David Attenborough: “I know perfectly well that I’m not immortal”

In his frankest interview yet, the naturalist discusses Frozen Planet, his long career - and the future of Earth

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David Attenborough on… Frozen Planet

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“The stuff we cut out is awful. We’re not in the business of making fairy stories but, equally, we’re not in the business of pornographic gore.”

“If I go back and look at stuff I did 15 or 20 years ago, almost invariably I think to myself that there are too many words. As a film-maker, I would regard the ideal programme as pictures without any commentary at all… in which you can explain everything with pictures. You can’t do it, of course. But as a director and producer – which is how I’ve spent most of my life – I have never, ever had a commentary and then said, ‘I will fit pictures to it.’ So you make the pictures first and then you carpenter the words. You fashion it in to make sure the verb hits the action.”

…climate change

“This is a mouse trying to move a mountain… It has to exert every sinew to try and shift this huge boulder. So it’s no good saying, ‘Well, it would be quite nice if we shifted the boulder’ – you’ve got to use all your energies and say, ‘Look, this is really important.’”

“In one sense, it is irrelevant [whether global warming is man-made, in that, whatever the causes, we cannot ignore what is happening]. But I have no doubt that it is man-made.”

…the future of the planet

“I’m on the pessimistic side. I don’t think there’s any question that things are going to get worse. I’m not suggesting that Homo sapiens will be exterminated by its own hand within the next 100 years – but I am suggesting that the conditions for the burgeoning human population on this planet will mean that conditions for individual human beings will get worse.”

“I think it’s a supercilious, condescending, anti-social and undemocratic thing to say [recycling is well-intentioned but pointless]. I could equally say, ‘What does my vote matter?’ You have to do what you can do. You can’t say, ‘I don’t give a damn – and it doesn’t make any difference if I save this milk bottle or turn off that light.’”

…the death of his wife, Jane

“Life changes…‘easier’ is not the word. You accommodate things… you deal with things. I’m quite used to solitude in the wilds but, no, an empty house is not what I enjoy. But my daughter’s there.”

…on death

“In moments of grief – deep grief – the only consolation you can find is in the natural world. People write to me and tell me this. People of great distinction (I won’t name names) have written and said, ‘When so-and-so died, the only thing that made life tolerable was to watch programmes on plants and animals.’ And I thought, ‘That’s true for me, yes.’ Because we are part of it and part of a big, enduring thing.”

“I don’t fear death, but I fear suffering, of course, who wouldn’t? You hope when the moment comes that it won’t last long and it won’t be a trial and tribulation to those you hold dear. But I know perfectly well that I’m not immortal.”

…still working at 85

“It seems to me to be absolutely awful to be getting up in the morning and nobody wanting you to do anything. You have to have someone who goes [slaps one hand against the other vigorously and bellows], ‘WHY ISN’T BLOODY ATTENBOROUGH THERE?’ – and then you have a reason to get up at four o’clock in the morning because you know you’re wanted. But just to be filling in the time, like playing golf (which I’ve never done in my life), is not what I’m about.

“The trouble is that an awful lot of us don’t have the opportunity – either because we’re physically incapable or because society has reckoned that nobody wants people doing any more at your age, and you can’t get the job… I mean, I am blissfully blessed that people want me to do something, so why should I say no?”

“People were saying, ‘How are you going to mark your 60th year [of joining the BBC]?’ and I didn’t fancy a dinner where people get up and make speeches, which are televised, so I said, ‘We needn’t bother. Let’s go out and make programmes.’”

Frozen Planet starts tonight on BBC1 at 9pm.

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This is an edited version of an article from the issue of Radio Times magazine that went on sale 18 October.