The day I nearly killed Sir David Attenborough

The legendary documentary maker was left unconscious with "blood everywhere" while shooting The Trials of Life, reveals filmmaker Alastair Fothergill

Sir David Attenborough in Blue Planet II (BBC, TL)

He’s the world’s most respected and enduring television broadcaster, but there was a dramatic moment back in the 1980s when it all nearly came to an abrupt, and deadly, end for Sir David Attenborough.

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As his long-time friend and film-making collaborator Alastair Fothergill revealed at a Q&A session in London last night he very nearly killed off Attenborough’s career – quite literally.

Attenborough was in the sea off the coast of the Bahamas filming a sequence with dolphins for the series Trials of Life, as Fothergill described to the audience.

“We were filming David from the top of a boat that had a wooden platform on the back for people to dive off. We had just done a wonderful piece and David was about to go under the water again and a great wave washed him under the dive platform, which then came smashing down.

“I’ve never forgotten it because David was unconscious and there was blood everywhere and I remember thinking ‘the one thing you don’t want on your CV is you’re the man who killed David Attenborough’.”

The two were in conversation at an event organised by the Grierson Trust, an organisation that promotes documentary film-making.

During a wide-ranging discussion Attenborough, who’s 92 in May, revealed that despite the environmental damage being wreaked on the world, he has some optimism for the future.

“We have the scientific knowledge to do something about the production of energy using sources that do not damage the environment. There are big problems in storing and transmitting power but we know scientifically how those can be handled. Engineers are working on that all around the world now.

“It’s absolutely possible that within the next few years we will have a source of energy which comes without damage to the environment and which will be available at a very much lower price than digging up coal and burning carbon. And when that happens one of the major causes of our problems with global warming will have been solved. And that’s the next big advance and I am persuaded myself that will happen in the next ten years.”

Attenborough was also asked whether the BBC had been too reticent in the past to look at conservation issues within its wildlife series. He said not. “I absolutely agree that we have a responsibility to point out what is happening in the natural world, but you’ve got to show people that it’s beautiful and complex before you tell them that’s in danger. If every time you turn on the television set to see the wild world you end up with someone wagging their fingers at you saying ‘it’s all marvellous, but it’s all being destroyed and it’s all your fault’ you will end up losing your audience. I have no doubt about that.”

In recent years, of course, it’s Attenborough’s voice, more so than his face, that’s provided the imprint on the programmes he’s been involved with. Fothergill, who’s still making major wildlife series with his own company Silverback Films, says the veteran broadcaster remains the most consummate professional.

“I’ve worked with Hollywood actors and you’ll spend three or four days recording the narration for a 90-minute movie.  David will come in and record a 50-minute narration in about one hour and ten minutes and I tell you that is an extraordinary skill.”

Attenborough, naturally enough, was more modest. Less is always more, he says.

“I don’t think I’ve seen any programme that I’ve written and narrated when I’ve looked at it after a few years and haven’t said to myself “too many words”.  The perfect natural history film would have no narration on it at all. You shouldn’t be telling people something is beautiful if they can see it is. Going through a narration after you’ve written it I’m continually crossing out words. You don’t need adjectives, flowery figures of speech. For me narration is an exercise in self -control.”

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Read the features on The Queen’s Green Planet with David Attenborough in this week’s Radio Times – on sale in shops and on the newsstand now

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