Sir David Attenborough at 90 interview: 'Retire? I'll never tire of the natural world'

As BBC1 celebrates his landmark birthday, Attenborough talks about being the same age as the Queen, his status as a national treasure and how he maintains his passion for work

James Rampton
Friday 06 May 2016 10:24
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David Attenborough
David Attenborough

One of those paying tribute in Attenborough at 90, a BBC1 celebration marking the great natural history presenter’s landmark birthday, is Prince William.

The second in line to the throne reflects that, “There is something very calming and warm about his [Attenborough’s] programmes. There is something very reassuring about seeing David Attenborough on BBC1 doing his documentaries. It is part of the national psyche now.

“He’s a national treasure, and it is very fitting that he is having his 90th birthday only a few weeks after the Queen. They are two incredible national treasures who have done so much over the years.”

The (male, non-regal) national treasure is sitting across the table from me in a smart hotel room in Richmond overlooking the Thames. So I ask him how he feels about the title with which he is habitually labelled.

“What does ‘national treasure’ mean?” he replies, with a twinkle in his eye. “Nothing, except that people are favourably disposed towards you. You’re not being elected. You haven’t got the power to become prime minister. The problem is that you are credited with more wisdom and apprehension than is the case – which is quite easy actually. People think you know everything, but of course you don’t!

"It’s a TV image and a very one-dimensional image at that. You certainly don’t get more money for being a national treasure! There is no national treasure premium.” A pause, before he bursts into infectious laughter. “It’s a national scandal!”

They say you should never meet your heroes, but I’m delighted to have met this one. In person, Attenborough is exactly the way you’d hope he would be: charismatic, compelling and charming.

Eruptions of jollity such as the one above punctuate our hour together. At one point, he reflects on the fact that both he and the Queen are 90 this year. “Have we exchanged notes about geriatric moments? No.”

Attenborough, who is dressed in a blue jacket over a white shirt and grey trousers, goes on to reveal what he will be doing to celebrate his birthday on Sunday. “I will,” he deadpans, “be hiding under the bed.” And when the subject of his famous voice crops up later in the conversation, he jokes: “Would you like a bit of Schubert?”

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In a similar vein, Attenborough is humorously aghast about the idea of becoming a space explorer like Tim Peake. When he is asked if he would ever like to go into space, he yawns in a comically melodramatic way. “Why anyone would wish to go to the moon or beyond, I don’t know. I say, ‘Bring your specimens back to earth, and I’ll be absolutely riveted by them.’

"If you land on the moon and you’re really going to see some amazing new flowers or a strange little worm, it might be worth it. But it’s just dust, you have to go through appalling training, it takes six months to get there and then you can’t come back for a cup of tea. It’s a major slab of your life. I hope astronauts won’t take offence at being called techno freaks, but that’s what they are. They love gadgets. Whereas I can barely work a mobile phone, so I’d be hopeless in space!”

Attenborough is rare in the world of television in that he actually seems interested in what other people are saying. He leans forward and listens, intently yet politely, to your thoughts. He is as much a receiver as a transmitter, and that is what makes him such a superb communicator.

As Attenborough reaches this great age, he is clearly still fired up by the same tremendous curiosity that has powered his career for the last seven decades. He possesses a contagious lust for life that shames people 40 years younger.

Attenborough is reckoned to have travelled further than any other human being apart from astronauts, and yet his trademark passion shows no sign of waning. What is most appealing is that even after such a stellar career, he does not take anything for granted. He continues to be commendably modest and grateful for all the opportunities he is offered.

Attenborough, who in 2006 was voted the Greatest Living British Icon by viewers of BBC2's The Culture Show, observes that, “I can think of an awful lot of my own contemporaries who got into jobs where after 10 or 20 years, they were thinking, ‘I’ve had enough of this’. But they’re stuck with it because it’s what their career is and they have a pension. They’re counting the years off till they get to 65, and then they do nothing but play golf.”

By contrast, he continues, “I’m fantastically lucky. I think, ‘Oh, I’ll go to the Amazon next year – why not?’ I’m more grateful than I can say that people still want me to do things.”

Some 62 years after presenting his first natural history programme, Zoo Quest, Attenborough’s documentaries continue to inspire successive generations. His fans include Prince William (see above), President Obama, who last year invited the presenter to the White House to interview Attenborough about the future of the planet and Australian rugby star David Pocock, who used to unwind between matches at last year’s World Cup by watching Attenborough documentaries.

That is because he has never lost his magnetic sense of wonder about the natural world. “Experience has taught me how amazingly big and unpredictable the natural world is. When you’re young, you think you know it all about the natural world – ‘Yawn, yawn, everyone knows about that’.

“But in fact we only know a tiny proportion about the complexity of the natural world. Wherever you look, there are still things we don’t know about and don’t understand, as recent discoveries about, say, the behaviours of pufferfish and peacock spiders prove. There are always new things to find out if you go looking for them. They will last me out!”

The presenter responsible for nine seasons of the landmark Life series still believes in the power of television to educate, inform and entertain. “Our job as natural history filmmakers is to show that the natural world is unbelievably amazing. The world is unimaginably varied – quite beyond our comprehension.

“But the paradox is that according to the UN over half of the human race is now urbanised. We’re out of touch with nature in a way that my great great grandfather, who was working in the fields, never was. And yet now the population know more about animals and how varied they are and why they do what they do than my great great grandfather ever did. That is something natural history TV programmes can claim credit for. If you can show the natural world on television, people will be fascinated by it.”

He adds that, “These programmes have changed people’s minds. There is now a bigger sympathy for the natural world among city-dwellers than there ever was. Our comprehension of the animal kingdom has changed beyond recognition. Now taxi drivers talk to you about biological concepts. ‘What’s all this about altruism, David? Don’t you think that it will affect evolution?’”

Attenborough is also very engaged with environmental issues, making an impassioned and influential speech at the UN conference on climate change in Paris last year. “It’s never been more important. We are completely dependent on the natural world and yet we are wrecking it and endangering ourselves. If we are going to care for it, people have to change their behaviour, and to do that they have to know about what goes on in the natural world. That’s one of the things TV can do.

“I certainly embrace conservation causes. You have to be very, very dogmatic and have a closed mind not to see the overwhelming evidence about climate change. It would be amazing if we hadn’t had an effect on the climate. The time comes when you have to look at the evidence and make a stand.”

Attenborough has long since passed the age when most of us would be reaching for the pipe and slippers. However, as he prepares to make more documentaries, including Planet Earth 2, BBC1’s eagerly anticipated follow-up to the hit 2006 series, he shudders at the very word ‘retirement’.

“You never tire of the natural world. Putting your feet up is all very well.” Casting me one last smile, Attenborough concludes: “but it’s very boring, isn’t it?”

Attenborough at 90 is on BBC1 at 7pm on Sunday. The DVD will be released on 30 May. Further David Attenborough documentaries are available at BBC Store on https://store.bbc.com/collections/david-attenborough.

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