As with many people who are approaching a landmark birthday, David Attenborough is struggling to reconcile himself to the sheer number of candles on his celebratory cake.
Although he’s marking the occasion with a birthday lunch at his Richmond home with extended family, he acknowledges that the number itself still doesn’t seem real: “I don’t believe it, actually, and all I can say is I’m aware that I’ve been fantastically lucky. I have relatives and friends who are my age who can’t remember anything, who can’t move, and the fact that I can do both of those to some degree is just unbelievably fortunate.”
In fact, his memory remains not just intact but forensically sharp, as he demonstrates while discussing his “passion projects” – four programmes he’s personally chosen from his vast back catalogue, and that are to be reshown on BBC2, this Saturday and next.
They span several decades and, he believes, all stand up to modern scrutiny. “There are things you’d do differently on modern apparatus that you didn’t have back then, but not much, actually. Nothing’s perfect, but one or two of them you think, ‘Well, yeah, that wasn’t bad.'”
When Attenborough purchased a strange wooden figurine at a New York auction in the 1990s, it was initially merely a source of private curiosity. “I’ve always enjoyed collecting things, and this was a very strange figure that the auction catalogue said was from Easter Island,” he recalls. “But the estimate led me to suppose that the auctioneers thought it was a fake. I thought it was better than that.”
His conviction sparked a personal quest that, ultimately, led him to the belief that the figurine had been handled by none other than Captain Cook in 1771. “How could you possibly prove that? Well, this programme is how we try. And along the way it took us to one of the most remote civilisations on Earth.”
Attenborough’s tribute to the explorers of yesteryear took him on a gruelling expedition into the heart of then unknown New Guinea: “As a kid I read about the great explorers like Livingstone and what they all did was walk. Up to about 1920, that’s what you did if you were an explorer. You hadn’t got aeroplanes or cars.”
Plunging into the thick rain forest was a Boy’s Own caper, although “in some ways very little happened. We were just walking for eight hours a day for three weeks,” says Attenborough. Then, on the last day, he awoke to see a pygmy standing in front of him. “He had feathers through his nose, a huge hat, a wig and blackened teeth, and he was holding a spear, just looking at me. That moment of meeting a man who hadn’t seen a European face before was unforgettable.”
Marking the bicentenary of Darwin’s birth, this film focused not on the great geolo- gist’s life but his work, to which Attenborough says we all owe a great debt: “There’s no ques- tion that his theory of evolution by natural selec- tion changed natural history from a sort of stamp collecting of different species into a coherent, logical history – one which was easily understood.
“What Darwin thought makes the world comprehensible and logical. Nature isn’t just an accumulation of oddball freaks. There’s a reason why there’s a duck-billed platypus, why hummingbirds are where they are. If you under- stand that, then the enchantment of the natural world becomes more thrilling.”
A journey of discovery to the world’s most famous fossil sites, this programme connected David Attenborough to a childhood fascination that helped spark his passion for the natural world.
“I grew up in Leicestershire and there were thrushes, foxes, badgers, dragonflies and newts, but the thing I enjoyed collecting a lot were fossils,” he says. “The notion that you can hit a rock and it falls open and you see something that hasn’t seen the light of day for 350 million years yet it’s all there… well, it’s magical.”
Their hidden secrets are also “the beginning of natural history. You don’t know perhaps what it is, but you start classifying. Are they male or female? Or are they a different species? It’s a way into all sorts of things.” Today his affection remains robust. “I still think that fossils are some of the most romantic objects you can think of. I love them.”