It’s hard to imagine a time when Sir David Attenborough wasn’t on our screens, bringing the wilderness into the living rooms of those of us who struggle to tell a marmot from a prairie dog.
He has popped up in jungles, savannahs and Antarctic vistas, having dominated wildlife TV since the Fifties.
Through the years he has narrated Wildlife On One and Life On Earth, and inspired a new generation to raise awareness of ocean-polluting plastics and the threat to the polar ice caps in Blue Planet II and Frozen Planet.
We meet in a Soho hotel. At 93, he wanders in, with the familiar silky shock of hair and angelic pink cheeks. He deftly avoids a cat’s cradle of recording equipment and wires.
Outside, coronavirus is starting to tighten its grip on London (our interview took place a few weeks before the lockdown). The virus has now played havoc on plans for the launch of A Life On Our Planet, the film he has made in tandem with the World Wide Fund For Nature’s Colin Butfield.
A grand screening and launch at the Royal Albert Hall, scheduled for next month, has been postponed.
Attenborough has mused that after more than six decades in TV he would “get off the platform”, yet here he is, at it again. I wonder if there’s a sense in his nineties that he should bear witness or deliver what might be a final testament on his philosophy.
“Hmm, well, it is something that tends to be imposed on me,” he says — half humorously, with a twinge of irascibility. But with this film he clearly did feel the urge to depart from the more measured narration of his BBC presence, and move to more cinematic techniques.
The film opens with the Chernobyl disaster in 1986. He claims it is “emblematic of the problems that we have imposed upon the world and of the necessity for us to do something about it. Bang — just like that, there was a catastrophe. What we’re looking at now is a long, protracted bang that is going on over decades”.
The great Attenborough odysseys started back in the Fifties with Zoo Quest, a new genre in television, bringing images of animals in the wild into the homes of post-war Britain.
A breakthrough came in a change in the way films were made: “I was involved in persuading the BBC to abandon 35mm film, which was the calibre of footage used in feature films, and use little 16mm, which the BBC was very much against.
“They said it was amateur stuff — bootlegs, they called it — but once we agreed to do that, then suddenly you have this little box in your hand and you could go anywhere and bring back pictures. And since I was a biologist, what I wanted to do was go look at aardvarks and pangolins.
“What a fantastic thrill! It didn’t matter if we did it badly — and we did it pretty badly — people were fascinated.”
I wonder when the habit of wonder at the natural world became something more anxious. “Not for a long time,” he says.
His awakening happened “when the great conservationist Peter Scott suddenly drew attention to the fact that we were losing species. I was lagging behind,” he admits.
“But the first time I saw a bleached coral reef, I realised that the richest ecosystem the world has ever seen was suddenly being wiped out. And we were doing it.”
As the arguments on how best to address pollution and climate change have intensified, his style of filmmaking has also been at the sharp end of criticism from campaigners, notably George Monbiot who has argued that BBC wildlife films “created an impression of security and abundance, even in places afflicted by cascading ecological collapse”.
Does he feel guilty at purveying wonder instead of issuing warnings? Attenborough disagrees.
“People won’t care about things that they don’t know about. The first job in my trade is to make clear what a wonderful world the natural world is. You can’t expect people to spend money, or time, or worry, or concern, or political action on an issue about which they really know nothing. So one comes before the other.
“It’s true that you’ve got to decide when you stop one and move to the other. But you’ve got to do both.”
Today, the question for campaigners is how far to go down the line of Greta Thunbergian protests and school climate strikes (suspended, it turns out, now that schools are closed in the lockdown) — and the more extreme measures of, say, Extinction Rebellion.
Greta gets a thumbs up. “She has done marvels and wonders,” he cries. “She’s caused the most mighty potentates in the world to take a breath and suddenly think about things.”
XR’s disruptive methods don’t chime with him so much. “I don’t agree with breaking the law, so you shouldn’t dig up the gardens or the lawns of a Cambridge college (the scene of a recent controversial XR protest) and I wouldn’t go along with that.
“In the end, we are all dependent on the law and we have to follow it. If you’re young, you’ll get very impatient that the rest of the population don’t see things as you do. But sticking to the law is important.”
What would he say to those reluctant to sign up to the Paris climate accord limiting the rise on global temperatures — notably Donald Trump?
“I cannot imagine I would have any effect at all on President Trump. His views have been firm and clear and stated for a long time, and he’s not going to shift them. I don’t think he’s susceptible to rational argument. I would prefer to talk to the voters whose minds I hope are still open to logical thought.”
But surely this cuts both ways when it comes to filmmakers and environmental warriors flying the world to bring home the story of an endangered planet. The accusation of selective ethics is never far behind, so how much does he make of his own record as a globetrotter?
“Well, all of us breathe out carbon dioxide, we’re all contributing in some way or another to the problem. What we have to think about is whether the carbon dioxide that I’m producing by simply talking to you and sitting here is not being misspent.”
This is a bit of a mischievous evasion given that emissions from flying form by far the biggest carbon footprint any of us can create as individuals, so I try again. Does he opt to fly less then he did?
“Yes, I suppose I do. But I don’t fly for fun: I fly as part of my job. I’ve been very lucky to see more of the world than I can possibly have imagined I would ever do. So I’ve had my fair share of that, of going out and looking at things.”
The only discernible drawback of advanced age for Sir David is that he can attract premature obituaries. He relates a story which sets him off into a fit of mirth.
“Last night, at around 10pm, there was a tap on the door and my daughter went to answer it.
“And there was a chap from a respectable broadsheet who asked, ‘Is it true that David Attenborough is dead?’ She said, ‘Not as far as I know — he wasn’t five minutes ago.’”
Anne McElvoy hosts The Economist Asks chat show on Economist Radio, available on Apple Podcasts and other platforms
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