David Attenborough: interview

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He’s one of the world’s most accomplished broadcasters, and wildlife TV’s most familiar face (certainly to gorillas) – yet David Attenborough is thoroughly self-effacing. It’s just one of the traits he shares with that other great naturalist and humanist, Charles Darwin. Time Out meets him

  • David Attenborough: interview

    © Ian Salvage

  • ‘Crikey! Bloody hell…’ David Attenborough’s amused astonishment at learning that he’s Brian Blessed’s ‘My Favourite Londoner’ is a relief, given an increasingly dismaying media focus on his supposed irascibility. One recent interviewer seemed to take mortal offence at such a ‘grandfatherly sweetie pie’ not offering her a Werther’s Original. But while we’re warned off taking any photos during our meeting in a Holborn members’ bar, he’s amenable – and happy to discuss the subjects that fascinate him.

    Which is where Charles Darwin comes in. It’s two centuries since his birth and 150 years since the publication of ‘On the Origin of Species’, so he’ll be everywhere this year, with Andrew Marr and Melvyn Bragg among the BBC heavyweights contributing shows. Sir David’s ‘Charles Darwin & the Tree of Life’ examines Darwin’s tree-shaped diagram of evolutionary theory and traces the gradual verification of his key propositions via such discoveries as continental drift and DNA.

    For Attenborough to front a show on Darwin feels like the logical culmination of a life’s work. ‘I suppose I was about 12 when I first became aware of him. My copy of “… Origin of Species” is a sixth edition from 1944, when I was 18.’ Most of Attenborough’s wildlife series have been predicated on Darwinian theory – his first trip for ‘Life on Earth’ was to the Galapagos Islands, an experience he recalls as a ‘real privilege’.

    Like Darwin, Attenborough is a diffident pioneer: the former’s original sketch of the ‘tree of life’ was prefaced by a tentative ‘I think’, while 20 years passed between the return of the Beagle and the publication of his ‘vile rag of a theory’ (as Darwin himself termed it). Similarly, Attenborough scrupulously describes himself as ‘a programme-maker, not a scientist’ whose ‘bogus authority’ is entirely due to his profile. Darwin never quite overcame his apologetic attitude towards his theories. So how does Attenborough overcome his self-doubts about his jurisdiction? ‘Well, I’ve got a contract,’ he chuckles, before enthusing about how the march of technology makes such concerns an awful lot easier to deal with.

    ‘I was at the BBC Wildlife Unit yesterday, and I saw stuff that I’d never seen before.’ He roars in amazement. ‘Never! Cameras can go down wormholes, use timelapse and see details the human eye never could.’ He shoots forward, teetering precariously on his chair. ‘Even the scientists are saying, “Good Lord, I’ve been working with that species for 25 years and I’ve never seen that before.” It’s very exciting.’

    Richard Dawkins, never a man unduly constrained by uncertainty, was first out of the gate last year with Channel 4’s ‘The Genius of Charles Darwin’, which co-opted the naturalist as a champion of atheism. Agnosticism was probably closer to the truth for Darwin; it’s a stance shared by Attenborough, who, pleasingly, uses an example from nature to illustrate. ‘If I dig a hole in a termite hill, and I see thousands of little insects busying themselves carrying cocoons, transporting food and looking after the queen, I know that they simply could not be aware of what I am. It seems not unreasonable to suppose that there are things which we don’t have the right sensory apparatus to comprehend either. The scientifically reputable position is to say: "I don’t know." ’

    So is Dawkins scientifically disreputable? Attenborough looks startled, then pensive. ‘Richard is a friend. The difference between us is very great. He is against the fundamentalist, myth-holding kind of religion. He is not necessarily against something that’s less myth-based. He objects to certain aspects of fundamental Christianity that prevent people grappling with what he sees as bigger realities and truths.’

    He seems to realise that this is a fairly generous interpretation, and takes a different tack. ‘I know perfectly well what happens [with TV productions]: you set up a chap with this view and a chap with that view, they talk perfectly amicably, then one says something a bit extreme and the other reacts, and the producer only uses the last bit.’

    Attenborough himself is phlegmatic about the creative editing to which some of his shows have been subjected. ‘In Holland my programmes are taken by a Christian organisation with its own network and severe views about creation. They can’t by contract make me say things I don’t say, but they can ignore some of the things I do say. So for example, “350 million years ago, life emerged from the swamps’ becomes “a very long time ago…”’

    And that’s okay by him, as long as the basic message gets through. But distortion and wilful ignorance really get his goat. ‘What Darwin said produced some perfectly rational objections to which science has since found answers, but people continue to say to me, “Oh well, there are still missing links, you know.” How can they still say that? They can’t have seen anything of scientific research in the last century!’

    The flipside, of course, reveals itself just as often. ‘I have taxi drivers saying to me, “Now, what is this business about altruism [in organisms]? How do you explain these communities that never reproduce? You’d be interested in that, Dave…” According to the UN, more than 50 per cent of the human race is urbanised, yet the man in the street knows a hell of a lot more about the natural world than he ever has done.’

    Much of this, of course, is down to Attenborough himself, although he certainly wouldn’t admit it. ‘…Tree of Life’, as with all his programmes, cleaves nimbly to the Reithian model for the BBC of education and entertainment. He travels to several old haunts, riffling through drawers of fossils at Cambridge University and strolling through his childhood haunt of Charnwood Forest, where a schoolboy discovered the first Precambrian fossil and helped establish the age of the Earth. It’s a very personal journey and a far cry from past widescreen epics, yet it’s carried out with rigour rather than any particularly fond sentiment.

    Indeed for Attenborough, London is a place to live, no more and no less, although he concedes that the Natural History Museum remains a draw, especially with the David Attenborough Studio opening in September. Having initially been reluctant to lend his name, he now sees it as the perfect combination of past and future: ‘The Natural History Museum has one of the great collections, but it’s all dead. The Natural History Unit in Bristol has the greatest assemblage of video images of wildlife anywhere in the world, but no actual specimens. If someone could come into this studio and see living images of something they’d just seen the bones of, then I’d be proud to have my name associated.’

    Bringing the resources of broadcasting and naturalism together would be an entirely apt tribute, but he’s not finished yet. He still lends his voice to BBC wildlife shows and is using his ‘bogus authority’ (as he terms it) to speak out on climate change.

    Darwinism, he argues, ties in neatly with environmentalism and conservation – the defence of one begets the other. Sweeping up a copy of his ‘My Favourite Londoner’ interview, presumably to frame, he grimly but far from grumpily delivers a valedictory warning. ‘We have reached a stage in human history where we’re confronted with the need to react to these particular propositions. Before, you could look away, but now we’re really up against it. We have to deal with these things.’

    ‘Charles Darwin & the Tree of Life’ airs on Feb 1, 9pm, on BBC One.

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