For centuries, poets have attempted to encapsulate the definition of “romance”. Now David Attenborough adds his own contribution to the debate. “Hitting a rock with a geological hammer so that it splits to reveal a fossil that hasn’t seen the light of day for hundreds of millions of years is hugely romantic,” declares the broadcaster and naturalist, whose lifelong fascination for paleontology is such that, of over a dozen species currently named after him, three are fossils.
“Romance is emotion and feeling, not cold scientific fact and calculation. Becoming the first human being ever to lay eyes on an ammonite in the moment that it is uncovered after 200 million years – wallop! That’s very romantic. Heavens above, people in English departments in universities write socking great books on how you define romance. This is one of them.”
Attenborough is seen wielding his rock hammer in a new documentary that follows one he made two years ago. Attenborough and the Giant Dinosaur was watched by eight million people, and it remains the BBC’s most-watched single natural history programme since 2011. Now, he’s investigating another fossil discovery, this time on Dorset’s Jurassic Coast.
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A super-predator that ruled the ocean at the time of the dinosaurs has been found in a crumbling cliff face. It’s a huge ichthyosaur – a kind of dinosaur-dolphin – thought to be a completely new species, and potentially the biggest ever found in the UK. Attenborough is on hand throughout as the huge fossil is excavated, prepared, scanned, and a CGI replica of its skeleton constructed. Unexpectedly, from these remains the team is able to uncover not only evidence about the creature’s life, but also its violent death.
“It’s fair to call it a murder mystery 200 million years in the making, because the same deductive processes are used when looking at a crime as you do when looking at the ichthyosaur’s bones preserved in rock,” Attenborough says. “It’s a detective story where you’re continually reaching new conclusions. Great fun, and the end product – the ichthyosaur skeleton fully cleaned and laid out – is so utterly beautiful.”
Attenborough and the Sea Dragon kicks off another typically crowded professional year for the 91-year-old, who agrees 2018 is already looking “pretty full”, rattling off “a couple of Natural Worlds, an overseas project and another big series” on his to-do list. At a time when he is on television perhaps more than ever before, he is accustomed to inevitable queries about retirement, and commonly bats them back with a declared intent to continue for as long as he is offered work. But can he imagine a decision before that, when he might himself know that it is time to stop?
“Oh yes,” he says. “I would like to think I would be able to detect when I couldn’t find the right words any more. If I think I’m not producing commentary with any freshness, or which is apposite or to the point, I hope I would be able to recognise it before someone else told me. I spend a lot of time fiddling with the words. I write a commentary, and feel it’s finished, then go back over it the next day and find it full of infelicities, clumsiness and redundancies. If I thought I was turning in substandard work, that would stop me.”
Physical vigour is not a problem, judging by a scene from this new documentary in which he is seen nipping up a spiral staircase. He splutters at the memory.
“I did it at least six times because of these bloody directors! ‘Could you turn a little sooner? Could you look over here? Could you walk down the steps, as well as up?’ If I can’t walk up and down steps any more, that will stop me. Yes, I do dread not working, although there are things I can do without running up steps six times – books to be written, things I’ve never got round to. But at the moment it seems to be all right.”
He baulks at the cheaply used “national treasure” label, but the plain fact is that he is loved – not just nationally, but globally. He laughs again.
“I’ve just been broadcasting for a very long time,” he grins. “It is extraordinary to think that everyone who has reached the age of 75 will have seen programmes of mine throughout their lives. People write and say nice things. What I do isn’t very controversial, because people love looking at the natural world and I’m the person lucky enough to be associated with that.”
Attenborough and the Sea Dragon is on Sunday 7th January at 8pm on BBC1