If keeping busy is what keeps you young, David Attenborough is living proof. At 90 he’s still making programmes and wondering at – and wandering round – the world. Sam Harrington-Lowe finds out a bit more…
I can’t imagine life on earth without Attenborough. In a year that has seen so many well-loved faces disappear, I’ve made a silent pact with the powers that be. I’ll be kind and helpful and useful to my fellow mankind and all animals forever, even spiders, if you don’t take Dave. I promise. And so far, so good.
Dave is alive and kicking, and still making programmes that bring the magic of the natural world into the homes and hearts of millions. Selfishly, I don’t ever want him to stop, although I know he’s not immortal (is he?). But I can remember sitting cross-legged in front of the tele as a kid, watching in wonder as he dug about in dung, or tickled gorillas. I still feel that same sense of wonder when I watch him now.
Is it his voice? That’s certainly part of it. But Attenborough is always an absolute joy to watch – the gentle elegance, his passion for the natural world… the wry humour, and the genuine humility. I don’t believe in pedestals, but Attenborough really is a prince amongst men.
For the purposes of writing this piece I tried to see if there was any evidence, anywhere, of Attenborough behaving badly, and I felt unbelievably treacherous just typing the words ‘bad stories about David Attenborough’ into Google. I felt so sullied I had to wash my hands afterwards.
But the only ‘bad’ stuff I could find at all was Bear Grylls getting a lambasting for calling Dave ‘a bit dry’. I was relieved. I only scrolled through three pages though; if there is some bad stuff I didn’t really want to see it and three pages… well, that seemed enough for me to say at least I looked. As for Grylls… well he needs a thick ear, frankly.
In the flesh Attenborough is just the same. He doesn’t identify as a ‘TV personality’, he’s just a naturalist doing his thing, talking with humour and passion about what he does. He wasn’t even supposed to be a presenter in the first place. Originally working on the other side of the camera, he started off producing all sorts of shows, including “one that was an archaeological quiz.
We even did a show about knitting!”, before finding himself as a presenter on a show called Zoo Quest. Ultimately he ended up presenting one day to fill in for some slacker and everyone was astounded with his zoological knowledge and his on-camera charisma.
He ended up being a regular presenter and ultimately, having seen his work on Zoo Quest somewhere around 1965, “someone came along and asked me if I’d come and run BBC2 as controller. We didn’t have much of a brief, except to ‘make it different to BBC1’ so we just thought we’d make some new things.” The rest, as they say, is (natural) history.
He’s literally been on TV since TV was born – an achievement very few others can lay claim to. So there are very few people reading this, or even walking the earth, who haven’t spent their TV years watching him. Attenborough has been bringing ground breaking programmes about the natural world for over 60 years. Is he ever likely to stop? Will he just keep on making films forever?!
“Oh yes, as long as your arm really. We could go on making these series for a very long time. As long as people want us, really. We all made a list of the sort of things were interesting and then looking for links to pair them up. We’ve got a few more numbers up our sleeves, anyway.”
His programme a couple of years ago, Natural Curiosities, has a title that pretty much sums up his approach to life; “I just think there are more varied animals in that series than almost any other series you could think of, ranging from whales to fleas to camels to cheetahs, there is just a whole range of things. And the interesting thing is to find one particular aspect that is perhaps unexpected and that you wouldn’t have thought of, and particularly wouldn’t have thought in connection to the other half of the problem which join together. Who thought they’d be a link between a flea and a cheetah?”
If there was anyone who you would back to find a link between a flea and a cheetah, it would be Attenborough. Since television was actually invented, this treasured and respected naturalist has been on it. The oracle on all things natural, helping our understanding of the world from the Antarctic to the Amazon rainforest. But even a man as learned and well-travelled as Attenborough says that there is always something else to discover. It continues to be his main motivation.
“Oh yes, you’ll never find everything out. You can’t possibly find everything out. I never lose my curiosity for finding out things. It’s a pleasure. Finding out new things is always a pleasure, it really is.”
Whilst that might be the case, Attenborough nonetheless doesn’t shy away from the problems faced by the planet, wrought specifically by human beings, in the Radio Times recently he explains, “We are a plague on the Earth. It’s coming home to roost over the next 50 years or so. It’s not just climate change; it’s sheer space, places to grow food for this enormous horde.
Either we limit our population growth or the natural world will do it for us, and the natural world is doing it for us right now. Until humanity manages to sort itself out and get a coordinated view about the planet, it’s going to get worse and worse.”
It isn’t just Natural Curiosities that he’s worked on recently. Conquest of the Skies, a Sky 3D series exploring nature’s greatest aeronauts has already aired to great acclaim, as has a programme about the Great Barrier Reef, which he calls “the most remarkable place of breath-taking beauty” and of course, the most recent Life that Glows, exploring the beauty and magic of bioluminescence in the natural world using state of the art filming methodology and cameras.
And to celebrate his 90th birthday, the BBC is airing a lovely retrospective and interview called, quite simply, Attenborough at 90. Watching Attenborough at 90 is like having a warm bath with the windows open and the birds singing outside.
There’s something endlessly charming about him as he talks – he’s a gifted raconteur but he’s not without teeth. As Kirsty Young takes him through some of his back catalogue, there are some lovely digs and parries as well as some frankly ribald tales. It’s not like he’s a complete softie, and I love that.
I love that Attenborough can surprise and perhaps shock a bit. I bet he’s a cracking dinner party guest. As part of the show, friends and colleagues including Michael Palin and Chris Packham get stuck in and it’s a joy to watch. So it has to be asked; now he’s 90, is it time to relax?
“I can’t be more grateful that people ask me to make programmes. I’m very lucky and it’s a great privilege. I can’t believe I’m that lucky,” he says. So can we take it there are no plans to retire? “Not while I’m vertical, no. Here I am at my age and a lot of people at my age aren’t able to do any work as nobody has given them any work.
“I just count my lucky stars. And a lot of people my age don’t work as they aren’t physically able to do it. It’s certainly not virtue that has led to this, but it would foolish not to take advantage of it. I just thank my lucky stars.”
Ten things you didn’t know about Sir David Attenborough
1. Sir David’s favourite filming location is central Europe. “Because I know it least and because I can get decent food and a reasonable bottle of cheap wine.”
2. During those early years at the BBC, from Zoo Quest in 1965 onwards, as Controller at BBC2 he masterminded the concept of televised snooker. And he also introduced colour TV. And was responsible for commissioning Monty Python.
3. He is agnostic.
4. Attenborough is not a fan of rats. “I don’t like rats, I’ve never made a secret of that — they are the ultimate horrible thing,” he told the BBC. “For the first time in nearly a quarter of a century I had a very bad stomach upset in India. I went and sat on the loo and got rid of the entire contents of my stomach, as one does. Well, I was sitting there … and a rat came up from between my legs from the loo. He was wet, I have to tell you.”
5. If he hadn’t got into TV there’s a good chance he’d have been a teacher.
6. He holds 31 honorary degrees from British universities. That’s a record.
7. Once he reached 75 years of age, he was told by the BBC he could fly business class. Before that he always flew economy, and refused upgrades unless his entire crew were upgraded too.
8. Attenborough’s first boss at the BBC thought he wouldn’t work on screen because his teeth were too big.
9. That famous Life on Earth show where he has that eye contact with a Rwandan mountain gorilla and whispers, “There is more meaning and mutual understanding in exchanging a glance with a gorilla than any other animal I know”, was watched by an estimated 500 million people.
10. He’s a multi-gong kind of guy. The only person ever to have won a BAFTA in black and white, colour, HD and 3D.
Planet Earth 2 – BBC1 Sunday nights
Attenborough at 90 and Life that Glows, both available on BBC iPlayer along with multiple archive Attenborough shows.