The only person to have won BAFTA awards for TV series in black and white, colour, HD and 3D, Sir David Attenborough has been the face and voice of natural history programmes in the UK for over 60 years. At the age of 90, this tour de force of the natural world retains a relentless commitment to documentary making, with the BBC recently releasing a trailer for Planet Earth II which will air November – exactly a decade after the highly successful first series. Attenborough’s fascination with the natural world appears to know no bounds; at one stage during the filming of David Attenborough’s Natural History Museum Alive back in 2014, producer Anthony Geffen claims he worked from 7PM until 4.30AM, ten nights in a row. Shot in UHD, Attenborough’s his series is more ambitious than ever, promising a truly immersive experience. SUITCASE caught up with the grandfather of the natural world.
“I couldn’t ever see myself not making documentaries – they have been my life,” begins Attenborough. “As for retirement, I’ll keep going until this old body suggests it’s probably time to give up. I feel sorry for the people who want to do my job that I’m still around. I sometimes feel I should give someone else a go, but my passion is just unrelenting!’” Attenborough’s joie de vivre is infectious. “I don’t live a life of regret; I live a life of life. Nothing can be viewed as a mistake as all of it is part of the course,” he says. That ‘life of life’ has, amongst other things, seen him spend time with mountain gorillas in Rwanda, seek out a lost tribe in New Guinea and film elephants in Tanzania, as well as narrating all 253 episodes of the BBC’s Wildlife on One between 1977 and 2005. A passion for travel has, of course, been a prerequisite, and there is one continent especially that has captured his heart.
“I think the very first time I landed in Africa was 1954, in Sierra Leone,” he explains. “I’d never been to the tropics before; I’d never been to Africa before. In fact, I’d not even been out of Europe. But I was just simply blown sideways by what I saw, by the sheer abundance and variety of the natural world that was all around us in Africa. I was in love from that moment on, and it’s an adoration that’s failed to wane in nearly 60 years.
“Africa will never stop amazing us. I mean, a huge lake underneath the Kalahari, with varieties of fish so many and varied that we can’t think of names for them quick enough. And we have so little knowledge of what’s actually there – it’s just so impenetrably big. Then you’ve got the areas in which we have a lot more knowledge, and are using that knowledge to do fantastic things – the gorillas in Uganda, for instance. This is a place that has embraced ecotourism and the result has been a sharp increase in the mountain gorilla population – up 30% in the last decade. It’s very heartening. The same goes for projects in Rwanda too, as well as Niger and Congo, where great and progressive projects are underway.” Educated at Cambridge, then the London School of Economics, Attenborough is an advocate of the old adage that reading and learning are non-stop processes. When packing for a trip abroad, the first items to be placed into his suitcase are therefore rather predictable.
“Books,” he replies without hesitation. “Books offer escapism and a solid grounding at the same time, and I adore that. I used to take a lot of music, but I don’t do that so much now. Sometimes it feels you’re almost afraid to think these days, as you’ve got so many things to divert your attention. I often see younger people listening to things all the time and I wonder, ‘When do they think?’, ‘when can you be alone with your thoughts and work things out if you’ve constantly got rhythms going into your head?’” A perennial traveller he may be, Attenborough continues to live something of a jet set lifestyle. That is not to say he doesn’t value home comforts though – he describes himself as “totally contented” in Richmond, south-west London, his home for the last six years. “Home takes the simplest part of what it is to be human, or an animal. It’s not about the vista, or discovery, it’s about shelter and comfort. I think all of us have been in situations where we’re somewhere quite incredibly breath-taking, yet our hearts are yearning for something infinitely more simplistic. That’s the spirit of life and of living. And that to me is Richmond – I may live by myself these days, but I can never be lonely, because I have such wonderful memories and, yes, okay, I admit, a beautiful view out towards the deer in Richmond Park!”
While Sir David is a ‘glass half full’ individual, the naturalist has one grave concern when asked to look ahead. “What will become of this planet on which we live?” he laments. “It’s a question that troubled me decades ago and it continues to now. In one sense we have learnt so much and changed so much – I mean, 30 years ago the concept of recycling was completely alien. But despite our progress, we have so much left to do – an extraordinary amount. And we’ve got to achieve this with a simply terrifying number of people drawing on the Earth’s resources.” Indeed, such is his worry about the effects of rapid population growth and the impact on our environment that Attenborough has suggested all countries should develop a population policy.
“Well there are now three times as many people on the Earth as when I first started making these documentaries. And we all feel entitled to the sorts of comforts that human beings need, but it’s square pegs and round holes. “There needs to be some sort of drastic action – we just cannot go on like this. If each country in the world developed a population policy we could at least plan and manage what we have. I believe there are 75 countries that do have this sort of policy, but it needs complete buy-in. If we could ever get to that point where population can be managed, then our lives would be so much better… and so too would be the lives of the creatures we share the planet with.”
Although the days when population levels are made truly manageable are still very far away, Attenborough’s legacy will undoubtedly live on. And it’s a legacy that, despite his advancing years, continues to develop and evolve. The broadcaster has always embraced the latest technologies as a way of bringing the viewer closer to nature. “Whether it’s CGI or burying cameras in nests or anything else, we’re always looking for ways to renew and refresh what we show. It all builds understanding, and understanding can lead people – people much more talented than me – to do magnificent things for the planet.” This forward-thinking philosophy has certainly been employed in the making of Planet Earth II, which uses advanced technology in camera stabilisation and aerial drone filming to bring viewers closer to nature than ever before. “If the legacy I leave behind is one that has shown people that the natural world is approachable and touchable, and that the futures of these marvellous species really is in our hands, then that’s probably not such a bad thing to leave behind, wouldn’t you say?”
This article has been updated and was originally published on 4 April 2014.