Sir David Attenborough on a passion for the natural world that just keeps on growing.
It says everything about Sir David Attenborough that his new programme is called Natural Curiosities.
A towering figure in British wildlife since the early 1950s, this incredible servant to television barely needs an introduction, such is his influence over the broadcasting world. And even at 87, the ‘Godfather of the Natural World’, as he has become known, retains an unrelenting thirst for discovery.
While little can be said about Attenborough that hasn’t already been published – and the eulogies of the great man range from his Knighthood to being voted the greatest living Briton in a 2006 BBC poll – the Richmond-based naturalist proves with new series Natural Curiosities that he still has plenty to say about a subject he has devoted his life to over the past 60 years.
Humble and erudite as ever, Attenborough is typically brilliant in the documentaries, which can be seen on satellite channel Eden, delving into the psyche and physiology of his favourite animals. He searches their history and distinct evolutionary quirks, exploring along the way surprise links with other animals.
“I think this certainly puts a different spin on some of the incredible creatures that populate the world,” he begins. “As everybody is well aware – after all, they keep reminding me of the fact! – I have been making these programmes for a long, long time. But the styling of animal documentaries in the past has always done in the sense that we’re looked at the animals as they are or, on occasion, by supposing what they may evolve into. What we haven’t done in the past, and what makes Natural Curiosities is so absolutely magnificent, is that this really is an opportunity to assess the animals’ histories… really look at the relationships they have had with homosapiens over the years, and how homosapiens look at them.
“Personally, I think that is a fascinating aspect. And it has been something that has fascinated me since I was a child. I remember vividly getting hold of a copy of an old, reproduced natural history book from the 17th century and it was mesmerising. It was full of wonderful animals, mermaids, dragons, monsters – but these were creatures that people actually believed existed. And there are enough myths and stories out there to give a good case that some of them actually did.
“So we are looking at this extra dimension; we’re looking at the myths and the legacy, seeing if we can ascertain if and why animals existed and why they were as they were, which is something I don’t think has been seen on television before. Not that I am aware, anyway.”
Even now, with Sir David’s career welcoming in its seventh decade, the broadcaster has always been capable of shifting his slant – working with technology, understanding a different analysis of the animal kingdom. This adaptability has enabled him to stay right at the top of his game.
“Technology has taken us a huge distance where wildlife broadcasting is concerned. You’re talking about everything from the smallest, most discrete cameras, to motorised Plaster of Paris penguins that are so lifelike they can mingle in with others in the Antarctic. We have such understanding now, it’s like we’re observing these incredible creatures from the inside… we are a part of their communities. And for the most part, they’re comfortable inviting us in, too!”
But not all wildlife programming is about embracing the modern standard. For Attenborough, it’s about combining the technology of the moment with the research of the past.
“I do believe that’s true,” he states. “It’s sometimes easy to look at what we have now and be somewhat dismissive of the past, but every step of the way through the history of nature filmmaking the boundaries have been pushed.
“And, you know, the research of those early explorers, or naturalists and conservationists so much more important than me, is still taking us forward and providing the bedrock for everything we build on top.
“So by delving back into the histories of these marvellous creatures, there is an untapped resource of information waiting to be plundered. Just as an example, you wouldn’t necessarily think that the humble Greenfly could in some way be connected to the biggest lizard that we have discovered in the world – the Komodo lizard. But that is indeed the case. In both species, the female can produce young without the need for a male mate, which is fascinating. And there are plenty of other examples that have interesting oddities or curiosities. These have been brought to us in the past and we’re now using those very simple seeds of information to delve much deeper into the science of how that happens.”
Given the angle of programme, it would possibly be remiss not to ask Attenborough what he considered the biggest curiosity he discovered while filming.
“Believe it or not, I would have to say the Greenfly, which is somewhat strange given that it is such a common creature that you will find in gardens up and down the country. The unborn baby of a Greenfly is already producing her own baby before birth, so you have three generations in one. That’s mind-boggling stuff, isn’t it?” he beams. And who could disagree?
Of course, through every conversation about the beauty and majesty of the natural world, there is a resonance of regret and frustration in Attenborough’s voice. While he has devoted his life to presenting the widest array of wildlife, he has at the same time been present through the extinction of numerous species, as well as the deterioration of thousands of animal environments and ecological systems.
“Yes, that’s a sad reality,” he ponders. “It’s been a tough ride at times, because you can see what is happening whilst being completely powerless to do anything about it. If I was to allow myself to dream and bring back an extinct creature it would be a dream, but so many are gone forever.”
Given the choice, which would be bring back?
“Oh, it would definitely be a dinosaur”. He stops, as he often does, to consider his words. “Though which one would be a tough choice – perhaps a great Brontosaur would be my pick. In fact, yes, I would go with Brontosaur. The Brontosaur was a marvellous, giant land animal – one of the biggest creatures ever recorded. It would be quite a sight to see the Brontosaur roaming the world today, let me tell you!”
That Attenborough still talks with as much enthusiasm as he approaches 90 years of age is a marvel in itself, and even in these advanced years he is not one to shy away from controversy. He has been criticised for his views on population control (“the bottom line is the planet is finite and we are heading for disaster and, in my opinion, all countries should develop a population policy”) as well as climate change (“it obviously remains a huge problem for the planet and we are not taking the threat seriously enough”). He even caused a stir in Sussex when he launched a contentious wind turbine at Glyndebourne Opera House in January 2012, with many local resident opposing the move.
But even his more outspoken moments have not stopped Attenborough becoming the ultimate national treasure… not that he takes much notice of the term, nor the praise that is constantly bestowed upon him.
“I do not go in for that,” he says with no little disdain. “I don’t think things like ‘national treasure’ hold much weight and I see it as an irrelevance, really. I am just doing a job, simple as that. It is a job that I love, that fascinates me, that I take immense pleasure from and that I know that I am extremely lucky to have been able to do for such a length of time, but a job it is. With that in mind, why should I be showered with accolades? I see it as this: you have a life to live and you choose to do something with it.”
Would he not even agree that the legacy he will leave is one of immeasurable importance?
“I do not think about it in such a way,” he replies. “I consider the camera to be the most important thing, so therefore I consider everything I have done to be the camera’s legacy rather than mine. I have not been coaxing animals to do anything extraordinary, nor have I been capturing it. So if there is a legacy, I do not consider it mine, but let’s all enjoy and share this legacy, because it is so, so important.”
At 87 years of age, any chance to speak to Attenborough will always, perhaps with grim inevitability, bring up the spectre of retirement. While it may be an understandable course of action, and preferable to his health, Sir David’s move away from the camera would, at the same time, leave a gaping chasm in the natural history sphere. But are there even any plans to take a step back… he has, after all, been reporting on the natural world from way back in 1952?!
“I’m certainly aware of my advancing age; it’s rather difficult to ignore it,” he jests. “I can’t climb trees anymore because of my tricky knee, and I guess I can’t really move as fast anymore. But why slow down? As long as I am vertical, I will keep doing what I love… until I am horizontal!”