David Attenborough on profound gorillas, family life and what he’d like his legacy to be

As the broadcaster turns 90, he talks to Kirsty Young about his life and career


David, for so many people who watched it, your meeting with gorillas in Life on Earth was a moment of television we won’t forget – but I wonder did that experience feel profound to you?


Yes, it was utterly unexpected. I simply didn’t think it could possibly happen. And actually, it shouldn’t have happened, because human beings shouldn’t get in touch with those gorillas because of problems of disease. Of course, I did feel that about looking at [a gorilla] – there is more truth when you look at a gorilla.

Tell me about that. What is the truth?

Well, the truth is, if you look into the eyes of a lion, they are cold… there’s no way in which you understand really the life of a lion. Also they see the world in a different way because they have binocular vision and their eyes are on the side of their heads, but gorillas are exactly the same, or very similar, to us. They see the world as we do, and they live in small family groups, as we do.

It seems opportune then to explore the dangers of anthropomorphism. How careful do you have to be when you’re writing commentary?

Of course we are anthropomorphic. If you see an elephant coming at you flapping its ears and trumpeting and charging at 30 miles an hour, that animal is angry. It may be anthropomorphism to say it’s angry, but it’s angry! And there are a number of things of your own experience that you can attribute to an animal with justification, but there are some things you cannot justify. For example, if that elephant picks up the bones of an elephant that died, say, two years ago, and fondles them with its trunk, the temptation is to say it is remembering the old female who died – but that would be anthropomorphic, because you have no idea whether that’s what she’s doing. So you wouldn’t say that. You’d just say she was picking up the bones and fondling, who knows what is on her mind? That would be the fair commentary.

And when it comes to the great hackneyed phrase of “nature red in tooth and claw”, how and where do you draw your lines on that.

That’s a very difficult problem. The one thing I am absolutely certain about is that you must not gloss over it – you must not pretend that animals don’t feel pain. You mustn’t pretend that that antelope just lay down and died and allowed itself to be eaten by a lion – it’s not like that. And it’s a messy business, and it’s a horrible business when you see a lion catching a wildebeest, and hear it – so you have to be truthful to that, but you mustn’t milk it, you know? So it’s a fine line – and I have on one occasion declined to put a commentary on a film that I thought was milking it, but otherwise…

What was it showing that you thought, “This we do not need to see”?

It just went on and on and on, and doing it again and again and again. And I was unhappy about that.

And was this a film that was subsequently broadcast?

It was something I was asked to do a commentary on and I decided not to.

Let’s take a little trip back then, and talk for a moment about Zoo Quest [1954–63]. What were the logistics of those early expeditions?

I remember the budget absolutely clearly – it was £1,000. There was £300 for air fares, for Charlie Lagus, my cameraman pal and myself, then there was £300 on stock, film stock and so on, and then £300 for living expenses and that kind of thing, so it was £1,000 for six programmes, which wasn’t a bad bargain.

And so typically, how long would you have been away for?

Because in those days the big expense was the fare, and you couldn’t go away just for a week – we actually went away for three to four months.

By the time you were making these programmes, you were already married with a young family. I’m wondering, when you had to take these great expeditions abroad, how much did you discuss it with Jane? Did you say, “I’m off for another four months – are you fine with that?”

Well, erm… I don’t know. I mean, what I would…

That’s a no, isn’t it? That’s a “No, I never discussed it.”

Come on, come on! What I said was that airline pilots and merchant seamen, they go away for much longer than that! “You should be glad to get rid of me.”

So how was it when you came home and the bins needed to be emptied?

I remember coming home from Java, and we’d been away for three and a half months, living a lot of the time in longhouses with the local people in the middle of Borneo, and it was a long journey back with lots of changes in Singapore and stuff like that, and my wife met me at the airport and we drove home, and had something to eat and I just fell into bed – I was absolutely out on my feet. And I woke up at about 2am, dripping with sweat – it was pouring off me – and I thought, “This is it. This is malaria, this is a malarial fever. You’re in big trouble.” So I lay in bed, my dear wife sleeping happily away, do I wake her and say, “Honey, I’ve got malaria”? So I struggled with this problem and put my hand down on the sheet, and it was red hot! I suddenly realised that while I’d been away she’s bought an electric blanket! She had turned off her side, but I didn’t know about it!

And what about your habit of bringing things home?

It was really rather a bit silly actually, because we still maintained this business that [as part of filming for Zoo Quest] I was collecting stuff for the London Zoo, and I had to make it up as I went along. So I did bring back these great collections, and they would go to the London Zoo, and London Zoo would say, “Oh, we don’t need this,” or “We don’t want that, so we’ll exchange with another zoo – unless, of course, you want to keep them.” And I did – because I’d looked after these things and become very attached to them. One of the things I brought back once was a pair of bush babies. And I loved them dearly – we gave them a special room in which they lived in a hollow tree trunk.

In your home?

Naturally! The trouble was that they’d made themselves at home, and the way a male bush baby makes itself at home is to pee on his hands and then he goes all over the tree trunk, then all over the walls, then all over the mantelpiece, then up the curtains, you know, and I thought this was great really, because they were settling in! But it was when we had guests over for dinner one night, and my wife opened the door, and the lady of the pair came in, and you could see her nostrils dilating, and you could hear her thinking to herself, “That’s not mulligatawny soup!”

So tell me a little bit about your early life, particularly the two young girls who were brought into your home by your parents. They were refugees. What impact did that have upon you?


Well, my father was the principal of a small university college in Leicester and he was involved with a group of university lecturers and professors who were trying to get Jewish academics out of Nazi Germany. But then one of them, a medical officer, said, “Please will you take my two daughters?” So my parents signed this document that they would act as parents for Irene and Helga, two girls, 12 and 14 I think when they came…