During my conversation with Sir David Attenborough, he tells me many fascinating things about wildlife, in that hushed, earnest tone that viewers of all ages would recognise instantly. But the most entertaining story concerns an ancient fossil, rather than a living animal, is told with an unfamiliar degree of joviality and features a more than passable Australian accent…
“There’s a very, very rare early fish, 300 million years old, which comes from the middle of Australia, but we weren’t allowed to go there – we found it hard to get permission,” begins Attenborough. “They said ‘You don’t want to go there, there’s nothing there. We know you bastards – you bloody Poms – you come here and steal all our best fossils. Well it’s not like that anymore old boy. We’ve been there and we’ve sorted it out and all the fossils that are any good have gone.’”
He chuckles. “And I replied ‘Well, it’s just, I wanted to go there in order to explain what the landscape was.’ And so very reluctantly he said ‘Ok mate, but I’m gonna come with you and keep an eye on you.’ So we went. And as we got out of the helicopter, I put my boot down on a boulder and there was this fantastic fossil, and I picked it up and said to my Australian monitor ‘Gosh, look at this.’ And he turned to me and he said ‘Youuuu bastard!’”
Given Attenborough’s 60-plus years telling tales of countless animals, plants and insects – and through them, the wider story of how they came to be – it should come as no surprise that he can spin a good yarn. One way or another, it’s what he’s always done.
“I don’t talk about evolution because I think people ought to know about it or because it’s educational but just because it’s absolutely fascinating,” he says. “It’s a dramatic thread. If you’re making a programme, just the same as if you’re writing an article, you need to have a structure to the thing, and evolution provides you with a structure to understand why any particular animal is the way it is.”
Sometimes understanding can be hard. In Uganda in 1990 Attenborough filmed now famous footage of chimpanzees hunting and killing a colobus monkey. As disturbing as it is, what’s perhaps even more affecting is Attenborough’s reaction. The man who has guided us reassuringly through the wonderful and frightening world of the wild – who, more than anyone, must understand nature, red in tooth and claw – is visibly shocked by what he’s witnessing.
“It’s shocking because they’re so like us,” says Attenborough. “It depends what sort of words you want to use – but it’s murder, isn’t it? Murder is a loaded term, and murder you wouldn’t associate with a non-human animal, but chimpanzees are so nearly human that it’s very easy to use those kinds of humanoid words.”
It’s clear, as he continues, that he’s reliving that moment once again. “One of the blood-curdling things about it was that it wasn’t just a hunter killing this particular monkey, it was the whole troupe which was possessed with a blood lust – baying for blood. The excitement amongst the females and the young ones was absolutely palpable. They were frenzied with blood lust.
“When you see lions killing a wildebeest, you don’t feel that kind of horror because they’re just going to the butcher’s in the morning.”
Clearly, spending 60 years studying the many ways in which life struggles to survive, means also witnessing a great deal of death. Has he himself ever been in mortal fear of any of his subjects, I ask. I’m thinking about those lions, or perhaps something lightning fast and deadly poisonous, but Attenborough has a more sympathetic creature in mind.
“Being charged by an elephant increases the heartbeat a bit,” he admits. “It can kill you if it’s got a mind to – unless you’ve got a very fast landrover. So that raises your blood pressure, I don’t mind telling you.”
Thankfully, Attenborough’s experiences are more often astonishing than petrifying. One recent behind-the-scenes moment that features in 60 Years in the Wild – BBC2’s absorbing retrospective of his career – shows him filming geese in flight. Now fully grown, they have been imprinted as chicks on a human mother, which means they follow her wherever she goes. In this footage, their “mother” is travelling across a lake in a motorboat with Attenborough and the geese are keeping pace with them, just a couple of feet from the boat. The look on Attenborough’s face is one of pure, boyish, amazement. After all this time, with everything he’s seen and done, he still manages to retain that sense of wonder. Attenborough doesn’t think that makes him in any way special.
“But it is astonishing,” he enthuses. “I think that most kids start off being astonished by the natural world and if you’re lucky enough you can keep in touch with it – if you’re fantastically lucky you can make it your living.
“If I had been told ‘you have to go and build houses,’ as a career I would have had to have done that and I wouldn’t have got to see a bird of paradise displaying. It isn’t as if people who build houses haven’t got sensitive souls, and wouldn’t appreciate birds of paradise – of course they would – they’ve just never had the chance.”
Of course, back when Attenborough started (he saw those birds of paradise while filming his first series, Zoo Quest, in 1954) even he didn’t get to see a lot of what he now routinely brings to our TV screens. The ability to film birds on the wing, for instance, is due in part to a better understanding of their behaviour, but also to advances in technology. In fact, in 60 Years in the Wild, Attenborough devotes an entire programme to how such advances have changed wildife filming. So what’s left for technology to conquer?
“I can’t think of a lot of places there are left for us to go,” admits Attenborough. “We can now go everywhere, take pictures everywhere, they are in the highest possible quality of reproduction – higher than there’s ever been in printing or photography – we can film in colour, we can film in black-and-white, we can speed up time, we can slow down time, we can break the bounds of dimension and go macro or go into infinity – we can do any damn thing…”
“But, of course, all those things are subsidiary to telling a good story. They are as nothing if the story’s boring. We’ll never dry up for stories; the stories are always out there – lots and lots and lots of them – and they always will be.” Which begs the question, for how much longer can Attenborough, now closer to 90 than 80, continue to brings us those stories?
The R-word has been bandied about before (if not necessarily by Attenborough himself) – for instance, when, at the age of 82, he finished Life in Cold Blood, the final instalment in his “Life’s work” – but it never seems to take.
“I’ve never been one for the long-distance objective, I’ve never said ‘I’m going to go on doing this because in another ten years time I’ll be there and I’ll be doing that’,” says Attenborough. “There have always been so many exciting things that are just in the immediate future, so I’ve never planned more than about three years ahead – and three years ahead is what it takes to make a major series – so I know what I’m going to be doing for the next 18 months: I’m going to China to film some fossils, I’m filming insects in 3D, I’m doing a whole group of things.”
He pauses. “How old am I now? I’m, 86… I don’t think I’ll be doing a whole lot of things when I’m 96 – but I’m certainly hoping I’ll have something to do when I’m 87.”
David Attenborough’s Galapogos is on Sky1 and Sky 3D tonight at 7pm
Attenborough: 60 Years in the Wild is available to buy from BBCShop.com on DVD priced £13.99 and on Blue-ray priced £17.49