David Attenborough regales the Radio Times Festival with stories about Obama, the Queen and a malarial scare

The veteran naturalist, who also shared his thoughts on the BBC licence fee and the Syrian refugee crisis, received a standing ovation on the opening night of the TV, radio and literature festival at The Green at Hampton Court Palace

Sir David Attenborough kicked the inaugural Radio Times Festival off with a bang in a thrilling 90-minute gala event on Thursday night in which he shared stories about the Queen and the US President and repeated calls on politicians to combat climate change.

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During a wide-ranging interview with presenter Kirsty Young – which the 1200-strong audience whooped and cheered to a close – Attenborough amused the crowd with his tale of an encounter with the Queen when he oversaw one of her Christmas broadcasts as a BBC executive in the 1960s.

He said he was stunned to be invited by Her Majesty’s then assistant press secretary Bill Heseltine to look at the Monarch’s private clothes collection in Buckingham Palace in order to choose the appropriate outfit for the broadcast.

“I picked out something that was mushroom [coloured] and we were waiting for the Queen in the East block where her apartments were and the Queen came out of this rackety old lift and she said: ‘I hope you approve of my costume’.”

Attenborough also discussed his recent meeting with US President Barack Obama, which was filmed as a BBC1 interview to mark his 89th birthday in May this year.

He revealed that in private they discussed a favourite Hawaiian fish while walking in the Rose Garden of the White House. “We talked like experts on marine fish,” said Attenborough.

He also discussed his environmental concerns, reiterating his frequently expressed worries about the growing world population. “Since we made Zoo Quest in the 1950s the earth’s population has increased by two thirds,” he said. “We have over-run the earth”.

He said the main problem facing humanity is global warming and urged Prime Minister David Cameron to invest in green energy. “It would be wonderful to think that those things I have seen will still be there for the next generation.”

The wildlife presenter also provoked laughter with a story about one of his early forays abroad when, after returning exhausted from many months in the field, he had woken dripping with sweat next to his wife in bed.

“I thought I had a malarial infection,” he said, before explaining that he had eventually realised that his wife had bought an electric blanket while he had been away and had not told him about it.

Attenborough also discussed his childhood and growing up with two German Jewish refugee girls who his family had rescued from the Nazis during the Second World War.

Sir David said the two girls became “like sisters” and remained his close friends for the rest of their lives.

He became emotional as he described the Syrian refugee crisis as a “hideous, hideous thing”. “I know what my parents would be saying if they were alive now,” he added. “The problem is it’s on a different scale, it was a few hundred people but what do you do when there’s hundreds of thousands?”

And when he was asked what animal he would most like to communicate with he said it would be the gorilla. “I believe a gorilla could talk to me about its family problems.”

In answer to an audience member who called on him to name the moment from his long career he would like to repeat he picked his meeting with gorillas in the landmark 1979 BBC programme Life on Earth (below).

However, he said a fear of infecting the rare animals would prevent him from actually doing it again.

“I would love to repeat that gorilla series but I mustn’t because of spreading disease,” he said.

Meanwhile, Sir David blasted the Government’s proposed BBC reforms and said the “character and kind of programmes it makes are dependent on the licence fees”.

When asked about his global fame he insisted that it is the content that makes his documentaries so popular and that natural history film-making is a team effort.

“I get a lot of reflected glory, and I’m grateful for it, but I know where the credit lies.”

Sir David Attenborough was interviewed as part of the opening-night gala before becoming the first inductee to the Radio Times Hall of Fame (see main pic)


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Sir David Attenborough gets a standing ovation at the Radio Times Festival’s rousing opening night gala