David Attenborough on his career, the future of television – and his beloved brother Richard

“The thing that I’m sorry about is that actually Dick was a marvellous comic actor. He was very, very funny, and could be – and was – in domestic circumstances"

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Why watch tiny goslings, little more than balls of fluff and not yet able to fly, throw themselves off a granite cliff to be dashed to pieces on rocks hundreds of feet below? It’s tough going even for hardened armchair naturalists. But the nation will tune in to the BBC’s latest six-part wildlife spectacular, Life Story, because the most famous voice on British television is there to reassure us that this, dear viewer, is not the equivalent of throwing a puppy off Beachy Head, it is simply Nature’s way. Thank heavens for David Attenborough.

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It’s a remarkable feat of survival – and not just for the baby barnacle geese that manage to live to fly another day. Because the odds of those goslings dropping 400 feet to safety are considerably better than lasting more than 60 years at the top of British broadcasting. How, you wonder, has Attenborough done it?

“Well, certainly not by jumping out of the top- floor window!” the 88-year-old says wryly, resplendent in an all-white ensemble of crisply ironed shirt and trousers, looking frankly beatific in the light-filled library of his south London home. “What’s been my survival strategy? I enjoy making natural history films because I have to do something. I’m not good at sitting and watching. The main thing is to be alongside the animals.”

He has been doing something in television ever since he was recruited as a BBC trainee in the early 1950s. A Cambridge graduate, fresh from National Service, he was bored with a desk job in publishing when he saw an advertisement in The Times. Would he get such a job now?

“No. If my job was advertised how many applications would they get? Thousands? Even if it was hundreds, there is no conceivable way… But when I joined, nobody else wanted to go! I was asked, ‘Would you care to come along and train for television?’ I mean… that’s cloud cuckoo land. My heart bleeds for kids who are my age then – 26 – who desperately want to make natural history programmes. Why wouldn’t you? It’s a lovely thing!

“Actually, making natural history programmes is not all that difficult. Making superlative ones is pretty difficult, but making OK, viewable, enjoyable programmes is not all that difficult because the animals are so interesting. You’ve only got to get close-ups and you’re away! So a lot of people could make television programmes but there’s only one vacancy. I got a job having seen only one programme – in a friend’s house.”

Looking around his minimalist library (he converted it from the pub next door), with its stark white walls and steel and glass skylights and row after row of books, there are artefacts from his travels and a grand piano. It’s a recent addition to the Victorian villa that has been the Attenborough family home for almost as long as he has been at the BBC. It once housed a menagerie, but not any more.

“When the children were small – I mean, they’re in their 60s now [he has one son, Robert, and a daughter, Susan, who lives with him; his wife Jane died in 1997] – we had all sorts of things that would be considered lethal now – gibbons, a chimpanzee. At one point I had snakes, hanging parakeets, hummingbirds, grass snakes, chameleons… lots of stuff. Stick insects, lungfish… the front of the house was full of tanks. I had a breeding colony of bush babies, a female bush baby, a little baby and a mother. I brought a pair back from one trip in Africa, and we were able to get them to breed, and I think we had several dozen babies, and we would give them to the Zoo.”

These days the animals have long gone. But so, it appears, has his television – at least from this, his favourite room. Where’s his TV? “Not here.” Does he have one? “I have several – including one for 3D.” It’s hard to imagine him routinely wearing the glasses, but the man who brought us colour television is still a TV pioneer. “I’m going off to the Barrier Reef to do a 3D film for the BBC. It’s the first 3D film I’ve made for them because the BBC hasn’t really gone into 3D – indeed they said they weren’t going to – but there’s been a change.”

What does he think of television today? “The sad thing is that you’d think that the more stations there are, the more varied the output, but the practice is the reverse – the more you get, the more similar they become. And you get genres that become the flavour of the month. I mean, I don’t watch any cookery programmes, whether they are competitive, whether it’s the Great Bake Off, or… I don’t watch quizzes either. I mean, they’re perfectly OK – I’m not being snobbish about them – but I’ve quite a lot to do and I don’t put on the television as a sort of ‘filler’. I’ve got quite enough to fill my life, and so I only put on programmes that I actually, positively, want to see.”

What does he watch? “I suppose it’s like my reading. I tend to read non-fiction, whether that’s archaeology or whatever. And it’s the same with television. I don’t watch serials. I’m sure they’re perfectly enjoyable, and I’ve got nothing against them, but I just don’t do it.”

Which hardly sounds like a man bewitched by the pleasures of shiny-floor entertainment on Saturday nights. Is there enough serious stuff on television? “Well, there are a great number of subjects that aren’t covered. I mean, music is not covered in any other way than a performance, really. There’s no serious programme about natural history on a regular basis. I’m a great one for regular programmes that I can make dates with. I like scientific programmes; Horizon is a great series. I wish it was a regular series so that I could say, “Yes – first Thursday of the month… I always watch Horizon.”

I tell him he needs to read Radio Times, but he assures me he has “always read Radio Times”. His problem isn’t only the scheduling, but the length of a series.

Life on Earth [which he presented] was 13 one-hour parts, weekly. Civilisation [which he commissioned when he was controller of BBC2] was the same. Now, people talk about a ‘two- part series’. I mean, for God’s sake! You know? And even in a 13-part series… you couldn’t deal with something properly. But you are paying respect to the viewers’ interest. If you’re going to stick with us, stick with us for three months, and at the end of it you’ll have learnt something. There was The Great War on BBC2 – that was a 26-part series. Come to that, The Forsyte Saga was a 26-part series too.

“These days it’s a three-parter if you’re lucky, or it’s a two-part series. I would like a stronger commitment and a belief in your subject.” 

Tony Hall, the director-general of the BBC, would very much like a commitment to arts coverage and a new, updated version of Civilisation. He announced as much in March, saying that the Corporation would bring back the programme that Attenborough originally commissioned, and which was first shown in 1969. Is he looking forward to seeing it?

“Yes, but it’s a hell of a job. The mood of the audience – or maybe it’s the controllers – is against the expert. The general view is that viewers don’t like people coming along and saying they know more about it than you do, so it’s unfashionable. People criticised Kenneth Clark’s mandarin vocabulary in Civilisation – and it was – but it was wonderful to listen to! There are people who know more about it than you do, and I like that. I enjoy being told.”

So who would make a good presenter? Does it need an expert? “Oh, yes, certainly. Somebody of whom you could say, ‘Well, he’s spent his life studying something, so he’d be able to tell me.” 

Such as? “I don’t know. I don’t know.” Who does he enjoy watching? “There was an MP, I can’t think what party he belongs to, but he represents the Borders, Rory something [Rory Stewart, Tory MP for Penrith and the Border]. He did a programme about Hadrian’s Wall [Border Country, shown in March on BBC2]. He really had something to say. Real thought, real insight, real concerns. It isn’t because someone has said, ‘Here’s a contract, will you do a programme about the Anglo-Saxons?’ and he’s said, ‘Well, I can read that in ten minutes.’ He knew the subject because it was in his blood and because he was fascinated by it. That’s the sort of person you want to watch.”

So it will be a tough act to follow? “Yes, and how to do it? Maybe have six different people to present. The thrust of history is very difficult to convey. But Kenneth Clark did it jolly well.”

But if Civilisation gave us the history of western art as seen by Kenneth Clark, it also, in a roundabout way, gave us the history of life as seen by David Attenborough. “Civilisation was so successful that the science department was livid! They said, ‘You’re supposed to be a bloody scientist! What are you doing with all this chat about Botticelli?’ I said, ‘Right, OK.’ Any fool could see that, if you’re going to have a 13-part series, the best, the most exciting, the most thrilling, the most vivid, the most pictorial something you could have would be the story of evolution. And that’s what Life on Earth was.” 

By the time Life on Earth aired in 1979, Attenborough had long left his post as controller of BBC2 to become a freelance film-maker. Could he have had such a career today? “It’s very difficult for you to hop from one ladder to a different ladder in television now. Once you’re an administrator, you’re an administrator, and if you’re a director, you’re a director.” Could he have made the same programmes? “The trouble is, the BBC falls over backwards with all kinds of committees and surveys to make sure that [the commissioning process] is as fair as it can possibly be, but the consequence is it moves at an elephantine pace.” Unlike his early days, when his breakthough programme, the 1950s series Zoo Quest, was seemingly commissioned in a trice. He pitched an idea – of an overseas expedition with the curator of reptiles from London Zoo – and the entire caper was agreed on the spot.

“The BBC said, ‘Oh, yes, that would be all right. How long are you going to be away?’ I remember the conversation! ‘Oh, we’ll be there for a couple of months, and then when I come back I’m going to need time… so if I went, it would be five months.’ ‘Oh, that’s perfect,’ they said. ‘What sort of money?’ And I said, ‘I know, I can tell you. I’ll need £500 for fares and there will be £500 approximately for 16mm film stock. That’s £1,000. If you give me £500 for living expenses, that’s £1,500, and you’ll get six programmes…’

“They said, ‘Well, that’s fine. When will you be back?’ I said, ‘November.’ They said, ‘That’s fine. Programmes?’ ‘Pfft. Somewhere about March?’ And off we went! Health and safety? A joke! We pushed off and disappeared for six weeks, two months. Nobody knew where we were, no mobile phones, nothing.” 

If getting commissioned was a back-of-an-envelope affair, then commissioning programmes sounds equally haphazard. When he took over as controller of BBC2 in 1965 he didn’t have to worry about an audience beyond London – because if you lived outside the capital the chances were you couldn’t receive the signal. It meant he made his mistakes out of sight. “It was easy enough for me to say, ‘Yes, I’m only going to do something that is new and unique,’ but it’s difficult to do that now. At the same time I can’t tell whether a programme is on BBC1 or BBC2 just by watching it.”

What does he make of his old channel? “I’m not sure how they would define its policy. I would be seriously interested to know, in a paragraph, not necessarily a sentence, what guides them, what guides the editorial decisions on BBC2, because it isn’t overly plain to me.

“I guess that BBC4 has taken on perhaps the invention and experimental side of BBC2, but it wouldn’t harm them to say so. You know, if they said, ‘That’s what we’re going to do.’ But they don’t actually say it.” 

Perhaps they’re still working it out? “It’s been going on for some time.” It’s a tinder-dry aside that betrays a certain irritation. Despite his benevolent air, and rumblingly reassuring voice, he has a reputation for not suffering fools – or foolish interviewers – gladly.

Hesistantly I turn the conversation to his brother Richard, the actor and director who died in August at the age of 90. Was there any inkling growing up that they would both be heading for careers in front of – and behind – the camera? “No, not at all. I would be going out looking for magpies or newts or something, and Dick would be working at the local amateur theatre, which was extremely good, in Leicester. Dick was there all the time. Every night, every weekend, while I was out collecting fossils. We couldn’t have been more different.”

But a successful big brother must have added an edge to his ambition? “Oh, no – I didn’t feel that at all. I remember going to see him on set in 1941 when I was 15. It was the first film he made with Noël Coward, In Which We Serve, and that was just astounding! I was just amazed at the way people were carrying on, doing 23 takes! How could he possibly manage to come out and go, ‘Oh, my GOD!’ 23 times? And make it better!”

Did he ever seek his advice? “I remember what he said about commentary delivery, yes.” So he taught you? “No, he didn’t, really, to be honest. I think we were both aware that we were in different disciplines. I always used to go to his premieres, and he always watched my shows, and we always talked to one another about what we did and what the problems were.” 

Because you were both in the business of performing? “Yes. Mine’s a very limited performance because although it is a performance, as you are perfectly correct in saying, nevertheless it is a distillation of some particular part that’s in me, that is part of me. My brother played John Christie, the murderer [in 10 Rillington Place); it was no part of him. The interesting thing is why he ever did anything like that. It’s because he was very interested in the human psyche and what made people tick. But it’s not the same as being a commenter on the natural world.

“I think probably the most imaginative film he made as a director was Oh! What a Lovely War. Shadowlands was a very powerful film but Oh! What a Lovely War was out there on its own – no cinema film that I know of had anything like the bravura and the energy and the invention as he put into that. I didn’t go to see 10 Rillington Place, because I couldn’t bear to watch my dear brother imitating a sexual murderer. I just didn’t want to see it; I’m too fond of my brother.”

The present tense hangs in the air. “The thing that I’m sorry about is that actually Dick was a marvellous comic actor. He was very, very funny, and could be – and was – in domestic circumstances. We just spent all our time roaring with laughter – and that didn’t get much of an outlet in his feature films. I mean, Christmas time, you know, we just sat around, roaring with laughter.”

He smiles. But enough of the past. He is due to fly to Australia in four weeks’ time, although just months after a knee replacement operation he won’t be submerging with scuba tank and fins himself. How long can he go on?

“I’m having fun! The time will come when something is bound to go to pot. Actually, I have got a pair of new knees! I’m a lucky rascal. I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror and think, ‘Who is this old Rumpelstiltskin, hobbling in? Oh, my God – it’s me!’” 

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David Attenborough’s new series Life Story is on BBC1 tonight (23 October) at 9.00pm