King of the broadcasting jungle: Sir David Attenborough reveals how TV has changed over 60 years

The legendary broadcaster recalls the "unbelievable" early years of BBC TV – and how the broadcaster should prepare for the future

David Attenborough (Ray Burmiston, RT)

The doorbell rings, and seconds later Sir David Attenborough bounds out of his front door in his trademark light-blue, safari-style, short-sleeved shirt and stone-coloured chinos.

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I’ve come to Attenborough’s home – the large but unflashy house in Richmond, south-west London, where he’s lived for 60 years – to whisk him to the Radio Times photoshoot for this 95th-birthday issue. I’d imagined that I might have to wait while he took his time, but the 92-year-old strides down the path like a man two decades younger. Just back from a trip to Africa for a new BBC series, he shows no sign of travel weariness.

I stand aside for him to get into the taxi – after all, he is Sir David Attenborough – but he insists I get in first. Later, when we get out to walk from the car to the studio, he opens doors for me, while I – 63 years younger – stumble on a small pothole. I feel he’s going to tell me to take care.

Very few people working in broadcasting today can claim to be able to recall six decades of Radio Times’s existence, let alone have been central to so much of the magazine’s coverage. His career is unique in UK broadcasting – behind the scenes as a producer, the controller of BBC2 and the man tasked with introducing colour TV to the nation; and in front of the camera, inspiring and educating us in hit series after hit series from Zoo Quest to Blue Planet II.

Indeed, Attenborough has been such a fixture of British broadcasting that he and his shows have been on the cover of Radio Times more than anyone else except the Queen. How apt, then, that he’s happy to grace the cover as the magazine turns 95.

Attenborough 95th anniversary cover

You might expect that inviting Attenborough to a photoshoot for the cover would involve calls to agents, dozens of emails and a very long wait for a response. Yet he has neither an agent nor an email address, and he responds to my letter three days after I’ve posted it to his home. He rings my mobile and says, “It’s David here, David Attenborough. I’d be delighted.”

In the back of the car it becomes clear that Attenborough doesn’t do small talk – he’s uninterested in chitchat about the heatwave, and goes quiet about his recent Africa trip when I tell him that I haven’t even been to that continent. He’s kind, but he doesn’t want to chat for the sake of it. Instead, I ask about the bittersweet reality of living into your 90s – of being one of the last ones standing. Instantly much warmer, he talks about losing most of his friends – “I have only two or so close friends left” – and notes how many funerals he goes to now. He happily adds that he feels lucky not only to be in good health, but also to be working at his age. There’s a sense of surprise at his own longevity, both on Earth and in television.

At the photoshoot he says no to face powder but says he’ll tidy his hair. Before the make-up artist can hand him a brush, he reaches into his pocket and pulls out his own comb. “I love that. A real gentleman always carries a comb,” she says. “Oh, I know,” he replies with a wry smile, adjusting his parting. He poses for photographs without a fuss and is visibly touched when the photographer thanks him for commissioning The Old Grey Whistle Test in the 1970s, as it was his favourite programme as a child.

When we sit down to talk, it’s clear that although Attenborough has travelled all over the world and seen some of the rarest and most magnificent animals on the planet, it’s his time as a young BBC producer that gave him some of the biggest thrills of his life. It’s television itself, as much as the natural world, that feeds his imagination.

“I didn’t get a television set until I joined the BBC in 1952, so I’d already been married for a couple of years,” he says, recalling the days when owning a television was rare. The BBC supplied sets to its producers, and lucky Attenborough, working in the factual broadcasting department (then called the Talks Department), was given one.

“All the programmes came from two studios in Alexandra Palace in north London. We produced (I say ‘we’ – I was a junior squirt) – but the big guys, they produced opera, Shakespeare, just unbelievable things. It was very exciting, because it was all live and you felt at one with viewers. The BBC had a bus that drove through north London dropping staff off, because once we had finished producing it was late at night and there wasn’t transport. And when you travelled along in the bus and you saw that sort of electronic glow on the windows of people’s houses, you knew that they’d probably been watching your programme.

“It was like drinking champagne: you didn’t want to go home after you’d done a production, the adrenaline rush was so huge. The producer I worked with at the start had a faults book and he would make notes after each production on the mistakes he had made deploying the cameras, how things had been done. It was all very experimental. Really extraordinary things, we did. We were encouraged to try new things all the time.”

How did it feel to be involved in creating some of the first TV programmes? “Oh! There were only 20 people, 30 people who actually directly produced programmes in the whole of western Europe, and they were all in Alexandra Palace. And I was one of them. We used to sit and argue in the canteen about how we would use new technology, and simple things like what to call the person who’s in the programme and talking about things. I mean, do we say ‘introduced by’? No, he isn’t exactly introducing. ‘Described by’? And then someone said, ‘How about presented by?’ These days, the presenter is now a category in an employment agency, but you didn’t know even how to describe the job in those days.”

LI4299464@40-1984-Jan
Sir David Attenborough on the cover of Radio Times in 1984 (Radio Times archive)

Television has changed beyond recognition, with hundreds of ways to watch thousands of programmes every minute of the day and night. Does Attenborough lament the way new generations of children watch catch-up TV and online channels, rather than sitting down on the sofa for a BBC show?

“In 1952, you made an appointment with television and shaped your evening around that. You’d paid your licence money, and so you felt that you’d better watch it all – you had, as it were, bought it.

“But the way that television is used now is transforming. The mere fact you’ve got these various devices for catch-up television is comforting in a way, because you can dial up a programme that you heard someone talking about. I read the reviews in the press and think, ‘Why haven’t I watched that?’ And so you catch up.

“In a way, I’m surprised that television hasn’t changed more. There’s quite a lot that people hang on to. Not only people that are antique like me, but also other people make an appointment with the news.” Attenborough says he reads several newspapers, but the BBC news is his main source of information about world events.

Not a drama or quiz show fan, Attenborough watches documentaries. He thought BBC2’s documentary Travels in Trumpland with Ed Balls was “remarkable”. “I thought that was a very bright idea, and I thought he did very well. Maintaining integrity, and at the same time not being objectionable to his hosts.” He cites slow TV, such as BBC4’s two-hour sleigh ride through Norway, as among his favourite types of programme. “The BBC is commendably experimental with things like that. The long look, as it were.”

Most programmes he watches are made by old friends of his. “You want to see what they’re doing from a professional point of view, and you think, ‘How did he get that shot? I was planning to use that in the next series!’ I’m in the studios every week or so, so I meet my pals and say, ‘How did you get that shot?’”

Since Attenborough’s life has revolved around the BBC for almost 70 years, I ask whether he feels we should worry that the corporation comes under fire so regularly. From criticisms of impartiality to resentment of the licence fee, and the pay gap revelations, the BBC is never out of the papers.

“Yes. There are newspapers where you open the pages and you know that there’s been an editorial command: ‘I want a story knocking the BBC every day, please. Find it, knock it.’ Sections of the press have always seen the BBC as the enemy and competitor, because it takes away from their advertising, and it takes away from their news. But at the moment there are things that the BBC does that nothing else does. There is such a thing as public service, no matter what you think. There are things that only public service can do and will do, and the BBC does them, and the moment it stops doing them you might as well write it off, because there’s no point to it.”

What sorts of things can only the BBC do? “Trying new programmes, new attitudes, new writers, new voices, putting in little-heard voices, tackling new subjects, finding new ways of doing things at more times when people can see them. I mean, all sorts. The very political discussions on the BBC news, for example – you would think the whole of television would do it, but they don’t. Where are they on the other networks?”

But the BBC isn’t perfect – considering it’s a public service broadcaster, what is lacking in its schedules? “The cultural, the arts programmes,” says Attenborough.

I don’t think the BBC does enough. It’s not enough simply to say, ‘Well, it doesn’t get a big enough audience.’ If you’re a public service broadcaster, what you should be saying is, ‘We will show the broad spectrum of human interest.’ People of all kinds should be catered for. You can measure success not necessarily by the maximum size of the audience, but by the maximum width of the spectrum, and see whether there aren’t any gaps in it and how you’re filling them.

“There are lots of gaps in the BBC’s coverage now, in my view, and that’s because they are harried and badgered by all sorts of people. But if the BBC was to disappear from our homes one morning, surely we’d miss it desperately? You’ve only got to go to America to know that.”

WARNING: Embargoed for publication until 00:00:01 on 02/12/2017 - Programme Name: Blue Planet II - TX: 10/12/2017 - Episode: n/a (No. n/a) - Picture Shows: The leatherback turtle (Dermochelys coriacea). Weighing over half a ton, it is largest turtle on the planet but globally, its numbers have fallen catastrophically. Sir David Attenborough travels to Trinidad to meet a remarkable community that are trying to save these iconic giants. Sir David Attenborough, Leatherback turtle - (C) Gavin Thurston - Photographer: Gavin Thurston

As technology has advanced with ferocious speed, there’s been a monumental shift in the way television is made. I wonder whether Attenborough sees TV as part of humanity’s future. Is it here to stay? “People are going to be using the techniques with much more freedom. In the 1950s, there was only a handful of people who knew how to produce television. There was a sort of bogus magic to it – we were the priests who were explaining that we knew how to handle these things. People would come to the studio absolutely terrified, their tongues would cling to the roofs of their mouths, they wouldn’t know what to say.

“But now the technology is so versatile, so small, anybody can make a natural history programme. It’s just a matter of time. When people say, ‘How do I become a natural history filmmaker?’ – the answer is, ‘Do it! It couldn’t be easier.’ Make a programme about a mouse if you’ve got one coming into your house, make one about a pigeon, make it about anything. And you’ll discover how to do it, how to put it together, how to tell a story.”

He makes it sound easy, but I suspect a YouTube video of a mouse in my kitchen has some way to go before it entrances the nation like the racer snakes did in Planet Earth II. He may encourage new film-makers and marvel at the shots his documentary producer friends achieve, yet I can’t imagine anyone, except perhaps the Queen, having the effect on the general public that he has.

As Attenborough leaves the studio, I ask the bunch of builders on their tea break outside to make room as we walk past. There’s a faint grumbling, a half-hearted shuffle to the right. But when they see who they’re making way for, they fall silent, their eyes widen and they straighten up. One of them stubs out his cigarette. I almost expect them to salute.

The respect is palpable. This is the king of the broadcasting jungle walking by, having reigned over the land of television for nearly seven decades. And from the way Sir David paces back to his front door, I suspect he’ll be surveying his kingdom with pride.

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