David Attenborough on acting: “I’m Richard’s younger brother. I was given the butler part”

Attenborough is celebrating the robin this Christmas, as well as doing his first bit of acting to bring extinct animals back to life... with a little help from technology

You could be forgiven for thinking that Davied Attenborough is burning the candle at both ends this Christmas. You can hear the 87-year-old naturalist at dawn – then watch as he locks himself in London’s Natural History Museum all night.


On Christmas Day, early risers will catch them singing the praises of the robin on Tweet of the Day. Our affection for the red-breasted emblem of Christmas dates, he says, from “the very beginning of the colonisation of the British Isles by the human race. The robin almost certainly evolved a relationship with animals such as wild pigs, which grub around in the earth looking for tubers. Robins would have followed in their wake, picking up beetles and worms. And the likelihood is – though nobody can prove it – that when human beings started cutting down forests and planting fields, the robin moved over from the pigs and took up mankind as a companion.

“That’s why, if you’re digging in the garden, a robin will often pop up – and it will appear to be very brave, because it’ll pick up worms and beetle grubs from around your feet. And that’s very endearing, isn’t it?”

The biggest problem that robins face is the cold winter weather, when frozen ground makes food hard to come by. That and cats. “Oh yes,” says Attenborough. “Cats kill an extraordinarily high number of birds in British gardens.”

So the gift that all cat owners should buy this Christmas is a bell collar for their pets? “That would be good for the robins, yes.” But despite the attentions of the nation’s pampered predators the robin is a survivor, unlike those animals featured in his new Sky documentary.

The schedule for the New Year’s Day back- from-the-dead show saw him filming from dusk till dawn at the Natural History Museum. The special-effects spectacular has him lying in wait for some wild animals he’s never before encountered. For good reason: they’re extinct.

These animals, though they move and roar and tweet, are exhumed by computer technology and re-imagined in 3D. Which means that when he was filmed apparently feeding a dodo its dinner, he was, in fact, chucking a satsuma into thin air. And, for the first time in his life, acting.

“I haven’t done any acting before,” he says. Not even at school? “Well, yes… but I’m Richard Attenborough’s younger brother. So I was given the butler part – I’d open the door and take his hat while he said something interesting.”

But does extinction matter? If the Siberian tiger disappeared, would it make any difference to us or the planet? “It’s a mistake that conservationists have made [to focus on species such as this]. But it’s a useful mistake. It made sense to concentrate on the disappearance of species that we care about, the charismatic species, in order to make people aware of what mankind is doing.

“It’s very easy to say, ‘The giant panda’s disappearing.’ What you should be saying is that the ecosystem of which the giant panda is only a part is disappearing. Because the world wouldn’t change hugely if we lost the panda. But if we see the disappearance of the bamboo forests on which the panda depends, that will disrupt the whole natural pattern of things.”

A parting shot, then: scientists say that the cloning of extinct species, such as the woolly mammoth, is “within our grasp”. Does he agree?

“I think it could conceivably happen, but to what end? It’d be a nice intellectual triumph for the scientists, but where’s the poor thing going to live? Where’s it going to find a mate? What’s it going to do? We’ve got quite enough problems saving the species we’ve got without bringing old ones back.” 

Hear Tweet of the Day Christmas Day, 5:58am on Radio 4 and see David Attenborough’s Natural History Museum Alive, New Year’s Day 6:30pm Sky 1, Sky 3D