife film-maker Hugo van Lawick, and carefully restored and edited from hundreds of hours of film. It opens with footage of Jane riding a boat out to Gombe Stream national park in
1960, the voiceover explaining she had always “dreamed a man’s dreams ... dreams of adventure”. It was in
1957, when she had finished school and completed a secretarial course, that Goodall plucked up the courage to call Dr Louis Leakey, a well-known paleoanthropologist. “I said: ‘I’d love to come and talk to you about animals’ – a bit pathetic – but, anyway, he agreed to meet me.” By 26, and with no formal scientific education as yet, Leakey sent her to Tanzania to observe and record the behaviour of chimpanzees. “Leakey didn’t tell me at the time, but he wanted somebody whose mind was ‘unfettered by the reductionist scientific theory of the time’,” she smiles.
Goodall describes the most important quality in the jungle as “patience”.