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David Attenborough: force of nature

The orangutan may be called the ‘old man of the forest’, but Sir David Attenborough runs it a close second. We put your questions to the great man

© Rob Greig

When we asked you for questions to put to naturalist and broadcaster Sir David Attenborough, the passion and knowledge behind them blew us away. Thanks to you, we got the Great Communicator discussing everything from his views on politicians and time working in BBC senior management to environmental campaigning and his favourite place on the planet – you’ll never guess where it is. (And sorry, @joolygee, we didn’t propose marriage on your behalf – but that’s only because we ran out of time.) Questions asked by Time Out’s TV editor, Gabriel Tate.

When did you decide to become a naturalist?
Felix Miller, 8, north London
‘As long as I remember, I’ve been interested in nature. Every child born is interested in the natural world but as life goes on some people lose it. If they do lose it all together, they have lost something very precious.’

Your brother [film director Richard Attenborough] famously brought back dinosaurs for ‘Jurassic Park’. If you could bring back one animal from extinction, which would it be?
Dominique Sisley, 24, Finsbury Park
‘We made a film about pterosaurs, which were those big flying reptiles, and they had a wingspan the size of a small aeroplane. I’d love to see that.’

Is there an animal you brought back as part of an expedition that you rather wish you hadn’t?
Azra Hussain, 34, New Cross Gate
‘Well, I brought back an orangutan for [his first TV series] ‘Zoo Quest’. Orangutans are endangered in the forests of Borneo, and I brought back a young male who was an orphan, because the Dayak people – with whom I was living at the time in the long houses in the centre of Borneo – were protecting their crops which were being raided by orangs. I gave it to London Zoo and he lived very well and founded a dynasty of orangs there. But I wouldn’t want to bring an orang back from the forest now, because zoos don’t need it. They breed almost all the animals which they exhibit.’

What in nature always puts a smile on your face?
Kevin Morrison, 31, Kensal Rise
‘Young things succeeding. Little elephant calves learning to walk, that puts a smile on my face.’

Are there any animals you hate?
Andrew Morris, 27, Richmond
‘I don’t like rats, and I don’t like things that carry disease and travel around in pestilential places. I don’t mind spiders, I like spiders and I’m interested in spiders. But rats, I don’t care for.’

What do you feel like when you’re near an echidna?
Isaac Maya, 6, USA
‘I feel rather the same as when I’m next to a kangaroo. Echidnas are very interesting animals. What you fear most is, you don’t want to disturb it, because if it gets disturbed it waggles all four feet and simply goes down into the earth. But you feel privileged to see this particular stage that represents one of the rungs on the long evolutionary ladder.’

If you could be reincarnated as any creature living or extinct, which would it be?
Ran Matthews
‘Well, I will say a sloth, because all you have to do is hang upside down from a tree. That would be fine.’

What’s your favourite dinosaur?

Maddie She-ra TallulahFord, 30, Islington
‘One of the hadrosaurs, I suppose, one of the duck-bills. They had curious vocal apparatus and made honking noises. Then of course some of the big sauropods like diplodocus. It would be interesting to see whether our theories of what they were really like are true. We keep changing our minds about how they moved and what they did, whether they lived in swamps or didn’t live in swamps…’

If you could take a characteristic or ability of any animal, what would it be?
Claire Hale, 39, Surrey
‘I’d like to fly. Just open the window and a couple of flaps and I’m home. That would be nice. You’d see a different aspect of things, visit all over the place.’

What’s been your most awkward moment with an animal?

Kieran Riddlough, 21, Bethnal Green
‘I haven’t been chased by many. Most of my life is spent trying to persuade an animal I’m not there. That is what making naturalistic films is about, you’re concealing your existence. So it’s embarrassing when an animal does know I’m there, unless it’s a tame animal. The Rwandan gorillas was a very strange and particular episode [in ‘Life on Earth’], but those animals were habituated by Dian Fossey, so they reacted to human beings in a way which was not natural.’

You’ve had a carnivorous pitcher plant, a long-beaked echidna, a tree and an armoured prehistoric fish named after you. If you could pick another creature to bear your name, what would it be?
Rid Hollands, 31, Kensal Rise
‘A hummingbird. They’re very beautiful, very interesting, nice to look at. And I hum, that’s true.’

Could you summarise the understanding your travels have given you on the relationship between the human race and wildlife?
Tom Buxton, 19, North Kensington
‘What interests me about the natural world is not how it illuminates my character or the human character. It’s the way in which it’s not human. There are many ways of living that have nothing to do with human beings or their morals, logic or anything else. I think termites are absolutely fascinating. They are the absolute antithesis of what human beings are – but that’s why they’re interesting. I think it’s extraordinary, solipsistic, to think that things are only interesting in as much as they apply to you. That’s not the way I look at the natural world.’

Which animal is top of your endangered list?
Hannah, 29, Nottingham
‘There isn’t one. And that’s because very few individual species are critical. What is critical are assemblages and ecosystems. We’re concerned about things like the giant panda or Hawaiian goose or whatever, because they’re charismatic and interesting and people can focus their attention on them. But the important thing is not the giant panda but the bamboo forest, which is a whole multitude of different species of animals and plants.’

Is there an ecosystem that is in particular need of attention?
Toren Atkinson, Canada
‘Yes. The coral reefs, for example, are an ecosystem which is absolutely crucial to the survival and health of the oceans, and to the survival of fish. Coral reefs are nurseries where whole groups of fish, the young fry, grow up before they go off into the ocean. If you lose a whole coral reef, you are causing seismic upsets to the ocean. And we are in danger of doing that, because the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is increasing, and that acidifies the ocean, and the temperature is going up, both of which could be lethal to many corals. So there is one huge example.’

If you had the power to influence one country’s conservation efforts, which would it be and why?

Ben Church, 31, Surbiton
‘Brazil, probably, because it is so big and so crucial in the world climate, and because there are so many pressures on it to send it down the wrong way.’

Are man’s days numbered on this planet?
Kerry Barmer, 44, London Bridge
‘If you looked at history, you would say yes. Very few species have survived unchanged. There’s one called lingula, which is a little shellfish, a little brachiopod about the size of my fingernail, that has survived for 500 million years, but survived by being unobtrusive and doing nothing, and you can’t accuse human beings of that.’

Do you think broadcasting can be too concerned about targeting niche audiences? And do you think the BBC will still exist in ten years’ time?
Michael Curle, 33, Wandsworth
‘If you mean, every now and again you do a programme which appeals to not the maximum size of the audience, that's essential. If you mean, should there be a network entirely for stamp collectors, then no. By and large, specialist channels either get folies de grandeur or go more and more downmarket. You think you’re going to turn on and have 50 choices, and we all know that’s a myth. There are about three choices, because everybody edges into the area where they think they can make money.

‘I I think the BBC will be there in ten years time. I hope it won’t be too much diminished. When I joined the BBC it was the only broadcasting organisation in this country, so what the BBC did was entirely in terms of public service. Since then the broadcasting landscape has changed.’

Where is your favourite place on the planet?
Hannah Creedon, 27, Morden
‘Richmond, Surrey. My favourite place by a long way. Partly because I live there, partly because my friends and family are there. The climate suits me, it’s got access to some of the finest civilised facilities in the world. And London has the greatest serious music that you can hear any day of the week in the world – you think it’s going to be Vienna or Paris or somewhere, but if you go to Vienna or Paris and say “let’s hear some good music”, there isn’t any. That’s my experience, anyway. London has fine museums, the British Library is one of the greatest library institutions in the world… It’s got everything you want, really.’

Having been around the world and spent time in many different communities, what do you think defines the Londoner as a tribe?
Annette Richardson, ‘fortysomething’, Deptford
‘No idea, really. I think they’re tolerant people, which is nice. They’re multiracial, they are by and large sober, the streets are by and large safe. But I don’t know. I mean, that song “Maybe It’s Because I’m a Londoner” is not something I sing very often. I do have my own little private hum, from time to time.’

How did living alongside your brother [film director Richard Attenborough] shape your life?
Arthur Davidson, ‘wrinkly’, west London
‘Not at all. We were working in totally different fields. We were very good friends, we lived close to one another, we shared one another’s careers, but my career is the antithesis of Hollywood. I would go to Dick’s premieres, and he would come and see my shows and ring me up, but that’s all. Speaking lines other people have written is not my game, and speaking lines that he has written is not my brother’s game.’

Have you ever been tempted to give it all up and live in the wild permanently?
Kate Callaghan, 23, Stoke Newington
‘Not at all. If I live in the wild for months on end I feel the loss of civilisation. I’m an urbanised man, but that doesn’t mean I’m not interested in the natural world – and if you’re interested in the natural world, it doesn’t mean you want to stay there all the time.’

Where in the world haven’t you been that you’d still like to go to?
Ed Mottram, 27, Ladbroke Grove
‘Central Gobi. I’ve been to the fringe of the Gobi Desert, but there are some terrific fossils in the middle of the Gobi Desert. I wouldn’t mind going with an empty lorry, but I think people would find that rather suspicious.’

Have you ever considered running for parliament?
Lisa Johnstone, 34, East Finchley
‘Good God, no! Not at all. I’m always amazed at people who do, because they always know the answer to things. People say: “what should we do about euthanasia or free milk or…” I don’t know, I don’t know the answer to any of these questions. I’m amazed at how many people can get up and say “YES!”. Life seems to me very much more complicated. I don’t know enough answers, or I’m not convinced about enough answers to be a politician.’

Do you get as emotional as your viewers when covering sadder events?
James Fairfield, 24, Finchley
‘Of course. You would be inhuman if you weren’t moved by the death of an animal, especially a defenceless baby animal. What kind of person is it who doesn’t care about that? But there are lots of things in life which you are saddened by – the trick is, not to deny it but not to exaggerate it.’

Do you mind your fans approaching you in public? I once saw you at the British Museum but was too shy to come and say hello.
Laura Cooney, 25, Lewisham
‘Well, one is off-duty sometimes and it kind of changes things, if you just want to go to a museum and look at things… If everyone who recognised you felt they had to talk to you, you wouldn’t get anywhere. But people are very nice, and why should I object to people saying they like the programmes I make? People are very complimentary, but it isn’t something that needs go on all the time.’

If you could visit a fixed point in time, past or future, when would it be?
Alan Bradley, 38, Feltham
‘Let’s go to the Jurassic era, there’s quite a lot I’d like to know about that. Why? Well, there are walloping great dinosaurs for a kick-off, but a lot of other things around.’

Do you have any regrets?
Alexander Eden, 26, Paddington
‘A lot of private regrets, but I don’t think any professional regrets. I have been fantastically lucky, I cannot believe how lucky I’ve been. To come into television when it was still so tiny and still so informal in 1952, and to have been there through all these developments has been huge, and I don’t even regret spending eight years in administration [at the BBC]. That was good fun too, in the stages at which I had it, and I don’t regret having resigned either.’

How would you like to be remembered?
Maribel Bennett, 41, Mitcham
‘I won’t be here, so I won’t worry [about that].’

What are the pieces of work that you’re most and least proud of?
Phil Harrison, 42, Time Out
‘The thing I’m most proud of is making natural history programmes like “Life on Earth”, which was a big ambitious series of 13 parts, told a coherent story about the natural world and was filmed in ways we hadn’t done before. And least proud? Oh, I wouldn’t tell you that!’

Do you have any fixed idea of when you’re going to hang up your hat and retire?
Gabriel Tate, 35, Time Out
‘Well, you can’t tell. It’s nothing to do with virtue or anything else, you can’t tell what’s going to happen to you, and there are plenty of people at my age who can’t move out of a chair. That’s just ill luck, in their case, and good luck in my case that I can. If I can make programmes when I’m 95, that would be fine. But I would think I’ll have had enough by then.’

David Attenborough’s Rise of the Animals’, Friday September 20 & 27, 9pm, BBC2.

Read our ‘Rise of the Animals’ reviews

Episode one

Attenborough’s legacy is already one of the most assured and noble in television history. Yet even now, he isn’t content to coast and remains relentlessly determined to shed light, bring knowledge, vanquish ignorance. To inform, educate and entertain.

Read the full review

Read more

Episode two

There are plenty of diverting asides on everything from echidna to wallabies, as well as an intriguing theory on the extinction of giant mammals. And we never thought we’d see the day that he’d experiment on a puppy. We’ll miss him when he’s gone.

Read the full review

Read more

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