David Attenborough is a wise observer of human behaviour. But there must be times when Homo sapiens (or, at least, the fourth estate) leaves him scratching his head in bewilderment.
During a morning of interviews to promote his latest series, the five-part Dynasties, Attenborough is invited to ponder a disparate range of questions. Will he be donating his brain to science; is a dramatic scene of primate politics featuring David the chimp (opposite) a metaphor for Brexit; and what is he hoping to get for Christmas?
Though aged 92, Attenborough is still agile enough to spot a headline masquerading as a question – and nimbly sidestep it.
How, then, would we fare encouraging him to invoke his inner feminist?
It’s an approach that demands an explanation. If Dynasties underlines anything, it’s that in the animal kingdom females are generally, though not exclusively, much more useful than males. So, would he agree there are parallels in this regard between animal kind and humankind?
“Yes, but you could also find the opposite. There are female-dominant societies both in human beings and in animals. I agree, though, they’re a minority.”
There’s some anecdotal evidence that with lions, for instance, female cubs learn from their mothers, whereas boisterous young males learn from their mistakes. Any helpful clues there?
“If you restrict it to mammals, then by and large it is true. Bull elephants, for example, don’t stick with the family. The females have all the wisdom. They bring up all the kids, they deal with the problems of drought and so on. The males dash around, trumpeting and copulating whenever they get the chance.”
With girl power a mostly positive fact of life in the wild, might our society be a better place if more women had positions of influence?
“Yes, I guess so, but we do have a female prime minister, and you have some women in Fleet Street who are fairly powerful. I think it depends on all kinds of things. One of the reasons society is changing so much is the development of the Pill. The huge dominant fact among mammals is how you rear the young. Now we have ways of dealing with that – one of which is not to have children until quite late in life [or not at all]. The responsibility of producing the next generation is now optional.”
If Attenborough were an animal, he’d be a fox – and a particularly canny one.
Sir David Attenborough (Nick Lyon)
One question on which he’s not at all evasive is about this new series he’s narrating. Dynasties does pretty much what it says on the label; it follows the fortunes of five groups of animals – indeed, bar the Emperor penguin, one specific family group – over the course of two years.
“I don’t think anyone has dared to do this before,” says Attenborough. “When Mike [Gunton, the executive producer] first told me, I thought he was barmy – to devote two years to filming one group within one species and say ‘we will show exactly what happens’ is either very brave or very foolish, because supposing nothing happens? And in lots of instances in the natural world, nothing does happen.”
Except in this case Gunton and his team had a hunch what might happen. Each of the featured groups were selected – or, as Gunton says, “cast” – because of what researchers on the ground had discovered. In the case of the tigers, mum Raj Bhera was due to give birth. With the lions, the dominant males had abandoned the group, leaving the two older females to act as protectors and providers. And, with the chimps, the ageing alpha male David – named not after the presenter, but by local scientists in Senegal – was thought to be facing a threat to his rule.
In David’s case, the tracking of the group by the film team produces one particularly memorable sequence. The adult chimp is the subject of a brutal coup attempt that leaves him grievously injured. The females tend his body before deserting him to move off in search of water.
“They couldn’t stay, they had to abandon him and go to water,” says Attenborough. “They had no alternative and that happens to human beings, too – some of the northern tribes on migration do leave the old people behind.”
Bingo. A chance to get Attenborough back to humankind and mortality, but Gunton senses the danger and intervenes. “What is fascinating is not the abandonment, it’s that the females initially didn’t abandon him – they wanted him to live.”
And then, as we wrap up – and Attenborough unwraps his fourth or fifth Kit Kat of the morning – he mischievously, and I suspect very knowingly, throws out a teasing titbit.
“Next time, let me tell you why female hyenas have male genitalia…”
Dynasties is a five-part series airing on Sundays at 8.30pm on BBC1, beginning Sunday 11 November 2018
This article was originally published in the 10-16 November 2018 issue of Radio Times magazine