Sir David Attenborough: Saving life on our fragile planet earth

In the fifty years since his first documentary for the BBC, Sir David Attenborough has seen thousands of species on earth. Now his thoughts have turned to the impact of climate change on the natural world, Ian Burrell reports
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The Independent Online

After a year of fakery scandals that have left viewers duped and callers fleeced, the British television industry met in Edinburgh at the weekend for three days of recrimination, hand-wringing and alcohol-fuelled soul-searching.

Sir David Attenborough, perhaps the most trusted British broadcaster ever, was not on the list of delegates. At his home in Richmond, south-west London, he is scripting the commentary to a new series that will form the final piece in the vast jigsaw that is his televisual exploration of the natural world, a body of work that began in 1979 with the classic Life on Earth and has grown to more than 70 documentaries.

He is a programme-maker almost beyond comparison, having clocked up more than two million miles of travel, observing more species than anyone else on earth and making it possible for up to a billion people from all across the globe to see those species as well.

Yet the crisis in credibility that grips British programme making – particularly as it relates to the editing process in documentaries – brings a smile to his face because it strikes him as naïve. "I thought the television audience and those concerned with the legislation of television were a little bit more sophisticated about the methods which are part and parcel of the craft."

A decade ago, Attenborough took the trouble to publicly explain the film trickery deployed in natural history documentaries in order to convey "a good impression of the truth", using the platform of a Huw Wheldon memorial lecture and an accompanying programme Unnatural History. "Of course there are animals that you film at different times and maybe in different places and you cut them together, that's what filming is about," he says. "In the same way as if you're doing an interview you are not going to put in every word that I say, nor will you put the subjects which we discuss in the order in which we discuss them. You are going to produce a finished piece which has a shape and that's part of the skill of being a writer and it's also the skill of being a filmmaker."

Attenborough's views matter because as well as observing mammals, birds and plants, he has had an unrivalled view of the evolution of the medium of television itself, joining the BBC at a time when he and the vast majority of the British population did not own a set. He rose to become controller of BBC2 and commissioned landmark series such as Civilisation and The Ascent of Man, oversaw the introduction of colour television to Britain, and was chosen as director general, though he elected to return to programme making instead. This is a fast moving industry, he says, in which the editorial process is inextricably linked to advances in technology (such as placing cameras down worm holes), developments which also alter the expectations of the viewer.

"Television has changed beyond recognition in my time. When I joined in 1952, it was black and white, the filming produced a poor and muddy image, there was no home recording, only one network – the BBC – and it was only on for a few hours a day," he says. "Every one of the steps forward has brought not only a technological change but an editorial change, a different way of looking at things, a different attitude to the audience and a different reaction from the audience."

More eagerly sought than his views on television are Attenborough's thoughts on the threat to the natural world. He has made a fresh assessment of the impact of climate change in an hour-long programme Attenborough Explores ... Our Fragile World for the UKTV Documentary channel, to be shown next weekend. "I had been going on about global warming and they wanted something on how things were changing in the UK right now," says the naturalist, complaining that he would rather that his name had not been in the title.

Though it is true that he has spoken out publicly on climate change, it took a long time coming because, he argues, not being a climatologist, he wanted to be absolutely convinced of global warming before making his views known. He has no doubts now.

Remarkable changes are afoot in Britain, he says, with southern England apparently alive with hummingbirds, or at least the beautiful hummingbird hawkmoth, which has crossed the English Channel. "The number of sightings of that hawkmoth has increased very dramatically over the past few years and what is more there are now reports of its caterpillars being here – so it sounds as though it's resident. In other words, here is an insect that has migrated because the world has got so much warmer and is now living in Britain."

There is a knock-on effect further north. "We are losing some of the cold climate species up in Scotland. On the Cairngorms there are snow buntings that have bred there for some time but it looks as though they are not breeding any more. The Cairngorms are too warm for them."

But the part of the documentary that has "depressed me very much" is that which concerns the "catastrophic falls" in the bird populations at the very north of Scotland. "If there is one wildlife spectacle in the United Kingdom which can hold its own with anything comparable in the world it's the great seabirds of northern Scotland, the Orkneys and Shetlands; the extremely dramatic and wonderful cliffs covered in guillemots and puffins," he says. "What has happened is that the breeding records are dropping through the floor. The puffins are dependent on sand eels for feeding their chicks but the sand eel population, because of the warming water, has moved away. What the puffins have been taking to is pipefish, which are hard, spiky fish which are making the chicks choke."

What has astonished him as much as anything during his long career has been the growth in the human population. "The thing that really does make me feel very gloomy is the thought that during the time that I've been actually making natural history programmes the number of people on earth has doubled. It's an astounding and appaling thought," he says.

"We all demand space – I demand space. We are all producing greenhouse gases and we all want more space to grow our food and take our holidays and build our schools. The amount of space the natural world has left has diminished catastrophically."

What does Attenborough himself do to minimise carbon emissions? "I suspect I should be doing more, no doubt about that, [but] I do feel an obligation to do the standard things. I recycle things, make sure I don't use more things than I need to. I travel by public transport and don't run a car."

He pauses for a moment. "That's a bit of an empty boast actually because I have never run a car," he says, laughing. "Well, I can hit a termite hill with a Land Rover in the middle of an African Savannah but that's about it." With a big hearty guffaw he agrees that this is one traffic problem that London does not have.

Cars have held no more of an attraction to Attenborough, 81, than fancy restaurants or fine wines. His sartorial taste extends only to the navy shirt and khaki chinos that he wears for filming. His major extravagance is music, a vast collection of classical CDs is loaded onto his iPod, which he listens to in his tent after a day's filming.

Neither does he keep pets, for although animals have been a life-long fascination he is no sentimentalist animal lover. He has a treasured collection of amber crystals, which began with a gift from Marianne, the Jewish child refugee who came to live with the Attenborough family at their Leicestershire home in 1938. Inside that piece of mineral are a perfectly-preserved fly, a gnat, an aphid, an ant and a mite. All are 40 million years old.

That first amber stone helped stir a passion in the natural world that had the young Attenborough riding his bicycle around the countryside of Leicestershire and Rutland. The son of the principal of University College, Leicester, he won a scholarship to Clare College, Cambridge, where he graduated in Natural Sciences.

After completing his national service in the Navy he joined the BBC, at a time when television was poised to transform mass media in a way that the internet is doing now. "The people working in radio in 1955 had no idea [about television]. We used to laugh at them, those stuffed shirts and old fuddy-duddies sitting in Broadcasting House. We were up in Alexandra Palace laughing at them and at the same time taking their money because television was actually financed from the sound licence."

For most of the past half-century, having chosen not to run the BBC, he has been compiling his video legacy. When he completes his current project, a series on reptiles and amphibians called Life in Cold Blood, his oeuvre will be more or less complete. "When I've done that there will be a line of DVDs on the shelf which you could say, it's superficial and limited, but that's what the natural world looked like at the end of the 20th century. I can then say, well, there you are, that's that," he says, continually striving to play down his achievement. In the making of these films he has stroked the paws of a tame lioness, caught baby alligators in his shirt and been drenched by urinating bats while filming hawks in a Texas cave. Most famously, he had a Ugandan gorilla cavort with him, poking her finger into his mouth. "I've been fantastically privileged , it's an amazing thing to be able for 50 years to swan around the world looking at all these things ... and in a systematic way," he says. "There isn't a competitor really because no organisation would do it, other than the BBC, and I started early on at the BBC doing it before anybody else did. I'm ahead."

He claims, unfeasibly, that his career has been based on just two ideas. The first, in the Fifties, was to "go out and film zoos collecting animals", he says. "That was one I exploited for 10 years." The other was the "notion you could do a one-hour programme about a section of the natural world – I've been exploiting that since 1970-whatever-it-is."

Britain is unrivalled as a producer of natural history programme making. "This country produces the majority of the output worldwide," he says, explaining that this state of affairs is due to the existence of the BBC. The Americans, by contrast, have never really understood the attraction of shows about the environment. "For years and years the only natural history programme in America was about lassoing rhinoceroses. Big game was what the programmes were about. Doing something about insects was unthinkable," he says.

Asked to name those among his peers who he admires, he cites Simon King, his Nairobi-born BBC colleague, and Bill Oddie. "Bill has a completely different style of doing these things but he gets a huge audience and a different one. I'm not as knowledgeable an ornithologist. Bill is fantastically knowledgeable – he's one of the top guys. Birdwatchers are a particular breed, whereas I'm as interested in caterpillars, sticklebacks and dragonflies as birds."

He is astonished by the quality of people who apply for work with the BBC's Natural History unit in Bristol. "It's wildly over subscribed. For the series on birds and mammals we advertised for a research assistant, which is the bottom rung of the ladder, and we had more than 2,000 applications, of which one third had doctorates. How can you possibly choose?"

For those among the YouTube generation who wish to make a living from natural history programming, he suggests they start filming right away, in the garden or local park. "Make a film about a sparrow or a hedgehog or a grey squirrel. If at the end of six months you have something that runs for five minutes and is worth looking at you can show it to someone in television who knows that you at least have the application and the talent."

Although he does not shy away from telling shocking stories about the deterioration of the natural world, he is convinced that the way to retain the public's interest in protecting nature is by showing it at its best, enchanting rather than berating the audience. "I don't believe every programme on the natural world should be about conservation. There should be a place for programmes which say look, these are interesting animals, they are beautiful, they are extraordinary ..." he says. "Unless you have programmes that convince people that animals are interesting and valuable and worth looking at they aren't going to care, they will say: 'So what we are losing the snow buntings, I couldn't give a damn.' "

But the arguments are not getting any easier to win. "People are increasingly urbanised. More than 50 per cent of the world lives in urban conurbations. They don't have the feel for the natural world that people had 100 years ago. When we say that we are dependent on the natural world and that if we diminish it we will suffer, people think 'Oh yes, that's poetic hyperbole' – but it isn't, it's true."

So Sir David keeps at it, trying to make even the ugliest and repellent of creatures compelling viewing. "[Reptiles]were last in the queue because everybody knows the English love birds so we better do them, and everybody knows people like animals that are furry because they can pat them, so we better do mammals. There's not an audience absolutely screaming to have a series about snakes or insects but that doesn't mean you shouldn't do them. If you do them well enough you will get a very large audience for them."

He has no regrets about his decision not to climb to the top of the pole at the BBC. "I would certainly have been retired 20 years and would probably have done nothing but sitting on boards. Anyway, I thought I was a damn sight better at making programmes than arguing with politicians."

So when Life in Cold Blood is broadcast next year and the final section of the Life epic is added to his shelf of DVDs, will he really be saying "that's that"? Not quite. He might not be as adept at climbing trees and tracking through the jungle as he once was but he is in discussion with the BBC about a new project that will enable him to set out what he has learned from his 50 years of journeys of discovery. "I'm talking about another series right now," he says. "But on a different line altogether – I would like to do something that is more theoretical."

Attenborough Explores...Our Fragile World will be shown on UKTV Documentary at 8pm on Sunday 2 September. Join Sir David for a live web chat after the programme, from 9pm on