Meet Sir David Attenborough
Sir David Attenborough’s 50-year broadcasting career has taken him to the far corners of our planet and has made him one of the most recognisable faces in the world. His passion for the wilds and his exuberant love for nature are palpable to anyone who has seen him on location, bringing nature’s hidden secrets to light. Too numerous to list, the series he has presented on television include The Trials of Life and Life on Earth, which did more to educate humans about the world they live in than almost any other initiative launched in modern times. He was knighted in 1985 and was awarded the Order of Merit by the Queen of England. He is currently filming Life in Cold Blood, which explores the unseen lives of reptiles and amphibians. Swati Thyagarajan, presenter of NDTV’s Born Wild and winner of the Sanctuary-ABN AMRO Wind Under the Wings Award 2006 met Sir David in U.K. at the Wildscreen Film Festival and asked him about his life and his concern for tomorrow.
Sir David, apart from the many achievements you are so well known for, is it true that you were responsible for introducing colour television to Britain?
Yes, not because I was particularly clever or far sighted; it was determined by the technological plans that the first network to go into colour would be BBC 2 and that was determined before I joined BBC 2.
You officially retired way back in 1973. Is it true what they say? That you retired because you had not visited the Galapagos?
That was a way of keeping journalists quiet. The reason I was leaving was because I had spent eight years in administration and had I spent any more time, I would have been moving further and further away from making and devising programmes and that’s what I enjoy doing most. So after doing administration for eight years... yeah ...why not do what I enjoy rather than sit behind a desk?
When you launched zoo quest in the 1950s, you went to places where not too many people had been before... that must have been adventurous.
It was a huge privilege and unthinkable now. But in 1959-60, I thought... why not go to Madagascar? What lives in Madagascar? It was almost impossible to know really. There were all kinds of things, which had never been photographed... extraordinary, isn’t it? Well, think of that, going to an island with unique fauna, which nobody has ever photographed. What a privilege... huge privilege.
So it was one of those explorer moments… going where no one had gone before?
Of course, lots of people had been to Madagascar. It’s just that wildlife filmmakers hadn’t been to Madagascar. There have been times when I went to places nobody had been to before. That was in the 1950s and that was very exciting in a childish kind of way. It was very exciting and unforgettable and is very difficult to do now. There are not many places like that.
How often have you been to India?
Not enough… though I have seen some very nice animals there.
You are reputed to have a rat phobia?
Yes, certainly I do. I saw lots of rats in India and out of bravado… foolishness… I wrote a shot involving rats into the script. I found it very hard and I had a cynical, ghastly, appalling TV director friend shooting it, and he said it would be perfectly OK. He said I’ll put you on a stool so you’ll be above all the thousands of rats running on the floor and I turned up early and saw him smearing banana on the legs of the stool to encourage the rats to climb up the stool. It was terrible... the worst thing I’ve done!
You started out in the age of black-and-white. Have the immense changes that have taken place in cinematography helped you to obtain a completely different view of the natural world?
Certainly! Every year, there is something new that can be the spur for a new series. Originally, when I started you couldn’t record in synch... couldn’t record someone talking and you couldn’t film animals talking or squeaking or whatever, and as time lapsed technology improved… and here we are now. It’s a paradox. There are more people now, I’m told, living in the cities than those living in what we would call wild countryside. And yet, people living in the cities have a broader view and understanding of what wildlife is than ever before in history. Perhaps not as intimate and detailed, but nonetheless extraordinary. For example, there is a move worldwide that we should protect whales. One in 50 million humans must have seen a whale in the wild... and yet everyone knows what whales are... they know very well that we ought not to kill them… that’s great… that’s an advance and that is something wildlife filmmakers can take credit for; not I, but certainly the filmmakers who make films on whales can certainly feel that they have made a contribution and pushed things forward.
Do you feel that sometimes there is a disconnect with people in the cities getting to see these fascinating programmes and learning about animals in remote areas, while local communities are unaware of what they have?
That’s quite true, and many colleagues of mine work hard to send the films we’ve made back to local people. But just sending the film back into space is no good... it should go to someone who knows how to exhibit it, so people can see it, understand what it means in the appropriate language. But again all these things are changing at an enormous speed. I mean just consider DVD discs now, compared with the problems of shooting on 16 mm. film and then putting on separate sound tracks and lugging all that apparatus around. People even in remote parts are getting the opportunity to see those films.
As a naturalist is it your duty to talk about natural life and give us the basic facts, or, considering the state of the planet, include conservation messages with your films?
Yes, conservation is important, but the first thing is to get the facts to them. Until people know what these creatures are, what they do… why should they care about them? Increasingly, people are losing sight of what the natural world is, which puts a huge responsibility on those of us who make films about nature.
With so many threats to the world emerging, would you say that climate change is the biggest threat to the world today?
Yes. The human race is all over the world and there are more than twice the number of people today than when I was born and it can’t go on. It can’t in the next 50 years double again and double again. It’s got to stop somehow and if we don’t make it stop, the natural world will make it stop by spreading famine.
First published in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXVII No. 1, February 2007.