David Attenborough talks climate change, vegetarianism – and working with Netflix

The 92-year-old broadcaster and voice of Netflix's Our Planet reflects on a career spanning almost seven decades

David Attenborough appears at the royal premiere for Our Planet (Netflix)

Our Planet, Netflix’s highly anticipated nature documentary, begins not with an aerial shot of Earth, but with an image of the Moon.

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As we look out over its shadowy craters, a familiar voice starts to speak: “Just 50 years ago, we finally ventured to the Moon.”

The voice, of course, is David Attenborough’s.

It’s appropriate that Our Planet should begin with this lunar view — after all, in 1969 Attenborough was the person responsible for the BBC’s televised coverage of the Moon landing. Now the 92-year-old broadcaster is taking his own first steps into a strange new world: Our Planet is the first series Attenborough has worked on that will be online only.

Much has changed in television since he first joined the industry in the 1950s – not least the presence of Netflix itself. New platforms, new filming techniques, new technology: Attenborough seems to take pride in remaining up to speed with the latest advances. When asked about the biggest changes in wildlife filmmaking, he doesn’t hesitate.

One is the use of drones,” he explains, leaning forward in his enthusiasm, “which can enable you to put a camera in a place you’ve never, ever been before. The other one is camera traps, where you don’t have any cameramen there at all. That is an extraordinary thing, that. Mind you, it is more difficult than you might suppose.”

However, just because he is now working with Netflix does not mean that Attenborough has given up on the BBC, the broadcaster that has been his home throughout his career. He’s already set to return to the BBC for an “unflinching” climate change film later this year. Meanwhile Our Planet producers Alastair Fothergill and Keith Scholey both agree that when they come to complete their next major BBC project Perfect Planet, there is only one man for the job. 

“All the big series that Keith [Scholey] and I have done have involved David and long may that continue, as far as we’re concerned,” Fothergill says.

With the issue of Attenborough leaving the BBC out of the way, it is time to move on to more pressing concerns: what is the most immediate threat to the future of the planet?

“The most immediate threat? Oh I think climate change, not much doubt about that. I mean particularly [how it] affects the oceans,” Attenborough says. “If the oceans temperatures rise in the way that they’re threatening to do, that is a huge catastrophe for homo sapiens. The fact is that huge proportions of human beings depend upon the seas for food. And we know that we can’t afford to keep on making mistakes. We are going to be dependent on the seas, and at the moment we are poisoning them and boiling them.”

First look at Netflix's upcoming natural history series Our Planet (Netflix)
First look at Netflix’s upcoming natural history series Our Planet (Netflix)

Hope lies, however, in nature’s talent for regeneration: “The rate at which animals can come back, particularly in fish [is incredible]. We were talking about insects, they too can recover very very quickly, if given the chance. So the chance of bringing about a really dramatic improvement is there for the taking.”

As well as drawing attention to environmental issues through his programmes, Attenborough has also made his own personal commitments to the planet.

“I’m not a vegetarian in the sense that I would actually throw up if I saw or touched a piece of meat, but I eat very little meat at all,” he says. “Poultry a bit, but mostly fish. And I think most people are doing the same. The world is moving towards a dependancy on fish. And heaven help us, what we’re doing to the ocean at the same time; we are crippling its fertility. So it’s a very, very serious problem.”

Attenborough’s career as a presenter began almost by accident while producing the series Zoo Quest, when the original presenter fell ill and Attenborough had to take over. Now, his very voice can alter the atmosphere of a building, let alone a living room – which is, naturally, why Netflix hired him.

“Sunday evenings sitting down with David’s shows is really an extraordinary experience for many people,” Fothergill remarks. Indeed, Attenborough occupies a unique space in the national consciousness, somewhere between that of a fondly-remembered school teacher, and something like royalty. Different generations have grown up watching him, and to be in his company is almost a return to childhood.

There is one key different between Our Planet and previous Attenborough documentaries, however. The filmmakers go to various hazardous locations, including Chernobyl, but Attenborough won’t appear on camera

“I come into it very late in the day you see; I am the last element that’s added,” he says. 

Still, he’s delighted with the finished product. Although he’s watched and appeared in countless nature series, he’s in awe of what has been achieved in Our Planet.

“The pictures are pretty well finished and cut and dry. But every one of them, I’ve seen and my jaw has sank. Every one.”

Decades after he first appeared on our screens, David Attenborough’s sense of wonder remains undiminished.

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Our Planet will be released on Friday 5th April 2019 on Netflix

The Crown - Matt Smith, Peter Morgan, Claire Foy - Writer/Creator Peter Morgan with Matt Smith (Prince Philip) and Claire Foy (Queen Elizabeth II) (Netflix, TL)