An interview with David Attenborough

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On the fifth day of this year, I found myself sitting in the living room of the legendary Sir David Attenborough, drinking coffee and talking to him about wildlife, filmmaking and his career for the better part of an hour. It was a truly memorable experience, not just for his eloquence and storytelling skills, but because Sir David has been a hero of mine since I first popped Life on Earth into my VCR at the wee age of 8. His clarity and passion have inspired me to become a better communicator of science and it was a privilege to speak to the man in person.

He was no less of a superb raconteur in the flesh than he is on screen, and incredibly down-to-earth regarding his fame and status. His house was beautiful, furnsihed by the expected paintings of wildlife and tribal artifacts, a collection of beautiful fossils on a shelf behind his sofa, and more incongruously, an absolutely massive plasma-screen telly.

So now, as 2008 comes to close, I felt it fitting to repost the interview that began the year on such a high. It’s long, but Attenborough has so much that’s worth listening to. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

What made you want to do a series on reptiles and amphibians? [At the time of the interview, Attenborough’s last major series – Life in Cold Blood – was due to air in a matter of weeks – Ed]

These are the last major classes of terrestrial animals that we haven’t given a series to. In terms of evolutionary history the first lot to go on land are invertebrates. Plants came after that and the next lot were the first amphibians and reptiles. From them came birds and from another group came mammals. We’ve now devoted a series to every one of those major groups.

Are there any inherent difficulties in presenting a group of animals that the public might not find so endearing?

Yes and no. By definition, if they find them less endearing, something will prevent them from looking at these animals with the same enthusiasm with which they look at meerkats and monkeys. But in a way, it’s a great advantage because it means that a lot of the stories haven’t been told. It’s a measure of what, in my view, public service broadcasting should do. It shouldn’t just be about making programmes about popular animals. Equally, broadcasters ought to be able to make programmes about economics even though it’s not as obviously dramatic as wars.

What new stories has Life in Cold Blood unearthed?

There’s a legless amphibian called a caecilian, of which there are several thousand species that live underground. We decided to film one species in Brazil and it wasn’t known how the young feed while underground. By continuously filming them, we discovered that every three or four days, there’s suddenly a frenzy of activity with several of these babies scurrying over their mother. And actually, they’re tearing off lumps of her skin which has special fat deposits in it. You can see them with their little teeth grabbing hold of this skin and ripping it off mummy! This lasts for a few hours and then over three or four days, she grows another layer of fatty skin and they do it again. That wasn’t known before.

Are there any specific challenges in filming cold-blooded animals that by their nature might be inactive for large periods of time?

Yes, although that’s actually quite a relief. The fact that they are inactive means that when they do something, you have some sort of idea of what’s going to happen. Frogs for example, really don’t do very much until they breed and snakes don’t do very much until they kill.

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What are some of your other favourite moments of the series?

There’s a terrific sequence of turtle courtship. The cameraman who was charged with filming copulating turtles found a pair and eventually they attracted another male who tried to pull the first one off. In the end, they ended up with about six of them all around one female desperately trying to mate.

The Sunday Times wrote a fairly accusatory piece which complained that the spitting cobra sequence in was ‘set up’ with a captive animal. How do you respond to that?

I’m not about to go traipsing around South Africa with a shot of anti-venom and a camera hoping to just come across a spitting cobra. It’s foolish to think that you’ll find the snake feeling most at home on a convenient rock by a path.

I am not making an adventure program. I’m not saying that I’m an intrepid chap tramping through the wilderness and who knows what dangerous denizens of the wild I may encounter. I’m trying to demonstrate that there’s a snake that uses venom as a deterrent and squirts it through its fangs like a hypodermic needle. Not only that but I start the sequence by saying that I will demonstrate what happens. If I’d said that I was going for a wander and “Oh goodness me, what is this?”, then of course that would be a lie. But if I’m saying that I’m watching what a spitting cobra does with its venom, then of course that’s the obvious way of doing it.

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The series has the first ever recorded instance of predation in a wild rattlesnake. Does that mean that all previous footage was recorded in a studio?

No it means that they weren’t actual kills are all. You’d put a lure in front of the rattlesnake to persuade it to strike in front of the camera. You’d get a close-up of the snake coming straight at you and then you’d see a rattlesnake with a dead mouse in its jaws. Apart from anything else, I think it’s against the law to put live animals in an enclosure for a predator and it’s certainly against BBC policies.

But this behaviour is so rare to see that you’d be very foolish not to do it that kind of way. We were only able to record it live this time because we had new gear. We took things from movement-sensitive burglar alarms and put them around a rattlesnake as part of a research programme that was tracking about a dozen snakes with radio tracking bugs. The research scientists were able to point out one that had obviously found a convenient place to serve as an ambush, had settled down, hadn’t fed for a week and was going to hunt quite soon. So we set up movement detectors around that were linked to infra-red lights and cameras and we waited. The kill happened on the first night.

Natural history programmes do contain a lot of sex and violence. Has that ever got you into any trouble?

Not significantly. You do get regular letters. I remember one woman who wrote in after watching a lion kill a wildebeest and said that it was absolutely scandalous that the BBC spent all this money so that we could show this bestial act. It would be much better to spend it on training lions to eat grass!

Of course, when you are filming that sort of thing, you have a platonic problem of conflict between the viscera and the brain. The answer is of course, that you have to balance the two carefully. It would be improper and disgraceful if you just dwelt on the violence and on seeing an animal’s pain. And yet, on the other hand, if you don’t show that something like that is involved, you are so distorting reality that you are producing fairytales. So you have to make that balance. I dare say you’ll get it wrong sometimes but you certainly have to show both sides of it. If people saw what we put out on the cutting room floor…

What is the most exotic thing you have ever eaten yourself?

Caterpillars, perhaps. Big moth caterpillars in New Guinea that you put them on a fire to burn off the hairs. They come out like Twiglets.

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This programme marks the end of the ‘Life’ series. Looking back, are you pleased at how it has turned out?

Yes, very much. And the thing that really pleases me is that we have the technical requirements to provide a box set with cumulative index to the whole branch, like the printed libretto that you can get at an opera. You could look up any species that turns up in these 40 hours of programming and know which disc to put in and where to flip to and it would cross-index these with topics like mimicry or camouflage. I will be very pleased to be able to put that on a shelf. It would be superficial – for goodness sake, there’s only 40 hours of it, but that’s what the natural world looked like at the end of the twentieth century.

Has your approach to film-making changed at all since you first started?

It certainly has on a superficial level because of the changes in technology. When I started making natural history programmes with Zoo Quest in 1954, we didn’t have the money and or the long-focus lenses that would allow you to go to Africa and get a close-up of a bird in a tree. Not only that but the film was so insensitive that you couldn’t get enough exposure and the batteries you had to carry around to power your cameras were enormous and really held you down. In 1954, any film was shot in 35mm which is the gauge you use for cinema. I said we couldn’t do Zooquest on that because I couldn’t carry it! So we became the first to shoot in 16mm and we had to fight the head of BBC television film about it as he felt it represented an amateurish drop in standards.

Every year since then, it’s got that much better. You’ve got slightly longer lenses and more sensitive gun-mikes. You’ve got underwater cameras, infrared cameras that can see at night, cameras that use optical cables to film down burrows, time-lapse cameras for plants, macro-work with highly-sensitive cameras for the invertebrates and so on.

Do you think you’ve become more restrained at all? Your earlier films have more instances of you grabbing things off trees and holding them up to the camera.

It may be that we’re more skilful these days at getting the sort of shots that we want without actually scragging the animal. One of the functions of the presenter is to give the viewer the identification feeling and directors think that you get that if the chap telling you the story is seen grappling with the creature. They’re also keen on getting something other than the man’s torso or face in shot so that if he’s got a long piece to talk about, the viewers can at least look at the animal instead. So two-shots with man and animal are de rigeur, but we’ve got much better at doing them. For example, if you shoot with a long lens, you can condense the distance between the animal in the foreground and the presenter in the background.

Science moves at such a quick pace. Have you ever been tempted to revisit some of the earlier programmes in the light of new developments?

You’re absolutely right about the pace of scientific discovery but the fact is that the level of scientific insight in these programmes is pitched at sixth-form. It’s not as if it’s cutting edge stuff. It’s more like here’s a duck-billed platypus and it has warm blood and lays eggs. And that doesn’t change a lot.

Have there been any shoots that just went badly wrong or any subjects that were uncooperative?

[There’s a long pause here – Ed] Noone’s ever asked me that and I’m not sure I know the answer! We’ve nearly missed things – we nearly didn’t get to the Christmas Island crabs because of an airline strike. We actually got there on time because we bummed a lift off the Australian Air Force!

Ah wait, I’ve thought of something. Back in 1955, I went to Indonesia specifically to try and find birds of paradise but we weren’t even let in. I wanted to go to Aru Island in off the coast of New Guinea where Wallace first saw birds of paradise. It was so amateur and pathetic in 1955. The Indonesians had only just acquired independence and their administration simply didn’t work. We turned up in Jakarta with a camera, didn’t speak a word of Malay and didn’t have a letter of introduction from anybody. It was ridiculous. When we said we wanted to go to Aru Island they said no. We said that we’d come all the way, but at the time they were trying to claim the island from Holland and they thought we were spies. So we hastily thought of something else and went off to film Komodo dragons but we didn’t get that either. It was hopelessly amateur and cack-handed but quite good fun.

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When we last spoke, you said that your next project will be a programme on evolution. Is that still in the pipeline?

Yes, it’s Darwin’s bicentennial in Feburary 2009 so I’m working on a script now. It’s probably going to be a single programme rather than a series but I’m still working on it.

Are there any places that you have left to visit that you want to?

I would very much like to have been to Mongolia and central Asia. There are good reasons why I haven’t though. Animal there are very scarce. You could walk for miles and miles before you see any at all because the land is so dry and high and the fauna is very limited. You don’t get a lot of footage for your buck, so I’ve never filmed in the Gobi but I would have loved to have been there.

Given how widely you’ve travelled, are you ever tempted to visit zoos?

I used to go to zoos a lot. After all, the first series I ever did called Zooquest was about capturing animals for zoos. Things have changed since then but I still think that zoos are very important – they function in conservation, education and scientific research, which are all absolutely admirable provided the zoo is properly maintained and the animals live in the proper circumstances. If they are breeding, you don’t need to capture wild animals to restock. But I don’t actually enjoy seeing birds in cages and I don’t enjoy watching monkeys in sterile environments so I don’t go. But I do not disapprove of zoos.

Did you ever aspire to academia?

I thought I was going to be a palaeontologist originally. I loved fossils and I collected them as a kid and I wondered how could I earn a living with fossils. There wasn’t any television in 1944 and I thought I would be an oil geologist, which would get me to exciting places. I went to Cambridge and read zoology and geology and, to my fury, mineralogy – a mind-bendingly, stupefyingly boring subject, but mainly because I was incompetent. I was doing X-ray crystallography and I’m not a mathematician, I can’t think mathematically and I certainly can’t think in three dimensions.

I then went into the Navy but by the time I got to do my service, the war had just finished. I didn’t have to kill anybody, which was a mercy. But by the time I came out, I was two years older, I wanted to get married and I doubted that I had the intellectual application to be a scientist. Certainly, when I see what a behavioural ethologist has to do now, sitting day-after-day at a burrow waiting for an animal to put its head out, I couldn’t do that. I admire them very much. They have a dedication that I can’t have.

Surely filmmakers must have to have similar amounts of patience?

Oh no. Well, perhaps the patience but not with repetition. I remember a very bright guy in Panama who would get up every morning, trek through the forest, find an orchid and sit by it all day to count how many bees visited it. He’d been doing it for months and I think there’s a bit of rite du passage in it. The senior scientists say “Well I bloody suffered, so you’re going to suffer too.”

Do you have a large fossil collection?

By the time I got to university, I had a pretty good collection of middle Jurassic fossils. My father was the principal of a college that would later become the University of Leicester. When it started a Geology department, it didn’t have any collections so I donated my stuff there. There are a fair few things at the back though, but the main collection won’t be here. [At this point, I turn around and see a large row of beautiful fossils lining a shelf behind the sofa. David hands me one and asks me what I think it is. – Ed]

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I thought it was a seed but it’s the dermal scute of an arthrodire, which is one of those Devonian armoured fish. It comes from a site called Gogo in the middle of Australia, which was discovered by a palaeontologist from the Natural History Museum. I wanted to film the place so asked the head of the Geology Service or whatever it was for permission to go. He told me that they’d already found everything and that there was nothing left, but he eventually gave us permission and said he’d come along. We chartered a helicopter and – I remember this as clear as daylight – as it was coming down very gently, I saw this on the ground [he indicates the fossil] and the bar of the helicopter touched down inches away from it. I’m first out and I pick it up. He comes out and I say “Here, what’s this?”, and he says,”… You bastard.” To his credit, he let me keep it.

You’ll know what this is though. [He hands me another item, which I mercifully identify correctly as a series of vertebrae – Ed] Yes, they are the four thoracic vertebrae of an ichthyosaur. I used to keep a lot of tropical fish and I was looking for rocks to put in the aquarium. I had a friend who lived down the hill who said that his garden was full of bloody rocks and I was welcome to take some. I went over and there was this, just lying about. I think one of the previous owners of the house was a fossil collector.

What about these artefacts you’ve got around the place?

Well I’m very fond of tribal artefacts but you can’t acquire them out there of course. If you picked up anything remotely like those in Papua New Guinea or Africa, they’d either be illegal or fake. The only place you can get them would be dealers or auctions.

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Natural history programmes, like Planet Earth, seem to be as popular as ever even though the type of shows that the public watches has changed dramatically. Why do you think that is?

I can think of several reasons. One is that animals, when they appear on your screen, have a number of qualities that are unique to them. They’re not trying to sell you anything and they’re not telling you lies. They are unpredictable. They are very often new. They’re extraordinarily beautiful. They’re dramatic. And they share something with us, which is life. What more do you want from your television?

Another way of looking at it is that they have always been popular. It’s just that the rather jaded television executives who never move out of their offices don’t recognise that. I think that’s particularly true of the United States. Over there, the view of natural history programmes forty years ago was about people with lassos and dart guns wrestling with fauna in the wild. The idea that anybody would be interested in insects was a non-starter but we proved them wrong.

The fact of the matter is that every child – every child – at the age of four or five is fascinated by the rest of the world. That deep interest in other things that are alive is there in every single one of us and it so happens that for some of us, that interest gets diverted. But that’s an impoverishment of your mental life. At the same time as this is happening, because of the growth in population, people are being increasingly cut off from the natural world. And the television can allow people to get back in touch, to at least see something of what’s going on outside which is essential if they’re going to take responsibility for nature.

How optimistic are you about our chances of halting the decline in biodiversity?

Well we won’t be able to stop it. We may be able to slow it down. The thing that really absolutely appals me is the realisation that there are three times as many people alive on Earth as when I started making television programmes. Not even when I was born! Three times as many people! They’ve all got to be fed and drive motor cars and have their own houses. The sheer space left for other species has been eaten up appallingly. Quite apart from all the other things we do, just that basic fact is enough to dampen any joie de vivre I have. People say that the population growth is going to fall off and we’re going to reach stasis. I’m not absolutely clear on what grounds they say that but even then, it’s going to rise to eight or nine billion. There’s just so little space for other creatures.

Do you think it’s easier or more difficult to get natural history programmes commissioned at the moment?

Yes and no. The fact is that there are many more natural history programmes being made and scheduled than there were a few years ago. When we started, there weren’t any. Now there are many more opportunities but many more people want to make them. So the competition is tougher and I feel almost guilty because I started when nobody wanted to do it. I didn’t have to compete. I just put up an idea and they said if that’s what you want to do, go and do it. How on earth I would get started now, I have no idea.

We advertised for a research assistant on the Life of Birds to look through the literature to see which species of bird would be best as an example of mimicry or whatever. For that we had three thousand applications, of whom a third had doctorates. There’s no conceivable way in the world in which you could genuinely and justly discriminate between three thousand people. You might just as well as eliminate everyone without red hair and that would only have knocked it down to about 500!

Do you think that’s one of the reason why you are one of the very few natural history filmmakers who has become a household name?

Well if I’m a household name, it’s only because I’ve been doing it forever and fairly regularly. I keep popping up, and that’s the only reason.

Are there any of the current crop of natural history filmmakers who you are particularly impressed with?

Oh, lots. I think Simon King is an amazing cameraman and an amazingly good field naturalist. Charlotte Uhlenbroek is another one who obviously knows what’s going on. Bill Oddie brings a completely different line to it. There’s no shortage of good people doing what I do and I imagine that there must be queues of them going, “For God’s sake, he’s been there for fifty years. Why doesn’t he put his feet up and give other blokes a chance?” All one asks is that they treat the animals with respect and if they treat them with knowledge and admiration then that’s a bonus.