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By bringing unseen creatures to television,
Sir David Attenborough has himself become the rarest of species.
A broadcaster, his programmes reach huge audiences,
but he's also known for the intelligence of his views on science and broadcasting.
Sir David Attenborough has combined science and entertainment
in a succession of natural history series
screened and praised around the world,
including Life on Earth, The Living Planet and The Life of Birds.
I get to see the most fantastic things.
We've been seeing things in the last couple of weeks
that no human being's seen before.
Can you imagine?
And, as a former controller of BBC2 and managing director of BBC Television,
he's also one of the most respected voices in the debate on the future of TV.
But as David Attenborough ultimately found the jungle a more comfortable environment than the boardroom,
it seemed fitting to meet at the Natural History Museum.
You're in your late seventies now.
Looking back, the life you've had, how does it measure up to what
you might have imagined in your twenties, thirties?
Ah, well, pretty well really.
I couldn't have dreamt that I have done what I have done.
Um, of course, when I was in my teens and thinking what I was going to do,
I thought I was going to be a scientist.
Um, and in many ways I regret not being a scientist.
But I couldn't possibly have imagined that I was going to be in television because there wasn't any television.
Not effectively, anyway.
1938, there was just the beginning of television, but I didn't see it.
So I didn't know. And I couldn't have imagined it would have opened so many doors and paid so many air tickets.
You're currently filming the next big series, Life in the Undergrowth.
At a simple level, cos you don't have to do it financially, I assume, why do you still do it?
Oh, that's not a very difficult question!
Because it's enormously interesting.
Um...I mean I get to see the most fantastic things.
We've been seeing things in the last couple of weeks
that no human being has seen before.
Can you imagine? What a fantastic privilege.
And the excitement, um, and also...
Such as? Give me an example of something you've seen.
Well, we've been watching
ants called Matabele ants, which live by raiding termites.
And we've been able to put
new electronic gear, tiny little cameras, inside to see what happens.
And these Matabele ants come along and tackle the huge soldier termites
that have enormous armed heads, helmets of chitin.
And they set about them.
And nobody's ever seen or described how they do it.
What they actually do is to seize the jaw of this termite soldier,
and then bring round their abdomen, which is armed with a sting,
and sting them in the one place where you can actually sting a termite,
uh, a termite soldier anyway,
and that is in the mouth.
I mean, it's awful to see, actually.
This juddering termite is hauled away by the rest of the soldiers.
Nobody has ever watched that kind of thing going on before
in that degree of detail.
In the Natural History Museum, there's a fossil named after Attenborough.
This, rather than a television series,
would have been the ambition of a schoolboy interested in science,
growing up in Leicester as the son of a teacher.
You...are, to some extent, a performer.
Your brother Dickie, better known as Lord Attenborough, he is very much a fine actor, a director.
There must somewhere have been a showbiz gene, was there?
Well, I don't know. I suppose there has to be some kind of histrionic gene or something.
I never intended...could have gone into the theatre or feature films.
I mean, that is a world I know nothing about
and feel still very uneasy in it.
I mean, when I'm alongside him, it's not my world at all.
And I daresay he'll probably say that his world wasn't the world of the entomologist.
Um, but I suppose that actually a good teacher has to be something of an actor.
And I daresay an actor has to be something of a teacher.
I'm interested in the upbringing
because Richard Attenborough's films are very often liberal,
they're campaigning films.
Obviously, Gandhi, Biko and so on.
Your programmes, although they're good programmes,
they also seek to do a certain amount of good - to educate, to spread messages.
Is that something you were brought up with, do you think?
Yes. My parents were certainly...
..people with strong social consciences.
And we were certainly brought up to feel that we should have a social conscience
and have some regard for the society of which we were a part.
And yeah, we were taught that was a proper thing to do.
I think during the Second World War, your family took in refugees.
Oh, yes, and before.
My mother...I have an early memory of my mother herding us up, the three of us, her three sons,
and taking us to a big hall outside Leicester, where we lived,
and said we had to clean this hall
because there were Basque children who had been bombed during the Spanish Civil War.
And these children had lost their mothers and their fathers,
and they were going to live here and we've got to do something for them.
So my mother actually got down and scrubbed the floors.
And then they were involved very much
in getting Jewish refugees from Germany.
And that was because,
and they did so through academic areas
because my father was an academic.
So they looked after, as far as they could, doctors, physicists, chemists
and all kinds of people who came from Germany.
The question of God arises, obviously, for anyone who studies the natural world, as you have.
Was it a religious upbringing?
Not at all, no.
And have you, at any time, had any religious faith?
And so...your programmes clearly are Darwinist.
But you never seem to actually take on the creationists who, for example...
Oh, I certainly do privately, and would be quite happy to do so.
It's not the place to do it in the sort of programmes I make.
Ah, but, um...
I don't have...
I mean, I have a very vigorous correspondence
with a number of religious fundamentalists.
And I have a pretty straightforward answer really,
which is that all societies, ALL societies, have had need to find an explanation
of the way in which human beings came into the world.
And the Australian Aboriginals think it's a rainbow serpent in the sky.
And the Thais think that it's a sea of milk being churned by demons.
And a tribe of people in the Middle East thought that it was
a garden in which the first woman was made by taking a rib from Adam.
Now, they can't all be right.
Some of them have to be wrong.
Um, so which are right?
Well, the only...faced with such conflict,
why don't we look at the world around us,
as in this institution,
and try and make sense of that?
Because THIS evidence is the same everywhere, you know.
And I find it far more awesome, wonderful,
that creation, and our appearance in the world,
should be the culmination or at least
one of the latest products of 3,000 million years of organic evolution,
than a kind of conjuring trick from taking a rib out of a man's side in a trance.
But the word "wonder" is important cos you get letters from creationists,
particularly who watch the programmes in America.
A lot of people take that leap from a sense of wonder in nature,
to assuming there must be something behind it.
When you look, and you clearly have that sense of wonder,
that sense of awe at the natural world,
you are thinking what?
This just...it just happened? It's just...
I, I, I...
I don't know.
I can't believe that each species was brought into existence
by a merciful God who cares about human beings, for obvious reasons.
I mean, for the fact that,
why is there so much pain? Why so much disaster?
Why are some animals tortured in so many ways?
Why are human beings tortured by all kinds of parasites?
I can't believe that God created parasites in order to torture small children.
Attenborough's avowed secularism leaves the question
of what drives an almost evangelical passion
to communicate the facts and wonders of nature.
If there were a Hollywood movie about you,
there'd be a moment when you first looked at a fossil, or the "light-bulb moment".
Is there such a moment when the realisation came?
Oh, yeah, mmm.
Um, I mean, I know its kind because it repeated itself.
It's that moment when you hit a rock
and it falls in two halves and there is this astonishing,
beautiful, shining, glittering, wonderful organic shape. A shell.
Or indeed a creature with legs.
And nobody has ever seen that before, except you.
You are the first person to do it.
And that's thrilling.
I mean, I find that thrilling, still.
Given what happened to you,
to become like the story of the person who said the Beatles would never come to anything,
but you were rejected, first of all, in radio, you tried.
Yes, and I saw an advertisement for the BBC.
The advertisement was for a radio producer,
and I thought, "Well, I'm supposed to be thinking up ideas
"for books, for science books, why can't I think up ideas for radio?"
And so I applied and didn't get an interview even.
But a fortnight later I got a letter from someone saying,
"We've got this new thing, it's only been going for a couple of years, three years,
"and it's called television and a lot of people are rude about it,
"but we think there could be something there,
"would you like to come and have a go?"
And I took a rather high line, actually, I said, "Well, what security have I got?"
I was married, I have got a child...
And they said, "We can't guarantee that we'll give you a job for more than three months."
And I thought, "Well, I can't do that." So I said, "Certainly not."
And they said, "You know it's only...", and I've forgotten the figure, a tiny figure,
but it was three times as much as I was earning in publishing,
so I thought, "Well, I'll give it a go."
So I went up to Alexandra Palace and just had the time of my life.
I thought it was absolutely marvellous.
When you look back at people's careers, often there's an element of luck,
that something happens that leads them to what they did.
That happened to you, cos Zoo Quest, you should've been a producer and you ended up presenting.
Yes. I put up an idea
that we should cover an expedition, on film, to West Africa.
The London Zoo was sending to collect animals for the zoo.
And the idea was that the man from the zoo,
a nice man called Jack Lester, who was curator of reptiles,
we would film him pouncing on some Gaboon viper, or enormous python or something,
and then we would show that sequence, and then from the film we would come to Jack in the studio
wrestling with this python, you see, while he told us about the intimate details of its anatomy.
And, poor Jack did the first programme, but he was very ill
and he really couldn't do the second.
I mean, he had to go to hospital.
And because it had this live element, the head of television said,
"It's in the Radio Times, someone's got to do it.
"You'd better do it, you're the only bloke there."
So somebody else took over the cameras and I went and did it.
But "staff, no fee", I hasten to add, as the phrase was in those days.
A month ago, Charles Lagus and I returned from spending four months in search of a dragon.
And for the next 10 years we went on doing that sort of thing,
but my job was a producer, I was paid as a producer.
And the fact I appeared in front of the camera was incidental.
But in theatre when that happens,
an understudy or an extra gets to go on and become a star,
it's what they've been waiting for, dreaming of.
But it wasn't in your case?
No, not at all. But you still saw that it was...it gave you a weapon.
I mean, it gave me a chance to say I wanted to do this, that and the other,
which I might not have been able to do so quite as effectively
if I didn't appear in the thing.
You have good nerves though, cos something happened, I think it was the fourth series,
you went to New Guinea and something alarming happened,
and you do seem to have strong nerves.
No, I don't think so. I don't think I have.
I know a lot of people who are much, as it were, strongly nerved than me.
I mean, that one you're talking about was just, I couldn't think what else to do, really.
It was that we met some people at a tribal frontier
and we thought we had been ambushed by them.
And they came galloping down the path waving spears to us.
I simply couldn't think what else to do.
I mean, the camera was turning when it happened.
Um...because I had been talking about where we were
and suddenly these people burst out from hiding.
And the only thing I could think of doing...I mean, no point in running, I mean, you couldn't run.
So the only thing to do was to go to them and say, "Hello".
Which I did.
'To my enormous relief, they greeted me not fiercely,
'but with considerable enthusiasm.
'Laughing at myself, I discovered that this, in fact,
'is merely the normal New Guinea welcome.'
And were are you scared?
Yes, I suppose so.
I scare quite easy.
I mean, there's times when...I have been frightened quite a lot, really.
If we talk about the moment that turns up in all those programmes - the greatest moments of TV ever -
in Rwanda when the gorilla comes up behind you.
I'm interested in what you were thinking.
Were you thinking this is an astonishing thing to happen
or were you thinking this is amazing TV?
Is that calculation ever there?
No, I mean, I think that was such an overwhelming experience,
and caught me so by surprise,
that the television part of it is, well,
it's a long way down on the priorities, really.
There I was thinking that this gorilla was going to be behind me
and that I was going to be talking,
and then suddenly these little baby gorillas come
and started taking my shoes off.
And the female put her hand on my head!
Um, and you don't think, "Is this going to be a terrific shot?"
I can tell you.
I mean, you think, "Holy mackerel!" You know.
This is this extraordinary thing
and she's treating me in this amazing way.
There is a temptation - dealing with animals, wildlife, nature -
towards sentimentality, which Disney represents obviously.
You have resisted that, quite deliberately.
Yes, I think that what interests me about the natural world
is the way it works, which is, um, er...
And trying to really understand how it works.
And that involves understanding about violence,
understanding about predators and, um, and, er...
understanding about insects
and the way they affect the way the whole machinery goes,
which is nothing to do with sort of "up popped mummy frog", you know.
We're at a stage now, technologically, where anything can be faked, essentially, visually.
There've been cases in wildlife films where things have been computer enhanced, have been faked.
Animals that don't exist are shown moving around, does that worry you?
Yes, a lot.
Um, and I, er...
I worry that people...
The natural world is so astonishing that every now and again...
I mean, the series I'm doing now,
which is about earthworms and scorpions and stuff,
that people will say,
"Oh, well, it's not really true. They don't do that sort of thing.
"They don't communicate in that sort of way.
"That's just the way that they are doing it these days.
"They can model anything.
"They can make dinosaurs come to life, you know,
"and who knows, they don't really do that sort of stuff."
And that's terrible.
And so, I think one of the few justifications
for having people appear in natural history programmes,
in the way that I do,
is that people may say, "Well, if he says it's right, it's right."
And the presenter can give veracity
and persuade people that it IS true.
And that's why it's extremely important
that I don't ever move into that area
and try and deceive people about things.
But in one of your own series, there was an instance,
in which a polar bear is seen giving birth,
and the birth, it turns out, was filmed in a zoo,
put together with footage from the Arctic.
That WAS justifiable?
In my view, totally, because what the programme was about
was trying to tell you about the natural history of polar bears.
And one of the important things to understand about bears is that they,
particularly polar bears,
is that they give birth during hibernation
and they produce this tiny little baby.
I mean, that's a key thing.
And so I had no hesitation at all about putting together footage from all over the place,
including unique material of a female polar bear giving birth,
which was shot in Hamburg Zoo.
Now, if I had said, "Well, here I am in the Arctic
"and I'm trying to stalk this polar bear,
"and I'm trying to get a look inside her den",
and THEN put that in, then that's a lie.
I mean, that is totally unjustifiable.
But if you're saying, "I'm trying to tell you about polar bears -
"how they swim, how they give birth, how they hunt",
and you put together stuff from all areas, that's fine.
AND we didn't make any secret of it.
We gave a credit at the end of the programme,
saying thanks were due to the Hamburg Zoo.
Many people have compared the higher levels of management at the BBC to a jungle
and Attenborough is one of the few people to have direct experience of both savage environments.
Apart from your many, many appearances on screen,
you had a brief spell as a BBC manager, running BBC2,
and then running the television service.
In general, was TV better at that period,
in the '60s and '70s, than it is now?
Well, it wasn't all that brief. I mean, I was there for eight years.
And, of course, it would be dishonest of me not to say
that I thought that we did some good things in that time.
I mean, I would be ashamed if, after eight years,
you said, "Oh, well, it was all... it was a failure".
Um, but we had the opportunity to do things
which are much more difficult to do now.
Um, there were only three networks in the country.
The BBC had two of them.
And if the BBC didn't use that position of great scope that it had
of two networks to produce something that wasn't pretty good,
and was more adventurous and experimental and took risks
and doing all that sort of thing,
then I would really be ashamed of myself.
Um, and I think we did do those things.
We introduced all kinds of new kinds of programme genres.
And we were able to go for audiences of a size, in proportionate terms,
which you couldn't possibly do now.
You say its key was that there were three channels,
now that there are hundreds, and may eventually be thousands,
is it impossible to create the kind of television that was created then?
Well, it only is impossible if you set yourself the wrong targets
or say you're working within the wrong parameters.
And the BBC is continually on a pendulum, you know.
At one end, they're saying,
"Oh, you're doing all these highbrow things
"and unpopular things and you are up in the ivory tower.
"A lot of people resent paying - your licence holder -
"because they don't see those kind of programmes,
"therefore loosen up and get more popular."
And then so you do and then the poor old BBC, having done that
and proved itself to be more popular than commercial television,
people say, "Oh, what a terrible thing,
"that you aren't doing your public service obligations, you should...
And so it's continually doing that.
And it's battered over the head whichever way it does.
And it was certainly the case five years ago that everybody -
politicians and people running the BBC,
and all kinds of other people were saying,
"The BBC's got to be more popular.
"We won't be able to get the licence renewed unless we are."
So they did move that way, but now they're moving back again.
We hear that phrase so often, and it's crucial in this period when the BBC is seeking a new charter -
"public service broadcasting." What, in your view, does that mean?
It doesn't mean there's any such thing as a public service programme.
Public service broadcasting is using a broadcasting network NOT to make money,
but to try and cover the widest possible spectrum of viewer interests.
And your success as a public service broadcaster is measured,
to a very considerable degree, by the width of that spectrum,
the number of people who come for all kinds of different kinds of programmes.
So it's a schedule, it's a total schedule.
And you don't call yourself a public service broadcaster
just because you happen to do a programme about Norman architecture
and put it out at 3.15 in the morning.
That's not public service broadcasting.
And also the news is a crucial thing in public service broadcasting.
News which stands up for its values, not simply political values,
as we've had the horrible example of that,
but also popularity values.
Your news ought to do things because you think it's important news.
And even if it's unpalatable news, and even if the audience turns away
cos they don't want to hear that particular aspect of the news,
that's neither here nor there, you've got to do it.
You can make it as accessible as you can, and as interesting as you can, but you've got to do it.
That's what public service broadcasting is about.
The horrible example of what can happen in political news,
-I assume is a reference to the Andrew Gilligan affair.
-Of course, yeah.
And what was your view of that?
Oh, well, I think it pointed up, very importantly,
the bad condition we've got
vis-a-vis the governors of the BBC and the governance of the BBC.
There wasn't any question, in my view,
that the correct thing that should've happened,
that had the governors been properly divorced from the executive,
that when the Government, the Prime Minister or whoever else said,
"We're going to have an inquiry", the chairman of the BBC should say,
"Thank you, you've no need to do that.
"That's what we're here for, that's our job.
"You mind your business and we'll mind ours.
"We will have an inquiry because we're public-spirited people
"and we're NOT part of the executive
"and WE will get to the bottom of the question."
Now, they didn't do that because, for the last 20 years, the executive and the governance have been merged.
Now, the dangers of that are now very, very apparent.
And people, at the moment, are making sure, within the BBC, that that is being...
I mean, the present chairman and the governors, are bringing them apart,
and a very good thing too.
-Are you confident that the licence fee will survive?
Nobody should be confident the licence fee should survive.
The licence fee happens to be the most important element
in broadcasting in this country, in my view.
And it is SO important that nobody should ever take it for granted.
Everybody should be saying, "Yes, we understand why that is there.
"And we understand that the quality of broadcasting that there is in this country
"is actually a direct consequence of having one major organisation
"which broadcasts with a licence."
So once you have hundreds of channels, as we have now,
we have the Internet, we have everything else,
why should British people, if they want to watch the BBC,
still be required to pay a licence fee and go to jail if they don't?
Why should you or I pay for our rates for a public library
even though we never use it in our lives?
Why should you or I pay for a swimming pool for people if we don't...?
The notion of having a society that is sufficiently integrated
with a sufficient sense of social responsibility
to pay communally to make sure that everybody in the society
has the right sort of facilities that they need -
that's perfectly clear,
and that applies to broadcasting just as it does to public libraries.
The sense, which when I read and talk to you about the early days in TV,
that sense of wonder and hope, that can never exist again in TV?
No. I mean, I do remember very clearly
thinking that this was wonderful because,
and it was a monopoly situation, because the entire nation -
bank clerks in Surbiton could understand
what coalminers in Durham were talking about,
and musicians could hear what writers were talking about,
and the nation would come together and that we would be all...
have a social cohesive, and be that much better as a community as a consequence.
And then commercialism came in.
And that distorted - that ideal couldn't survive that.
Sir David Attenborough, thank you.
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd, 2006.
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