HISTORY OF A NATURAL

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David Attenborough's new series is one nobody else could have made. He tells Samantha Weinberg about the changes he has seen—and the one he wants to see...

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, September/October 2012

When David Attenborough joined the BBC, 60 years ago this September, Britain had only one television channel. Cameras had to be wound up like a clock and could only film live or in 20-second bursts. There was no way to capture sound and vision at the same time, or to broadcast from anywhere but the studio. Attenborough, like most people, did not own a television set; he thinks he had seen only one programme in his life. He had applied for a job in radio, as a talks producer, and been turned down, and it was only by chance that his CV was seen by a television executive, the head of factual broadcasting, Mary Adams. She gave him a chance—but when he first went in front of the camera, she said his teeth were too big.

By 1956, Attenborough had persuaded the BBC to let him try a new way of filming—from and of the natural world. With only a cameraman and animal expert for company, he would go off for months to remote lands in search of rare beasts. In Borneo, some days’ walk from civilisation, he was on the trail of orangutan when he spied a man paddling up the river, wearing only a sarong and bearing a message tucked in a cleft stick. It was from the BBC, giving instructions on how to use their new toy: colour film. What started in a makeshift fashion with "Zoo Quest" matured over the decades into "Life on Earth", "The Private Life of Plants", "Life in Cold Blood", "Frozen Planet" and many more. With Attenborough, the phenomenon of natural-history film-making was born.

He did so well that he became controller of BBC2, in 1965, and then BBC director of programmes—but had a clause written into his contract to make sure he could carry on making films himself, and within a few years he returned to his vocation. Now, aged 86 and still going strong aside from a gammy hip, he has revisited some of his early haunts to make a series of three films looking back over the six decades. "The BBC decided they wanted to do something to mark it, and I just hoped to goodness it wasn’t going to be a dinner," he said. "A series sounded like more fun, but I wanted to shift the focus from me, to look at the changes in natural-history film-making, science and the natural world." The self-effacement is typical, but immaterial: the story of his life is the history of his genre.

He enthuses about the tiny cameras that let us peek into a mouse’s love life, the underwater cameras that take us into the ocean deep, and the science that has enhanced our understanding of the natural world. "When I was at university, there was no such thing as genetics, nothing was known about DNA, and my geology professor dismissed continental drift as moonshine. The way in which our knowledge has expanded is extraordinary, and the pace of change is astounding."

But it is the changes in the natural world that preoccupy him. While he brushes off the suggestion that he has a message to convey, his recent programmes, particularly the ones he has authored rather than just fronted, have shown a growing urgency, a determination to lay bare the planet’s plight. "The world is in terrible trouble," he says. "According to the UN, over half the world’s population is now urbanised. Apart from rats and pigeons, they have probably never seen a wild animal. How are these people supposed to act? How are they supposed to feel it’s worth preserving unless they know what it is that keeps them alive, unless they understand the extent to which we are dependent on the natural world, and that we are doing terrible things to it by our very presence?"

It is the media, he believes, that hold the key to our salvation. While this won’t be to everyone’s taste in the age of phone-hacking, Attenborough sees no other way. "The media need to keep people informed. If not, why would they agree to politicians devoting tax money and passing legislation aimed at preserving our planet? We have to convey the facts that scientists know very well, and impress on people and politicians that we have to act now.

"Am I optimistic about the future? No, not at all. But that’s irrelevant. It’s imperative that you do something, even if you don’t think it’s going to do any good."

That is not the sort of talk we expect from a man we associate with enthusiasm, with passion, empathy and baby animals. Attenborough’s breathy tones, as he plays grandmother’s footsteps with a penguin, or gasps at the display of a bird of paradise, have brought knowledge and wonder into our sitting rooms. "Attenborough: 60 Years in the Wild" provides an irresistible excuse to replay the highlights and revel in those close encounters with silverback gorillas, aggressive elephant seals and bat guano that have become integral to the way we understand the natural world. As each programme kicks off, he is sitting at the front of a wooden boat, gliding gently along the brown waters of the Kinabatangan river in Malaysian Borneo, speaking with the clarity that has been a hallmark of his work. In the face of the desecration of that area, it comes across initially as gold-tinted, nostalgic, but when, in the last of the series, the camera pulls back to reveal the vast palm-oil plantations just beyond the river’s fringe, Attenborough does not mince his condemnation: "Again and again, I have seen the impoverishment and desolation caused by the way we have ruthlessly taken what we want from the land, regardless of the cost."

In a 2009 Reader’s Digest survey, Attenborough was voted the most trusted person in Britain (a position even "Polar Beargate", the revelation that some of the bears filmed for "Frozen Planet" were born in a zoo, will have done little to dislodge). Despite his advancing years—perhaps because of them—he is using that capital now to give his viewers some home truths. It was not always thus: until a few years ago, Attenborough was unwilling to speak out about climate change. 

He is not entirely despairing. "It is surprising how fast pennies can drop. Big change will only happen when human beings begin to realise that wasting energy and destroying the environment is sinful, that it’s a crime to throw away a bit of plastic. Nonetheless it’s a moral issue. A hundred and eighty years ago it was acceptable to keep other human beings as slaves. The shift in moral perception and attitude against slavery was remarkably swift. There has to be a comparable change now in attitudes about the environment."

Which is where the mouse cams and 3D cams and the heli-mounted gyrostabilisers that enabled those extraordinary close-ups of polar bears in the Arctic come in. The technological advances over the decades have enabled Attenborough to introduce us to the miracles of the natural world. And once we know what we have, he hopes, we will not willingly throw it away. As he concludes in the last episode of the new series: "I’ve spent my life filming the natural world and I’ve travelled to some pretty remote and exciting places to do so… But every journey seems to have got quicker and shorter. It’s as if the world has shrunk – but then sadly so have the wild places. The increasing size of the human population is having a devastating effect on the natural world. Fortunately people are becoming more aware of that and are doing something about it. I’d like to think natural-history programmes have helped in that process."

Attenborough: 60 Years in the Wild BBC1, October

Samantha Weinberg is our assistant editor and a former commissioning editor at Eureka on the Times. She is the author of "A Fish Caught in Time".

Picture: David Attenborough in 1956 (Getty)