The call of the wild

David Attenborough is a living national treasure - not that he'd care to admit it, of course. Here, he talks with typical modesty about his life, his beliefs and 40 years of the BBC natural-history unit
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"The way it all started, you see," explains Sir David Attenborough in the excited whisper that has accompanied BBC wildlife programmes for 40 years, "was with a programme called Zootime. We used to get the curator of mammals from London Zoo to stuff some animals in a sack and bring them to the studio. People loved it because the animal would always bite the curator or pee on his trousers. Basically, that was the first natural-history programme."

Attenborough, a figure more usually seen set against the backdrop of the African savannah or the polar ice floes, is in his natural habitat, deep in a wrinkly yellow armchair at his home in Richmond, Surrey. He has lived in this unfussy, grey-washed house - between visits to more exotic locations - for 37 years. "I was born just over the river," he says, jabbing a finger in the direction of the back garden. "This is really my sanctuary."

Glimpsing the private life of David Attenborough is like coming face- to-face with a famous painting. In his gentle way, the BBC man who has brought more wildlife into the nation's sitting-rooms than the average family cat, is something of a folk hero, the Martin Bell of the natural world; the sort of man people consider if pub-talk turns to who should be London's mayor. Meeting him is alarming, not because of his fame or stature, but because what if the man whose hushed commentary showed you how bats sleep upside-down and lizards' tails fall off, turned out to be mean-spirited or arrogant or unkind?

He brushes away any suggestion of cult status with an impatient wave of his large hand. "I find it ridiculous when people say things like that," he says. "Basically, I've been lucky enough to do a job I like and do it for 40-odd years."

The BBC's natural-history unit celebrates its 40th birthday next Saturday with an evening of programmes, clips and discussion at a televised dinner party hosted by Attenborough at the house of the great 17th-century naturalist Gilbert White. "In a way the natural-history unit is David Attenborough, even though he's never worked here," says a member of the unit. The night will be a chance to see Attenborough once again among the mountain gorillas, and for guests and viewers to nominate their favourite clips.

"It's funny really," says Attenborough, "when we set out we could never have seen where we would end up. I remember when the BBC first approached me to work in this new medium called television, after I applied for a job in radio. I thought, no way. TVs were tiny, flickering, black-and-white things and I wasn't impressed. In the end, though, they offered me more money than I was making in the publishing job I was doing, so I gave it a try."

Attenborough has reached 70 years of age without losing any of the boyish wonder which underlies his easygoing charm. He is an energetic speaker, wriggling about in the sagging armchair to illustrate points, squatting on the edge when really excited, throwing one leg over the arm of the chair when considering an answer more carefully. His face is only lightly lined despite the heavy toll this year has taken on him. He lost his wife, Jane, to a brain haemorrhage in February and his voice cracks gently when he speaks of her.

It is plants and lions and earthworms and polar bears, his other family, which have kept him going these past months, as much as the support of his children; and grappling with the moral and ethical problems that now litter the path of his scientific interests - botany, biology, geology, environmental science. When he set out as a natural historian in post- War Britain, the world was a magical place newly delivered from the human evils of fascism. If back doors could have been safely left open, so could beef be safely eaten. Dolly the Sheep and global warming were the stuff of science fiction. Nature programmes were sharp-toothed mammals biting people on set, not a front-row seat at the bloody and beautiful birth of a polar-bear.

What can the veteran naturalist make of the modern-day eco-warriors, shoring themselves up in tunnels against the bailiffs? "I don't mind tunnelling," laughs Attenborough. "I've done my share of tunnelling in my time." He has a guarded admiration for Swampy. "He's a courageous man who speaks out for his principles," he says. Then he pauses and apologises and says he knows he sounds old-fashioned - a charge against himself which he repeats several times during the interview - but he, personally, believes in the rule of law. "I just think you have to solve these things in proper democratic ways," he says. "Say you get an order which says this woodland is protected so, no, you can't knock it down. You would know that wood was safe because the developers couldn't break the law. You have to then apply that to the other side and say you can't break the law either."

It is typical of Attenborough's independent spirit that he uses the same accolade - a man of courage - to describe Colin Blakemore, the Oxford scientist vilified by the animal-rights movement for his advocacy of vivisection. "People have planted bombs at his house," he says, "but he won't be deterred from standing up for what he believes in." His own views on animal experimentation are broadly the same as Professor Blakemore's. Cosmetic testing is unacceptable, but when it comes to being able to save a child's life with medicine developed through animal testing, then he knows where his priorities are. He thanks God - except he does not believe in God - that he is not himself a target.

Unlike his brother, the film director Richard Attenborough - who is renowned for his espousal of New Labour values - Sir David is not really a political animal. "He amazes me, my brother, just like all people involved in politics amaze me ... because they seem to know the answers to everything. They know what should happen in the health service, they can tell you about education today and something else tomorrow. It's all clear-cut for them."

Attenborough prefers to examine political issues with the same microscopic attention with which he examines fungi or earthworms, without making assumptions or falling victim to oversimplification. His is a carefully shaded world of light and dark. "Environmentalism is never as simple as one might think," he explains. "People get up and talk about 1,000 species are going extinct and you say, which ones? They say, we don't know, it's worked out mathematically ... "

He refuses to be a spokesman for other people's causes. "People ask me about global warming ... " he says, with the sort of incredulity that suggests they had asked him about Hungarian poetry. "I mean, who am I to know? I don't know about the physics of the upper atmosphere. But people expect you to. I could say, oh, it's the ozone layer or greenhouse gases, just parrotting what someone else has told me, but I feel that would be irresponsible. You get this bogus reputation just because someone's seen you on the box. I can talk about a particular species, like the mountain gorilla. I know about mountain gorillas so I am happy to support charities which protect them. I know exactly how to fix it for mountain gorillas. But I'm not going to talk about things I don't know about."

He is dismissive about the potential ill-effects of eating British beef - "frankly, I think driving round the M25 is far more dangerous" - but he says it isn't surprising that the meat industry has got itself into trouble after years of forcing animals to cannibalise one another through feeding methods. He has chosen not to enter the hunting debate, however. "That's really more of a class issue than one of animal welfare," he says. "If people are really concerned about animals they should think more about battery chickens or veal calves transported in terrible conditions. The cruelty in everyday food is appalling. I know at the root of it what people can't stand is the idea of someone killing for pleasure - and maybe that does disfigure them as humans - but the animal doesn't know what your motivation is."

He pauses then reverts to his mild whisper. "All I know is humanity has got the ability to change all the effects we are having on the natural world," he says, slowly. "It's a very delicate situation, easily unbalanced. And it's important we don't bring huge changes through carelessness and greed."

DISAPPOINTINGLY, there are no pets at David Attenborough's home, no fat black widow spiders lurking in glass cases, no poisonous snakes or exotic mammals. Not even a dog or a cat. "It would be irresponsible for me to have pets," he explains. "I'm away so much and they take a lot of looking after."

When his grown-up daughter, Susan, who now works as his assistant, and his son, Robert, an anthropologist who lives with his family in Australia, were young, the house was alive with pets. "Pythons, chameleons, hummingbirds, parrots ... " he reels off a list that any child might make for Christmas. "We had a whole colony of bushbabies, 32 of them, right there, where the television is now. We sectioned off part of the sitting-room and built them a home."

It gives the spacious Edwardian house a slight air of emptiness to hear him describe it as it once was, the bushbabies screaming, the children tearing round the sitting-room and his wife, Jane, always there to collect him from the airport after some far-flung trip away and bring him home. "Jane made this home," he says. "You'll think this old-fashioned, but she saw that having a family, looking after me and after our children, was a full-time job. Of course, she had other interests and charity work, but basically she looked after me. I really couldn't have done half of the things I have done without her."

He met her when he was 18 and living in Leicester, where his father was a professor of Anglo-Saxon at the university and his mother a linguist. "I know this will sound like it's something from antiquity or out of Fielding or Jane Austen," he apologises again, "but in those days you took a girl out to see if you were going to marry her or not. Then if she liked Duke Ellington and Casablanca and she loved the Marx Brothers, then it was going to be a permanent relationship and you might start some sort of carry-on in the back row." Jane passed all such adolescent tests with flying colours and the relationship survived the separations brought by Cambridge - where Attenborough had an "idyllic" time studying geology - and his time spent at sea serving in the Royal Navy. "Of course it was National Service," he says. "I didn't actually want to spend my time shooting at people and sinking boats."

The demobbed Attenborough went to work for a publishing firm because he didn't want to spend the rest of his life in a laboratory, "which is what being a scientist meant in those days". Then came the interview for BBC radio which led him to the brave new world of television. Attenborough rose quickly - "if you'd been there from the beginning you were at the top of the tree because nobody else was as experienced as you" - and, in 1965, became controller of BBC2, where he presided over the introduction of the next radical step in broadcasting - colour television.

His pet project as a producer, Zootime, developed into Zooquest with the introduction of jumpy footage of animals in the wild. Long before he became a presenter, Attenborough had achieved something incredible, although he chooses to shrug it off: for the first time, people could watch lions and tigers in Africa from their armchairs. And the BBC discovered that it wasn't just the big cats that viewers were interested in. There was a vast public appetite for rodents and creepy-crawlies, for the powerful elephant and the humble earthworm, for the smallest jungle fern and the greatest redwood tree. Zooquest was the tip of an iceberg which, 40 years on, has translated into a multi-million-pound industry with primetime slots on terrestrial television and several dedicated satellite channels. From Animal Magic, Wildlife on One, Life on Earth, Life in the Freezer and The Private Life of Plants to Animal Hospital, Pet Rescue and The Really Wild Show, nature programmes are today as much a part of the national fabric as the Queen's Christmas Broadcast (which Attenborough produced for many years) or Coronation Street. It is Attenbor-ough who has guided us through our evolution from a population of animal lovers to a nation of armchair naturalists.

His first stint as a wildlife commentator came in the early 1970s, at around the same time that he was tipped to become Director General of the BBC. He was producing a natural-history series when the presenter became ill. "Someone said: 'Right, Attenborough, you'll have to do it,' " he recalls. "We were running to such a tight schedule I just had to jump in." He realised he didn't want the BBC's top job, despite being popular with editors and producers - to whom he devolved as much decision-making as possible. "I just didn't want to be an administrator," he says. "I had other passions in life." He resigned and returned to programme-making. First came Eastwards with Attenborough, then, in 1979, Life on Earth.

Attenborough is too loyal to make outspoken comments about how the BBC is run in these days of Birtism, or how he might have run it differently. But he does say: "The BBC I worked for simply doesn't exist any more. It no longer has that stature because then there was no other broadcaster of any kind. We were on a social mission - we thought it was very important that the whole nation, from Land's End to John O'Groats, stopped to watch Panorama. You could get new people to watch archaeology programmes by scheduling them after something more popular, knowing they weren't going to switch off because they'd paid their licence fee." This disloyalty clearly discomfits him, but he continues. "I regret very much the loss of the BBC's corporate commitment to public service. When it abandons public service totally it should no longer exist."

The great leaps forward in wildlife programmes of the last 40 years have been technological as much as conceptual. Infra-red and microscopic cameras, advanced editing techniques and expensive equipment, have left programme-makers facing an ethical minefield. Last month's polar-bear birth, for example, one of the most powerful scenes ever shown on television, was also, from another perspective, a giant confidence trick. Although the commentary gives no clue, the birth scenes, narrated by Attenborough, were actually filmed in captivity, in a Perspex den in a Belgian zoo. The cubs subsequently died.

"We could have filmed it in the wild," he says, "but in fact we were trying to be responsible. We would have risked killing the cub by disturbing the birth." Yet, the context implied the birth was in the wild. "Many people found it an incredibly moving scene," he says. "You can't intrude on that by saying, by the way, this is filmed in a zoo. You would shatter the moment. It would be like you writing an article and putting something in saying: 'See this clever bit at the beginning, I got it from the dictionary of quotations.' You just have to ask yourself two things: is the animal at risk? And is it part of a balanced programme?"

Attenborough has been a fellow of London Zoo since 1945. "I don't actually enjoy going to zoos much, but then I'm privileged to see animals in the wild," he says. "Of course, it's intolerable if the animals are not well kept. But in a zoo you can really watch the animals. You can see them on TV, but once you've actually seen an elephant in the zoo, seen how big it is, smelt its dung, heard it cracking when it walks ... it's completely different."

"I REALLY can't stand rats," says David Attenborough. He is talking about being brave, something he says he knows nothing about. "If you're doing your job properly the animals don't know you are there because you shouldn't be intruding," he says. "I suppose we have been in a few scrapes" - being charged by a herd of rhinoceros, for example - "but I don't like this idea of wildlife programmes being heroic adventure tales where the presenter wrestles hand-to-hand with bears. Personally, I have been far more scared, say, 50ft down in scuba gear, diving inexpertly and wondering if I'll be able to breathe. The programme shouldn't be about your adventures in Greenland or wherever, it should be about the wildlife."

He doesn't know quite what "being good with animals" means, he says. "I think if you treat animals with empathy and you aren't apprehensive and don't retract your hand in terror, then they'll regard you with equanimity," he says. He hasn't got a favourite animal because he likes them all in different ways. Except for rats. They are the inhabitants of his Room 101. "It's a psychological thing," he says. "They encroach on your living space ... they're carrying diseases and running all over your face in the night. You look on the poles of the hut and they've got these little slimy trails and you know that is a path left by rats ... "

The tidy silver hair, the slight tan, the khaki clothes he wears for jungle expeditions, his guarded and economical way with words - all give Attenborough something of the air of the British diplomat abroad. The subject of rats has transfigured him slightly, as he pulls the sort of face with which primary school children regard Brussel sprouts. At last, a subject on which he can take up an unequivocal position. "So, you really hate rats," I ask. He looks puzzled. "I don't really hate rats," he says. "I mean, they're all right in the wild, it's when they step on your face ..."

'Natural History Night', presented by David Attenborough: BBC2, Sat 27 December, 6pm to midnight. Captions: All creatures great and small: David Attenborough and friend filming 'The Animal Game' in 1974; In happier times: Attenborough at home in Richmond with his wife Jane, who died earlier this year