David Attenborough on the call of the wild

Wildlife Special: Sir David Attenborough is one of the most well-travelled people on Earth, but the natural world still has the power to inspire him
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The Independent Travel

For the armchair traveller, there's something immensely reassuring about a new wildlife series from Sir David Attenborough.

There he'll be, marvelling at some weird strain of local wildlife while loitering on a bleak-yet-fascinating promontory, or sweating profusely in the Tropics, or huddled in a parka some way north of the Arctic Circle. As viewers, we know that despite all the manifest distractions – bizarrely inclement weather, over-friendly gorillas, pungent penguins – he'll never fail to deliver the perfect summary of just why he's travelled thousands of miles to be right here, right now, looking at just this animal, in just this place.

For more than five decades he's visited the parts of the world that other broadcasters don't reach, the personification of Lord Reith's mission statement for the BBC: to inform, educate and entertain. Attenborough is there because we can't be there; the distinctive cadences of his on-screen delivery are as much part of our televised introduction to a new, exotic landscape as the vista he's actually standing in front of.

On the face of it, David Attenborough's First Life – the most recent instalment of the "Life" series that began with Life on Earth in 1979 – could have marked a change to all that, as the focus moved from the wildlife that currently inhabits the Earth to computer-generated images (CGIs) of animals that now exist only as fossils. Surely, with "chapter one" of the story of evolution there would be no need for Attenborough to be there in person – a computer-generated trilobite is a computer-generated trilobite, after all. Perhaps, at 84, he'd seize the chance to put his feet up.

Happily, all the familiar ingredients remained. Attenborough clocked up 40,000 miles on the two-part series, filming in the Canadian Rockies, Morocco and Australia – not to mention the fossil beds of Leicestershire, where he grew up. "It's part of the fun," he says. "Not just for me, but for the viewer."

We meet at BBC Television Centre in west London. For the man who founded a "Travel and Exploration Unit" for the Beeb back in the 1950s, and who later went on to become Controller of BBC2, it's a place, presumably, in which he feels comfortable. Certainly he's quick to reminisce about his days commuting to Wood Lane from his house in Richmond (he gave up cycling, apparently, because he wore out too many suits). But whether as a commuter or world explorer, travel has long been a vital part of his profession.

"When we did Life on Earth – which was 30 years or so ago – you couldn't have made this programme, because the facts weren't there. And you also couldn't have done it in a media sense; it depends very much on having very convincing CGIs," he says. "But if you don't show the places where these things come from, and what it looks like when you split open a rock and see it, then it becomes a kind of balloon of thought which isn't rooted in the real. And it is rooted in the real."

Does he, I wonder, have the same sense of excitement about travelling the world as he did when he was making the Zoo Quest films 50 years ago? "It's just different. It would be dishonest to say it's the same. You know, I can't remember what it was like at 19 going to France for the first time. I go to France now and I don't feel as I did when I was 19 – but I still have a good time."

Attenborough confesses to not having been on a proper holiday – time away, without a script to deliver or a TV camera to distract him – since his children left home.

"It's sort of a cliché, isn't it? 'Life is one long holiday.' But it is: I've just come back from [filming in] Madagascar for three weeks: an absolutely wonderful place, seeing extraordinary things. So what more would I want to do? When I come home I say, 'At last I can deal with the mail, I can read that book, I can watch that television programme I missed out on.'"

Holiday or not, being known as one of the most well-travelled people on Earth clearly doesn't faze Attenborough. He simply puts it down to having the resources of the BBC behind him: "It doesn't mean anything. You can go anywhere in the world in 48 hours if you have enough money... I am just interested in other places. The tropics are romantic, deserts are interesting and explorers are exciting people, and then there are people who live in a different way from you – it's fun."

Back in 1962, Attenborough briefly left full-time employment at the BBC to study for an anthropology degree at the London School of Economics. Does he find the people he meets as interesting as the animals? "Yes and no. Because human society is so complex that you can't hope to understand it in the way that you understand a blue tit. You can look at lemurs and you can summarise what their lives are like. But you couldn't possibly do that by going to Madagascar and looking at the tribal people."

Attenborough claims he is a broadcaster first and a naturalist second, but the boundaries between the two don't appear to be all that important. "I truly don't see a distinction between education and entertainment. The thing about evolution is that it provides you with a narrative, which is the basis for every great programme."

Because First Life moves away from today's animals and towards scientific interpretation of the fossil record, the producers have given more screen time to other experts: people who Attenborough always seems fascinated to meet.

"No programme I have done – least of all the most recent one – hasn't depended on what scientists are saying. You might think that they would say, 'Look, I've spent 30 years trying to work this out, I've got up every morning before dawn, I've got my notebook and I've watched for 30 years, and I have at last finally distilled a little truth there and you think you can just come from the telly... Push off!' But they never do. If they believe that you will be honest and that people will pay attention to what you say, they are delighted."

In Attenborough's experience, programmes such as First Life move the debate onwards: "I got in a cab the other day and the driver said, 'Oh, I know you, you're on the telly, aren't you?' 'Oh yes,' I said. 'What's all this about altruism?' he said. 'I mean that's a problem, isn't it, for Darwin?' So that conversation took us at least some distance from Hammersmith."

The world in which Attenborough takes taxis, or crosses continents, has changed fundamentally since he began his journeys for the BBC. Even when Life on Earth was first broadcast, many of the places he visited would still have been beyond the reach of most British viewers. Flights were simply too expensive; tourism to remoter regions of the world too complicated. Now, as air travel has become more affordable, each year there are thousands of exotic wildlife holidays taken by travellers presumably inspired – at least in part – by where he has been, and what he has seen.

According to Attenborough, "It's a good thing, in that were it not for tourists there would be no mountain gorillas in Rwanda, and were it not for tourists there wouldn't be any wildlife in the Galápagos either. Of course it has its disasters, of course it has downsides, of course you must control it – but the West can't say to people in poor countries, 'You've got to do this, you've got to do that,' unless they put their money where their mouth is. And the way you do that is through tourism."

Ask Attenborough where he would go to see wildlife and he plumps first for Borneo, then Amazonia. ("The place where life proliferates, where there are more species than anywhere else, is in the tropical rainforest.") But eventually he chooses a coral reef: "You see more things and more beautiful things – a greater variety with more complexity. And you yourself are changed from being rooted to the ground by gravity to having no gravity. With a flip of your flipper you go up, then you see something else and go down again. These things have no fear of you and they are all breathtakingly beautiful."

Much like anyone else, he says the process of travelling can occasionally grate – "I don't enjoy going to airports much" – but Attenborough claims not to suffer too badly from jetlag: "The important thing is not to spend all the time while you're out there saying, "Oh, at home it's 3 o'clock in the morning!' That's a killer." His on-location requirements are simple: "a folding chair if I want to sit down and a never-ending supply of fruit-and-nut chocolate".

And does he ever plan to stop? "I suppose the time will come," he says. "But at the moment I'm having too much fun."

David Attenborough's First Life is available from BBC DVD (£19.99) from Monday

Attenborough on New Guinea

"There isn't a range of mammals in New Guinea, because it's too recent: as Australia moved north it rucked up the land and produced the island. Birds can get there, of course; it's a great place for birds.

"Birds of paradise I am dotty about – I love them. But the tribal aspect of New Guinea makes life very difficult right now. It can actually be very dangerous. The last time I went I had lists of what I wanted to film, and one of them was a blue bird of paradise. It was one of 12 that I was going to do. I did all the other 11. For the 12th we knew where there was a display ground, we had the scouts out, and we arrived.

"But then they said, 'I'm sorry, you can't go. Last night there was a ritual murder in a village and so tonight the men will be out. If you go and sit by yourself in a predictable place, by this blue bird of paradise, you'll be chopped.' So my film about the birds of paradise, which I thought was going to complete, missed one out."