On the night before my interview with Sir David Attenborough I watched new episodes from his series Natural Curiosities with my two oldest sons, aged nine and eleven. It’s not one of his glossy, landmark series, but fascinating and fun nonetheless; and elevated, as always, by the sense of wisdom and calm reassurance that the great man brings to everything he does. Sir David is a wizard of television, and, like Gandalf or Dumbledore, he has a near-magical gift for combining warmth and gravitas.
It’s amazing to reflect that he’s been doing so for nearly 60 years. I still recall, aged nine, watching his magisterial multi-parter Life on Earth with my parents and the spectacle of him being groomed by a mountain gorilla in the East African highlands. The more prosaic vision, nearly 40 years on, of Sir David gingerly fingering a dung-beetle and its dung is in a similar way a bonding experience for my family. For the species Homo sapiens, introducing our offspring to their first Attenborough mid-childhood may be one of our rites of passage.
In person, Sir David is no longer the skinny young man who trod the mountains of Papua New Guinea and the jungles of Borneo, in khaki and shorts, looking vaguely colonial. Slower, a little stooped, he is nevertheless, if I may indulge in a little British understatement, “not bad for 91”. At our rendezvous on the set of a studio in Twickenham, west London, he was, as one would expect, on time, obliging, friendly, and unperturbed by the photographer’s directions that I should stand ever closer to him and peer into his left ear; and then (more embarrassingly) that we should gaze at each other nose-to-nose like boxers, while being asked for “more warmth”.
During the photos, Sir David had made several good-natured references to my supposed inquisitorial techniques. A year or two ago, I’d seen him interviewed about the BBC output that he enjoyed and he mentioned “young Mr Theroux”. It was an accolade I will cherish – coming as it did from the man who, for me, exemplifies the best in British broadcasting.
Our conversation lasted slightly more than an hour. A little like Sir David himself who, at a similar age to mine, found an unexpectedly warm reception among the gorillas, I came away feeling I’d had a close encounter with one of the big beasts of the broadcasting jungle, a species that is increasingly endangered and all the more precious for that.
Louis Theroux: What’s your philosophy of work?
David Attenborough: Take it! Just do it.
You’re considered a national treasure. I imagine you’re sick of hearing that. But nevertheless it’s true.
It’s easy to be a national treasure if you don’t have to do controversial things. And such opinions that I have that are controversial, if there are any, are not what I share on television.
Are you aware of having to caretake your image a little bit by not coming out as more controversial? You know, being in favour of running over badgers or something weird like that?
Well, I think we all wish to be well thought of. I suppose there are people who deliberately go out to be outrageous.
There are a few… provocateurs.
Yes. But my stock-in-trade is appreciated by kids of seven and professors of 70 and everything in between. All I have to do is not get in between the animal and the camera too often.
Are you conscious of slowing down at all? Do you have a plan?
No, I don’t – except to keep doing what I want to do. And if people ask, well, it’s perfectly simple: if I wanted to put my feet up and sit in the corner and slobber, then I could. But I mean, who wouldn’t be grateful for people coming up and saying, “Would you like to go to Trinidad?” I say, “Yes, what will it cost?” “No, no,” they reply, “we’ll pay you!” Really? Lucky old me.
Very nice. I have a young family, so I’m always conscious of, in a way, being selfish by pursuing a job that I love so much. I have to put the brakes on a bit sometimes to get the most out of my family…
If you’re going to ask me what my regrets are, it seems to me that I really shouldn’t regret anything, because I’ve been just so unbelievably lucky. But if I do have regrets, it is that when my children were the same age as your children, I was away for three months at a time. If you have a child of six or eight and you miss three months of his or her life, it’s irreplaceable; you miss something. And I did. And my dear wife was very understanding about it. Perhaps you can’t have your cake and eat it. I mean, I’m not complaining, I’m just saying that…
Perhaps they’re complaining now?
Well, there used to be family jokes. You know, “You were never there. You don’t remember that, Father, do you, because you weren’t there!”
But you can’t have it all, can you?
I damned near did.
You talk in this new series about pizzly bears – which are a cross between a polar and a grizzly. Is it that the grizzlies are coming north because it’s warmer or the polar bears are coming south because they’ve got no food?
So is it likely that polar bears will become extinct in the wild?
Yes, except that while there may be no more pure white bears, they haven’t gone extinct. Their genes are still there, and they’re brown bears now – they’ve left descendants. We tend to catalogue the natural world and say, “OK, that’s a horse and that’s a zebra and that’s a polar bear, that’s a brown bear.” But that’s our classification, and a lot of these lines are fuzzy. And the line between a brown bear and a white bear is fuzzy, and the two interact.
When we make films and say the polar bear is doomed, people think how terrible that is. And it is terrible in the sense of a particular individual, but then all individuals die, and the species itself is changing. And will change. Evolution is proceeding in the animal kingdom just the way it always did.
It is changing. So I wonder how worried are you about global warming?
We should be very, very worried about it. And it’s not just one species, it’s whole ecosystems that are going west. If you just look at the oceans, an awful lot of changes are taking place. Coral reefs are disappearing and about half the world’s fish, at some stage or another, live or depend on the coral reef. I’m not saying that the oceans are going to become barren overnight, but humanity is becoming more and more dependent upon the seas for food. The land is being scorched, deserts are spreading, and the seas are warming – well, all those factors cause great changes in our fortunes, and will do.
What do you see as the biggest problem we face as caretakers of the planet?
Well, population, of course, lies at the base of a lot of our problems. Why are all these people coming across to Europe at the moment? Partly it’s political problems, that’s perfectly true, but also because living is very, very hard. People are right on the edge there. The land is not producing enough food for them. And this was predicted; for the past 40, 50 years people have been saying this is going to happen, and it’s happened. Of course there are other complexities, there are political things, life isn’t simple and it’s very dangerous just to draw one [conclusion]. But the increasing size of population is a major factor everywhere.
I’ve just been making a documentary about pimps and prostitutes in Houston, and I was often struck by the alpha-male behaviour on display, sort of peacocking. Do you see parallels between that and animal behaviour?
I think it’s very dangerous to draw those parallels because our behaviours and our consciousness are so hugely different from anything else. To reduce human behaviour to other animal behaviour is intellectually irresponsible.
And then there’s these evolutionists who pipe up and say, “Oh, it’s not natural to be a vegetarian,” or “Men are naturally dominant.” Does that line of reasoning worry you?
I think anything that oversimplifies in that way is rather dangerous. Because life is more complicated than that.
I don’t know if it’s on your radar, but there’s a sort of neo-masculinist – they’re calling it masculinism – school of thought that says it’s in men’s inner nature that we have to be the breadwinner…
Yes, I know, and I think that there’s a basis of that, yes. But we now know that sexuality is not as clear-cut as you might have thought, and what is the complexity of that? Well, the complexity of that is to do with our brains. These man-animal comparisons can be manipulated and distorted into what people want it to say, but biologically it’s irresponsible.
Are you a vegetarian?
No. But I am increasingly so.
I eat less meat.
Ethical or health reasons?
A bit of both. I just don’t like the taste of it very much.
Do you worry about the way animals are kept in industrial farming practices?
Oh gosh, yes. Anything that makes animals into machines depresses me.
In general we’re sort of shielded from it.
But something you do like is chocolate. One of your cameramen has said, “Give him a glass of wine and some chocolate and he’s happy’.”
[Chuckles] Actually, I’ve given up chocolate.
Have you? Why?
I was eating too much of it! I could easily eat half a pound of Cadbury’s Fruit & Nut, at a sitting, without noticing. And I suddenly thought, “This is ridiculous. You’ve got to stop it.” I’ve had chocolate-flavoured cake or whatever, but I haven’t had a bar of chocolate – not even a square of a bar of chocolate – since mid-November.
Can you have it in the house without eating it?
Yes, it’s in the house now! I’m waiting for the next lot of guests coming over so I can get rid of it. And that’s rather a surprise, as I don’t regard myself as being strong on self-discipline.
Do you still play the piano?
Yes, every day if I’m at home. But I play the same stuff and I make the same mistakes. And I know I make the same mistakes, because some of the stuff I fish out is music that I played as a teenager, and there are all the marks of the teachers, underlining things! Every now and again I break free and look at a new Haydn sonata or something like Mompou. Have you heard of him?
I feel I should.
A Catalan composer, very simple, but extremely difficult to play because the time sequences are so strange. And you think you’re playing the notes, and you are, but if you get a recording you suddenly realise that you’ve missed the point of what you’re playing. You haven’t grasped where the enchantment lies.
Yes, I’m just reading the biography of Margaret Mead.
Yes, the anthropologist. Oh, it’s fascinating. I mean, she was huge… she was the only anthropologist that most Americans had ever heard of. In 1928, when she was in her 20s she published the book Coming of Age in Samoa which said, “The Samoans are so lovely, they just go through life flirting and screwing. It’s wonderful – they don’t get hung up like American teenagers.” And this caused a sensation in America at the time. She’s an extraordinary figure.
Your own life’s been pretty extraordinary – do you think about your own mortality?
Yes, all the time.
Do you find as you get older you think about it more?
Yes, sure. Well, because it’s more and more likely that I’m going to die tomorrow.
How do you feel about that?
Well, you’ve got no choice! [Chuckles] But I mean, you don’t think about that when you’re 30.
It doesn’t prey on your mind?
No, no. It’s a realisation.
Do you expect anything to happen afterwards?
No. [Chuckles quietly]
A kindly old man with a beard?
[Chuckles more audibly] I should be so lucky. No. Nothing like that.
Final question. The animal with which you feel kinship?
That has to be an ape. Because our kinship is a reality. I don’t feel it with a mosquito or, indeed, a whale.
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