Filmmakers and the environment: David Attenborough

He probably wouldn't thank you for saying it, but Sir David Attenborough is the pin-up of the wildlife world. And, despite the fact that he turned 80 this year, Attenborough's enthusiasm for nature still captivates audiences around the world. Currently, Sir David is trekking the globe in search of reptiles and amphibians for his next great epic, Life in Cold Blood, due for delivery in 2008. But he has been a household name since 1979, when his breakthrough series Life on Earth attracted audiences of around 500 million.
August 1, 2006

He probably wouldn’t thank you for saying it, but Sir David Attenborough is the pin-up of the wildlife world. And, despite the fact that he turned 80 this year, Attenborough’s enthusiasm for nature still captivates audiences around the world. Currently, Sir David is trekking the globe in search of reptiles and amphibians for his next great epic, Life in Cold Blood, due for delivery in 2008. But he has been a household name since 1979, when his breakthrough series Life on Earth attracted audiences of around 500 million.

In the intervening period, he has fronted some of the most iconic nh series, notably The Living Planet (1984), The Trials of Life (1990), and The Life of Mammals (2002). He has tackled the polar north (Life in the Freezer, 1993) and even persuaded the international broadcasting circuit to plough millions into a series about plants (The Private Life of Plants, 1995). That alone shows his pulling power with audiences.

Attenborough joined the BBC in 1952 and has been associated with the Corporation ever since. During the ’60s and ’70s, he held senior roles there, but relinquished them in 1973 in order to return to program-making. At the time, he quipped that he was quitting because ‘I haven’t seen the Galapagos yet.’ Later he explained: ‘It seems to me that the natural world is the greatest source of excitement; the greatest source of visual beauty; the greatest source of intellectual interest. It is the greatest source of so much in life that makes life worth living.’

In recent years, his work has, to some extent, been caught up in the wider debate about conservation and the environment. Attenborough series such as The State of the Planet (2000) have addressed key conservation issues – though he insists on strict journalistic standards. A natural scientist to the core, there is no trace of propaganda in his work, just a straightforward search for evidential truth, wrapped up in the kind of enthusiasm and eccentricity that saw Victorian explorers search for the source of the White Nile.

In a recent interview with The Independent in the UK, he likened himself more to a curator than an activist: ‘I am always cautious about crying wolf. I think conservationists have to be careful in saying things are catastrophic.’

Whatever his role in the politics of the environment, there’s no question that Attenborough has done more to create a connection between humanity and the natural world than almost anyone. So, with Life in Cold Blood expected to be his last major expedition, realscreen caught up with him on his home turf.

Sir David, you’re working on Life in Cold Blood, your latest flagship for the bbc about the world of reptiles and amphibians. Where has the series taken you so far?
We’re about halfway through production, for delivery in 2008, and I’d say the experience has been about par for the course. The series takes us around the world to Australia, South Africa, North Africa and Europe. It’s 25 years since I looked at this species group, so one highlight was our trip in May to the Galapagos Islands where we filmed giant tortoises. [Ed: One of whom, Lonesome George, is said to be the same age as Attenborough.]

Will this be your last series?
It’s not me who wants to stop. But, I’ll be 83 then. If I go into a network controller and say that I want to make a £3 million (US$5.7 million), three-year series, then they’ll rightly be concerned about their investment. They’d say, ‘It’s lovely to hear from you, but are you sure you’ll be standing by the end of the series?’

With due respect, they might have said that when you went to them aged 78 or 79 asking to make Life in Cold Blood.
I’m in reasonable shape right now and I think the thing that appealed to everyone from an editorial and commercial point of view was that this is a chance for me to complete my survey of all the major animal groups.

Most of us would have retired long ago. What keeps you going?
If I had been hewing coal, then of course I’d have wanted to retire at 50. But why stop when I’m being paid to travel round the world and see the most amazing things?

A lot has changed since you began, but what has changed for you editorially?
The main difference is that I used to do a lot more lengthy pieces to camera – sometimes as long as two minutes. That would be exceptional now. Typically, I will do 50 to 60 seconds to camera and that will be intercut with visual images.

Do you think the way natural history programming has adapted has been detrimental in terms of its science?
In terms of my own work, it’s just a new style, a new way of doing things, which doesn’t affect the content or the science. As for other styles, there are plenty out there which I couldn’t do but I think work very well. The BBC’s Big Cat Dairy introduced an interesting new approach. And I think presenters like Bill Oddie do a good job. It’s clear that Bill is working out what he’s going to say as he goes – it’s not at all cut-and-dried like me. Bill takes what he finds in his stride, whereas I know as I walk round a corner I’m going to find a crocodile sitting on its nest. They are different styles, but both equally valid.

In the past, you’ve talked about how arriving in the middle of Borneo in the 1950s was like landing on a different world. At that time, was it easier to find the wildlife for your films?
It was easier to discover things then because less of the planet had been put on the map. But it’s easier to find things now. Fifty years ago, it was hard to track an animal in the wild. Now there isn’t a single important species that doesn’t have someone devoting their life to studying its habitat and observing its behavior. When I want to know about crocodiles, I go to the people who have spent 20 years working on that species and they are always willing to help me out.

There’s a general perception that you have gotten more interested in issues relating to the environment in recent years.
Yes, that notion has got around, but it’s not true. If you go right back to Life on Earth, you’ll find me raising conservation issues. I was also involved in the formation of the World Wildlife Fund. In 2000, we did a three-part series called The State of the Planet tackling these themes.

Where do you stand on the broader environmental debate – on global warming – rather than issues such as conservation and deforestation, which are more closely connected with NH?
It’s true that I wasn’t talking about climate change 10 years ago. But that’s because the science wasn’t there. It’s only in the last five years that the evidence for climate change has been incontestable. You have to remember, I am a tv celebrity, not a climate change scientist. It wouldn’t have been right for a TV celebrity to make pronouncements about a complex area like this. It’s not possible to see the evidence firsthand with the kind of work I do, but the data is now incontrovertible.

What does that mean for you as an NH filmmaker? Is it your responsibility as a leading tv figure to evangelize?
No. My responsibility is to ask the questions. If you are right about my status, then it would be wrong of me to be a propagandist. I’m not throwing up my hands and saying, ‘To hell with this problem. There’s nothing we can do.’ I’m an old-style bbc reporter who’s been trained to be dispassionate, objective and unprejudiced. It’s not my job to grind an axe, but to be an honest reporter.

An Australian newspaper recently called you a ‘wrathful prophet’ in the battle against climate change. Is that accurate?
I’m completely convinced of the importance of this issue and am involved with various conservation organizations from an international to a local level. But, in my working life, it is for me to make films like Are We Changing The Planet? and let people decide what they think. If you look at those films, you can see that my main job is to ask questions of the experts in this field. I wouldn’t want to use an adjective to describe the way I go about that.

It’s been reported that you are interested in the exploration and zoological pioneers, but who are your mentors?
Peter Scott. He was a major figure in the development of natural history. He was one of the most important naturalists and conservationist of the century. He founded the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust and was the first chairman of the World Wildlife Fund in 1961. [Ed: Sir Peter Scott, the founder of many local conservation bodies and first president of the Wildscreen film fest, was the son of Captain Scott of the Antarctic. Attenborough has called Scott the 'Patron Saint of conservation.']

What about talent coming through? Do you think the genre is in safe hands?
I think there are some excellent new voices coming through. I’ve mentioned Bill Oddie. But I’m very impressed by Charlotte Uhlenbroek (Chimpanzee Diary), and Simon King is also a major all-round talent. He won a BAFTA for his camerawork on Life in the Freezer, fronted Big Cat Diary, and has also written scripts for BBC1 films narrated by me. I watch natural history frequently and am still learning from what is made by others coming up through the genre.

After a half century exploring the planet’s extremities, how would you say you’ve changed? Are you a wiser person?
I’ve got older. I don’t know about wiser. But you’d have to have a brain like a sieve not to have kept something in.

About The Author
Barry Walsh is editor and content director for realscreen, and has served as editor of the publication since 2009. With a career in entertainment media that spans two decades, prior to realscreen, he held the associate editor post for now defunct sister publication Boards, which focused on the advertising and commercial production industries. Before Boards, he served as editor of Canadian Music Network, a weekly music industry trade, and as music editor for As content director, he also oversees the development of content for the brand's market-leading events, the Realscreen Summit and Realscreen West, as well as new content initiatives.