His last series woke up the world to the millions of tonnes of plastic in our oceans – at 92, Sir David Attenborough has a greater influence than ever. So what’s his take on the BBC pay controversy, antisemitism, voluntary euthanasia and Trump? Nigel Farndale asks the questions
An interview with Sir David Attenborough is like a game of chess. There are stand-offs and exchanges, lures and skewers, but today he is not trying to intimidate his opponent psychologically, as some interviewers have accused him of doing in the past. Instead of being “prickly”, he is being strategic in the way he deflects and self-deprecates.
And he is a deft user of body language to convey meaning he would rather not commit to speech. When, for example, I ask him if, having had a heart-to-heart about climate change with President Obama in 2015, he would now like to do the same with President Trump, a global warming denier, he slowly closes his eyes, gives a deep sigh and opens them again before saying in that well-modulated, much impersonated breathy voice of his: “I don’t think so, because I don’t think Trump is susceptible to logical argument. I fear it would be him saying black is white and we would bandy our prejudices with one another.”
And when I ask how much of the fan mail he gets – around 30 letters a day – comes from female admirers declaring their undying love for him, he pulls a face and gives a broad, off-the-shoulder shrug that says, I know what’s behind the question and I’m not going to play that game. “Most of the fan mail I get is from people thanking me for making them more aware of the natural world,” he says with wilful neutrality.
I’m meeting him in his elegant, rectory-style house in Richmond, which has been extended since the last time I interviewed him here, almost 20 years ago. He has knocked through into a neighbouring pub to make a modernist library, complete with gallery, and this airy space is populated with fossils and phallic-looking tribal pottery on tables, as well as thousands of books and classical music CDs on shelves. There is also a grand piano, which he plays every day, and open on its music stand there is a score for a Schumann waltz. Today’s piece.
When we last met it wasn’t that long after Jane, his beloved wife of 47 years, had died suddenly from a brain haemorrhage, and he told me he was using work as a way of trying to stay ahead of his grief. This may still be partly the case, because at 92 he is showing no signs of slowing down. He is about to go to Chernobyl for the World Wildlife Fund and has just returned from a trip down the Zambezi, which I probably should have guessed he had done before – “My dear chap, I went down it from source to mouth in 1964, just me and a cameraman for three months.” And the number of one-hour programmes he has in the pipeline is in double figures – “I did the commentary for one last week which used drones to picture blue whales out in the ocean – breathtaking shots, the angle just right for the light, these immense leviathans seen as through glass.”
He is also about to publish a revised and updated edition of Life on Earth, to mark the 40th anniversary of his landmark series. It was an exercise he found nostalgic. “I can either say I was amazed at its eloquence or I thought it was a fairly stodgy read, but it wasn’t as bad as I feared. I hadn’t read it for 40 years and was relieved to find the basic structure was correct. The big revelation since then was the discovery of feathered dinosaurs, which has resolved a venomous debate among the scientists.”
He is not lonely because his daughter, Susan, a retired primary-school headmistress, keeps him company here, as well as looking after his business affairs. (He also has a son, who is an anthropologist in Australia.) To relax he reads, writes letters and contemplates the flora and fauna in his walled garden. And he watches TV. “I usually just watch natural history. Programmes made by my mates.” His smooth, pink features crease into a smile. “I like to keep up with what the bastards are doing!”
He must have more eclectic taste than that, I suggest, given that as controller of BBC2 in the late Sixties, and director of programmes in the early Seventies, he not only commissioned Sir Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation, but also Pete and Dud and Monty Python. Does he keep an eye on current trends in comedy?
“When you are in your nineties, the sort of jokes you laugh at are the same ones you laughed at when you were 50. Modern comedies you look at with a stony face and ask, ‘Is that funny?’ I put on Morecambe and Wise the other night and Susie said, ‘Do we have to? They’re not funny any more,’ but even she found herself laughing.” He says I probably shouldn’t repeat that because, “I’ll get a rocket from her,” but I can tell he won’t mind if I do.
It amuses him that children often ask him if he always wanted to be on television. “And I say, my dear child, there was no television when I was your age.”
Although his TV persona is one of avuncular warmth and wisdom, Attenborough is notoriously impersonal off screen, avoiding small talk, resenting having his photograph taken, referring to himself in the second person and closing down questions about his private life. His older brother, the late, great Hollywood actor and director Lord (Dickie) Attenborough, got one line in his memoirs.
“My brother Dick and I had a great time together. We laughed at the same things
When I mention that I once interviewed his brother and that my impression was that the two of them seemed very different – Lord Attenborough being jolly, tactile and lachrymose, Attenborough more reserved, unsentimental and taciturn – he says, “Actually we had a great time together. We laughed at the same things. He was very funny.”
I quote something his brother told me about their childhood – that, “We were apprehensive of our father’s displeasure and always desperate for his approval.” I ask Attenborough if that was his experience, too. “Well, my father [who was an academic] was a hard man to win approval from. He was a stern person on a lot of issues. Dick – I never called him Dickie, by the way, as everyone else did, always Dick – was expert at averting disaster by making my father laugh to defuse a moment. The thing about Dick was that he wanted to go on the stage from the age of five. He failed his school certificate and my father, who was the son of a small shopkeeper who got himself to university on a scholarship, could not believe that a son of his could not answer these fatuous questions. Because I was more academic [Attenborough read natural sciences at Cambridge], I was more his cup of tea, but my father would have died rather than say one child was favoured over another.”
Did he feel in competition with his brother when they both became successful and famous? “Nowhere near. From the outside it may have looked as if our careers had some similarity, but there was very little. Dick’s life was huge salaries and red carpets; my life was public service broadcasting, with my salary governed like the civil service.”
He thinks his BBC background may be the reason for his reticence. “When I was a younger producer working for the BBC, the thing that was drilled into me was that I must not be controversial. It didn’t matter how passionate your convictions in your private life, you mustn’t air them in public.”
As he is no longer on the staff of the BBC, I ask him what he feels strongly about at the moment. He purses his mouth as he thinks. Well, OK, he finds the ongoing row about BBC salaries misguided. “If you declare exactly how much a performer is being paid, you invite your competition to offer him or her more. The commercial channels know exactly how much they have to pay to outbid you.”
He is aware that, such is his stature in public life, when he weighs in on a subject it can have a huge impact, as it did when his last series, Blue Planet II – which was watched by a staggering 17 million viewers in this country and was so popular in China it slowed down the internet – raised awareness about the eight million tonnes of plastic being dumped each year into the oceans. “That was a funny thing. I’ve been talking about plastics in the sea for a decade, but this time the moment was right and it had an extraordinary effect.” It certainly did: it not only changed government policy, it left multinational companies falling over themselves to prove to their customers that they were changing their ways, too.
But he is apprehensive about being seen as an authority on conservation issues. “I constantly feel an impostor,” he says, “because people think I am a qualified scientist when I am not. The other imposture is people think I took every frame of film I narrate, when I did not. People ask, ‘What was it like when you came face to face with a lion?’ and I have to say, ‘I wasn’t there, old boy. I just put the words to it.’ ”
“This business of being considered a guru I find alarming. People expect you to be an authority
For many years, he felt under pressure from environmentalists to become more vocal and politicised regarding climate change. But he had to do a lot of soul-searching before he would commit himself and come off the fence. “This business of being considered a guru I find alarming. What I am not is a scientist who understands the chemistry of the upper atmosphere. If you are not careful, you are put in a bogus situation where they expect you to be an authority, when I am not. Although I had been personally convinced for several years of the truth of global warming, I didn’t feel I could say so in public until I could be sure of the facts. If you are in a prominent position, you’d better be bloody sure that your views are right, and what convinced me was a lecture I heard by a scientist called Ralph Cicerone. He produced facts and figures and I was left with no doubt. From that moment, I felt I could say it.”
Around that time, 18 years ago, Attenborough told me that if the North Pole continued melting at the rate it was, then it would be gone in 20 years. I remind him of this now. “Did I say that? It’s dangerous to put time frames on things. The other danger is if, when people ask you if you can give an example of global warming, you give into temptation and say, ‘Yes, I went to South Georgia and the glacier was there and I went back 20 years later and it had gone.’ And they will come back with an example from somewhere else in the Antarctic that I haven’t heard of where the reverse has apparently happened. So it isn’t always a good idea to give exact figures when what you should be talking about is long-term trends. But you do get to a point where the balance of the evidence is incontrovertible.”
And yet there are sceptics, highly intelligent people such as the former chancellor of the exchequer Lord Lawson, who say that global warming is a myth. “Yes. I find it frustrating when people fight the evidence, especially people who are used to dealing with statistics and mathematics, like Lawson is. He’s an obvious example.” He shrugs. “Well, he keeps us on our toes.”
Such is Attenborough’s longevity, he has had dealings with just about every prime minster in the postwar era, including Anthony Eden, who sought his advice on the broadcast he made about the Suez Crisis in 1956. “I am so politically naive, but even I could see that this was a turning point in British history and it was being conducted by a man who wasn’t capable of ordering his own breakfast. I dealt with Eden as I dealt with [Harold] Wilson, who was also a handful, ringing up and threatening me. My job was to stand up to him. But politics is not my bag at all. I keep my political views to myself. If anyone asks me how I vote I tell them to mind their own business. I have strong ethical opinions, but not political opinions. In fact, I’m baffled by politics. I don’t understand what is going on half the time.”
I’ve heard that he was a Remainer. Is he in favour of a second referendum? “Well, there you are, you see,” he says with an answer-avoiding laugh. “We still don’t know what the deal is. My dear brother Dick was very clear about his support for the Labour Party and he supported them through thick and thin. I used to argue with him: ‘But how do you know, Dick, that this policy is right?’ ”
On the subject of the Labour Party, during the war years Attenborough grew up with two sisters taken in by his parents, Irene and Helga, who were Jewish “Kindertransport” refugees. In light of that, it seems pertinent to ask for his take on the antisemitism row.
“I don’t understand these complex refinements of the internationally accepted definition,” he says. “Whether someone has decided this is a stick to hit Corbyn with, I don’t know, but I do know what I think about antisemitism. I keep seeing Corbyn on the news protesting that he is against antisemitism, but really …” He trails off. His old BBC diplomatic habits kicking in. “During the war, antisemitism did feel personal for us because of these two girls living in the house, who were our age, and who had lost their parents. When they arrived we hadn’t heard of concentration camps, but of course we did as the war went on.”
Both the sisters are dead now, as are both his brothers (there was a younger one, Johnny, who was a motor-trade executive). It is the curse of living to extreme old age. If Attenborough looks and acts younger than his years, he says, it is down to good luck more than good management. He doesn’t exercise or watch his diet – he’s all about the chocolates and red wine, rather than the vitamin supplements – and apart from his “new knees” following an operation a couple of years ago, he has always enjoyed rude health. He thinks it probably helps that he keeps his mind active with his piano playing and so on, although he tells me his memory has become less reliable lately. “When you are making a speech, you sometimes realise there is a word coming up at the end of the sentence and you know you won’t be able to think of it in time. You have to think of a simile or phrase to get around it.”
Does he sometimes feel like the last man standing? “I recognise that some of my peers, good friends whom I go and see, have not been so fortunate. Some can’t walk and I’m not even sure they know who I am any more. It’s certainly not virtue, coming from laying off smoking or whatever. It’s luck. I did smoke; when I was controller of BBC2 we would have on our desk a leather box with cigarettes, and if you had an awkward interview to conduct – firing someone – you would say, ‘Have a cigarette, old boy.’ But I stopped when one of my children said, ‘Dad, you smell awful.’ ”
“One BBC head of department said, ‘Don’t use Attenborough again. His teeth are too big’
He talks about his friends not recognising him; if he realised he had Alzheimer’s, say, would he consider visiting the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland? “Dignitas? Wait and see when the time comes. You have to think what effect you are having on your nearest and dearest.”
As for what happens after you die, he is an agnostic. The last time we met, he said he didn’t care what happened to his mortal remains; they could be dumped in a dustbin for all he cared. That view hasn’t changed, although he jokes that if he were reincarnated he would come back as a sloth, the subject of one of his best-known clips. (He went up to one hanging from a branch and said, “Boo!”)
Actually, he has already been immortalised, not only in that clip and the endlessly shown one of him with the mountain gorillas, but also as a hologram that guides visitors around the Natural History Museum. And he’s had not only a spider and a Madagascan shrimp named after him, but also a ship, the new £200 million polar research vessel. A national poll may have voted for Boaty McBoatface, but it was decided that this was too frivolous and that it should be the RRS Sir David Attenborough (the other name being given to the ship’s submersible). He tells me he found the launch this summer “a humbling and emotional experience”, and he is hoping to get on board for one of the sea trials. Having done his national service in the Royal Navy he knows the importance of a serious name, he adds. “You can’t expect crew members to go on shore with Boaty McBoatface written on their caps.”
Our game of chess is coming to an end. He has conducted the odd interview himself, and recently came closer than anyone has ever come to doing one with the Queen (which wasn’t all that close). The two, who go way back, are the same grand age, and they looked comfortable in each other’s company.
But a career as a chat-show host was never on the cards. “When I joined the BBC as a trainee,” he tells me, “I was asked to stand in for an interviewer one day. The head of department wrote to the producer afterwards and said, ‘Don’t use Attenborough again. His teeth are too big.’ I only found this out years later when I was leaving and they presented me with my HR file.”
That head of department could not have been more wrong, I say, as Attenborough proved to be one of the most telegenic presenters the BBC has ever had. He wafts the flattery away as if it were a jungle insect and says, “Ah well, perhaps fashions in teeth change.”
BOOK EXTRACT Life on Earth
A natural history lesson with David Attenborough
Can sharks really smell blood?
About 450 million years ago, a split appeared in the fish dynasty. A set of genes in one group of fish for some reason became duplicated and this resulted in them producing bone in their skeletons. Their descendants became the ancestors of all backboned animals alive today – including ourselves. The other group used a softer, lighter and more elastic material to support their skeletons – cartilage. The descendants of this group are the sharks and rays. This ancient split in the ancestry of fish means that you and I are more closely related to a cod than the cod is to a shark.
The reduction of bone in the bodies of the early sharks doubtless made them considerably lighter, size for size, than their ancestors. Even so, muscle and cartilage are heavier than water, and to remain above the seafloor, sharks have to keep swimming. They drive themselves through the water in the same way as their ancestors, by the sinuous motion of the rear half of their bodies and the powerful thrash of their tails. But with the thrust coming from the back, the body is nose-heavy and liable to dive downwards. To correct this, a shark has two pectoral fins spread horizontally like the vanes of a submarine or the wings of a rear-engined aircraft. These fins are, however, relatively inflexible. The shark cannot suddenly twist them to a vertical position to act as brakes. Indeed, a charging shark cannot stop, it can only swerve away to one side. Nor can it swim in reverse. Furthermore, if it stops beating its tail, it sinks. Some species, indeed, take rests at night and slumber settled on the seafloor.
The fish’s sense of smell is acute. The nostrils open into cups that can detect the most minute changes in the chemical composition of water. Sharks can detect the taste of 1 part in 25 million so that, when the current is in their favour, they can smell blood from a body nearly a third of a mile away. They rely greatly on smell to guide them to food, and this might provide an explanation for the shape of that most grotesque of sharks, the hammerhead. Its nostrils are placed at the ends of two extremities that grow out from the side of its head. If it scents its prey, it swings its head from side to side to determine the direction from which the smell is coming. When it is equally strong in both nostrils, then the hammerhead swims straight ahead – and is often one of the first predators to reach the scene.
What links crocodiles to the dinosaurs?
The crocodiles are the largest of all living reptiles. The Nile crocodile spends most of its days basking on sandbanks, maintaining an even body temperature. Although crocodiles are inactive for long periods, on occasion they can run very fast indeed. Their social lives are quite complex. The males establish a breeding territory, patrolling a patch of water not far from a beach. They bellow and fight any other males that come to dispute with them. Courtship takes place in the water. Actual mating lasts only a couple of minutes or so. The male clasps the female with his jaws and their tails intertwine.
It is in the care it gives its offspring that the crocodile’s behaviour is most surprising. When the eggs of the Nile crocodile are close to hatching, the young within begin to make piping calls. In response, the female begins to scrape away the sand covering the eggs. As the young struggle up through the sand, she picks them up with her jaws, using her huge teeth as gently as forceps. A special pouch has developed in the bottom of her mouth and in it she can accommodate half a dozen babies. She carries them down to the water and swims away, with her jaws half closed, her young passengers piping and peering through her teeth. The male helps, and within a short time the young have been ferried to a special nursery area in the swamp. Here they remain for a couple of months, hiding in the bank and hunting for frogs and fish while their parents keep guard in the water close by. Watching them, one can well believe that the dinosaurs themselves had similarly complicated forms of courtship and parental behaviour.
Why do sloths sleep so much?
Today, there are two main kinds of sloth, the two-toed and the three-toed. Of these, the three-toed is considerably the more slothful. It hangs upside down from a branch suspended by hook-like claws at the ends of its long bony arms. It feeds on only one kind of leaf, Cecropia, which happily for the sloth grows in quantity and is easily found. Lulled by this security, it has sunk into an existence that is only just short of complete torpor. It spends 18 out of 24 hours soundly asleep. It pays such little attention to its personal hygiene that green algae grow on its coarse hair and communities of a parasitic moth live in the depths of its coat, producing caterpillars which graze on its mouldy hair. Its muscles are such that it is quite incapable of moving at a speed of more than two thirds of a mile an hour. It is virtually dumb and its hearing is so poor that you can let off a gun within just a few centimetres of it and its only response will be to turn slowly and blink. Even its sense of smell, though it is better than ours, is very much less acute than that of most mammals.
With such blurred and blunted senses, how does one sloth find another in order to breed? There is one clue. The sloth’s digestion works just about as slowly as the rest of its bodily processes and it only defecates and urinates once a week. But most surprisingly, to do so it descends to the ground and it habitually uses the same place. This is the one moment in its life when it is exposed to real danger.
Which big cat can run at 56mph?
At full stretch, travelling at high speed, the big cats’ hind and front legs overlap one another beneath the body just like those of a galloping antelope. The cheetah has a thin elongated body and is said to be the fastest runner on earth, capable of reaching speeds, in bursts, of more than 56mph. But this method is very energy-consuming. Great muscular effort is needed to keep the spine springing back and forth and the cheetah cannot maintain such speeds for more than a minute or so. Either it succeeds in outrunning its prey within a few hundred metres and makes a kill or it has to retire exhausted while the antelope, with their more rigid backs and long-lever legs, continue to gallop off to a safer part of the plains.
Lions are nowhere near as fast as the cheetah. Their top speed is about 50mph. A wildebeest can do about the same and maintain it for much longer. So lions have had to develop more complicated tactics. Sometimes they rely on stealth, creeping towards their victims, utilising every bit of cover. On occasion, members of a pride will hunt as a team – and they are the only cats that do so. They set off in line abreast. As they approach a group of their prey – antelope, zebra or wildebeest – those lions at the ends of the line move a little quicker so that they encircle the herd. Finally, these break cover, driving the prey towards the lions in the centre. Such tactics often result in several kills, and a hunt has been watched in which seven wildebeest were brought down.
Hyenas are even slower than lions. The best they can manage is about 18mph and in consequence their hunting methods have to be even more subtle and dependent on teamwork. The females have separate dens where they rear their pups, but the pack as a whole works together. They have a rich vocabulary of sound and gesture with which they communicate. They growl and whoop, grunt, yelp and whine and at times produce a most terrifying chorus of orgiastic laughs. In gesture, their tails are particularly eloquent. Normally they are carried pointing down. An erect tail indicates aggression; pointed forward over the back, social excitement; held between the legs tight under the belly, fear. By hunting in well-coordinated teams, they have become so successful that in parts of the African plains, they make the majority of kills and the lions merely use their bigger size to bully their way on to a carcass, the reverse of the popular conception of the relationship between these two species.