This story will appear in the next edition of Tortoise Quarterly. Depending on your membership, you’ll receive your copy in glorious, old-fashioned print or as an ebook in mid-August.
I am prepared to do just about anything for the World Land Trust. After all, David Attenborough said: “The money that is given to the World Land Trust, in my estimation, has more effect in the wild world than almost anything I can think of.”
But there are limits. When I was asked to speak about the importance of the Trust’s work at a meeting for major donors in the City I refused point-blank. “Not a chance. I’ll open the show cold if you like, but I am not going to stand up in front of all those people and tell them that nature matters and the wild world is important – not if that means following David Attenborough.”
But they were men and women of steel and I was reluctantly persuaded to do my best. Here’s a challenge: follow Bach’s B Minor Mass with a solo on the kazoo. I awaited my turn and then made the predictable point about the challenge of following David Attenborough.
But, I went on, I have spent my entire life following David Attenborough. What we all need to do to improve our lives is to follow David Attenborough. What’s more, the world would be a better place – and would certainly last a good deal longer – if everybody on earth were to follow David Attenborough.
The Environment Movement is a term used to describe the revolution in human thought has been going on for the last half century or so. American commentators date the start of the movement at 1962, the year of the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, which showed an incredulous world that we were destroying nature, most obviously by means of poisons such as DDT.
But I was aware of the fragility of the planet years earlier, when I was at primary school and watching David Attenborough. His career began at the real beginning of the Environment Movement in the early 1950s, when such concerns were regarded as an agreeable eccentricity. Attenborough’s career continues today, embracing all the new technologies as it does so, in a time when the environment is increasingly understood as the most essential item on the global agenda. That shift in perspective is crucial to the future of all life on this planet, and Attenborough has done more than anyone else to bring it about. For that reason, his is the most significant life of the last 100 years.
That might seem an extravagant claim to make about a television broadcaster. But it is now becoming clear that the crisis in the environment is the most important issue that humanity has ever faced: one that involves our own potential extinction. If we are to change the current direction of travel, we will do so because millions of people are convinced of both the gravity and the urgency of that situation. The person who has done more than anyone else to convince people – in tens of millions – that the crisis is real is Attenborough. If the world is, indeed, to be saved, then Attenborough will have had more to do with its salvation than anyone else who ever lived.
The first hints of the world’s fragility came in his succession of Zoo Quest programmes. The first, titled simply Zoo Quest, was based on a trip to Sierra Leone and was broadcast in 1954. The series was structured round a search for a bird called the white-necked picathartes: would they find it? Would they not?
He tells a story of driving along Oxford Street in an open-topped car, and a bus driver calling to him: “Oi, Dave! Are you going to find this pica-bloody-thartes or not?” It was an early indication of the impact he would make: showing marvellous pictures of marvellous creatures to ordinary old us, making the big points by means of a compelling personal performance and a genius for telling a tale.
We all remember the teacher who made a difference: the one who opened doors, the one who showed us wonders and brought them within our reach: the most important non-related person in your entire life. Attenborough has been the world’s favourite teacher for 65 years.
He was certainly mine. Under his influence I spent every Saturday at the Natural History Museum; when I left primary school my prize was Attenborough’s Zoo Quest for a Dragon. My father, who also worked for the BBC, got it signed and it’s on my bookshelves still.
Zoo Quest was revolutionary. The BBC used filmed material even in those early years, but it had to be 35mm, the same stuff they used to make films for the cinema. Attenborough, never a snob, made his Zoo Quest films with the accompaniment of a cameraman, Charles Lagus, armed with a 16mm Bolex camera that worked by clockwork; the longest sequence it could take was 30 seconds.
The programmes mixed filmed material with studio sequences: Attenborough talking to camera with creatures that had been captured and brought back for zoos; back then cutting-edge conservation was about insurance populations of threatened species in zoos.
His 1962 work Zoo Quest to Madagascar reached me on a very deep level. Years later, when I first met him, I asked him which lemur it was that was so hard to find: “Indri!” he told me. This is a large lemur with a marvellous singing voice. Would he find it? Would it be forever elusive? And I was taken up, not just with the thrill of the chase and the lure of the quest, but also with a sudden soul-deep realisation of the fragility of things: of life and of hopes, sure, but also, critically, of the wild world.
When Attenborough made the first Zoo Quest, such thoughts were not on his agenda. “It didn’t occur to me. The idea that humans could do significant damage didn’t occur to anybody, apart from a few visionaries.” But there were always subtle, perhaps unconscious intimations of fragility in his early work, and I never forgot the apparently doomed quest for the indri. Silent Spring was published the same year as Zoo Quest to Madagascar. I read about it and wondered what – what on earth – we would all come to.
But a few years after that I went away from wildness, preoccupied by the usual things of teenaged life. And Attenborough also went away, preoccupied by ambition.
He wasn’t just the prophet of the Environment Movement; he wasn’t just the best broadcaster that ever drew breath. He was also the best ever television executive, and while he was doing his time in offices he changed British television. He became controller of BBC Two in 1965: a new channel that had yet to work out what it was for. Under Attenborough it became vibrant, diverse and different, often thrillingly so. And in colour: he introduced colour television to British audiences.
Attenborough’s BBC Two changed the lives and thoughts of those who watched: The Old Grey Whistle Test and Monty Python’s Flying Circus brought us the sounds and the jokes of the 1960s. There was the classic and now, alas, lost Alan Bennett series On the Margin. Attenborough also brought us televised snooker (it’ll never catch on) and floodlit rugby league, along with Man Alive, Chronicle and Call My Bluff.
He also helped to form my musical tastes: a BBC Two performance of the entire Monteverdi Vespers (could that happen now?) exploded like a shell in my unformed mind. Years later, at his home in Richmond, we talked about music; his beautiful galleried library is dominated by a grand piano covered in challenging scores, though he was never – so he says – a great performer. If he was only allowed one single for-all-time-piece, it would be Bach’s Goldberg Variations; so would mine.
His time at BBC Two is celebrated for three blockbuster series: Civilisation by Kenneth Clarke, The Ascent of Man by Jacob Bronowski, and America by Alistair Cooke. I say “by” because these were auteur pieces, written and narrated by the person in front of the camera. Attenborough knew he could do that even better, not least because he had an even better story to tell – one that could change lives, one that could be the start of changing a world.
In 1969 he became Director of Programmes, in charge of both BBC channels. Increasingly he was caught up with budgets and meetings and trade unions and firings. In 1973 it seemed inevitable that they would make him Director General of the BBC – and that’s when he resigned. He wanted to get back to full-time programme-making. In some eyes this was a step down: in others, it was a step way up and beyond.
Again years later, in a chance meeting, my father told him that he had just resigned as head of BBC Children’s Programmes to go back to making programmes. “Good,” Attenborough said. “You’ve done your porridge.” Power has its points, but creativity is always more amusing. “Those last four years were entirely administration – and that’s not my game at all,” he said.
When Attenborough’s sentence was over, perhaps with time off for good behaviour, he set down to make Life on Earth; the decision to go ahead was made within days of his resignation. The 13-part series was, as the subtitle pointed out, a natural history, the greatest story of all that begins with the first microscopic twitches and takes us to the present day. It was told by means of stunning footage linked by brilliant story-telling and an outstanding personal performance, the presenter appearing in deep jungles and frozen forests, crossing vast deserts and oceans – but never preening, nor self-congratulatory. For Attenborough, the story was always the star. He was always more interested in the creatures he was showing us, than how he came across – which was precisely why he has always comes across so well.
“You and I know,” he once said to me, more than generously including me in this observation, “that we don’t matter a bit. It’s what we’re writing about that’s fabulous.” Life on Earth brought us a sequence of a Darwin’s frog being born – as it were – from the mouth of its own father, for the male carries the eggs and then the developing tadpoles in his vocal sac before the froglets make their first leap, headlong into the outside world.
“If you’re pointing at something marvellous, there’s a tendency for people to think that you’re marvellous yourself,” he said. “When you’re not.” If that modesty seems a trifle forced, then believe me, it is nothing of the kind. Love for the wild world in one of those gloriously unfakeable things – and it is highly communicable. I know, because I share that love, that Attenborough has always been more interested in nature than fame.
When I watched Life on Earth I was living in Asia, and the local television company, RTHK, had the glorious good sense to run the programme straight through without advertisements. Reader, have you ever wanted to be young again? To feel again the joys of first love, to experience once again the thrill of discovery?
Watching Life on Earth was like that for me, only better. Nature was my first love: with this series I was given it back. I was like the one sinner that repenteth. The best part of my straying was this return.
The most famous sequence of the 13-part series lasts just 33 seconds. It was not planned: Attenborough was attempting to explain the significance of the primate’s opposable thumb – which evolved for grasping branches but later made possible the use of tools – when a female gorilla approached him and placed her hand on his head, whereupon two young males came and sat on his legs. “It was absurd in such circumstances to talk about the opposable thumb. They made the decision to film it – if only to make the boys in the cutting-room laugh.”
Once it was aired, it was clear that this sequence wasn’t as frivolous as some people feared. Rather, it was a soul-deep reminder to viewers that we humans are as much animals as anyone else in that unforgettable series – and what’s more, this kinship enriches us. Attenborough said on air: “If ever there was a possibility of escaping the human condition and living imaginatively in another creature’s world, it must be with the gorilla.” He was offering a radical change of thinking for all humanity.
In 1970 the first Earth Day was observed; in 1971 activists from the organisation that became Greenpeace attempted to disrupt nuclear testing in Alaska; in 1973 many nations across the world signed the Convention on Trade in Endangered Species. In 1979, the meltdown of the nuclear power plant at Three Mile Island in the United States took place; the same year, James Lovelock introduced the world to the Gaia Hypothesis: the notion that the planet can be viewed as a single organism, and is therefore vulnerable. The Environment Movement was gathering momentum.
Attacking a sacred cow is well-known method of drawing attention to yourself, and the more Attenborough’s reputation is assured, the more certain people want to say that he got it wrong, claiming, for example, that he should have been giving out dreadful warnings of the Ecological Holocaust far earlier than he did.
Life on Earth was followed by The Living Planet in 1984. It is conventional for the central part of any trilogy to be the weakest: call that Lord of the Rings Syndrome. Not so here. This second blockbuster was about ecology: of the relationship between species and habitat. Memorable sequences included Attenborough in a balloon, catching fragments of aerial plankton, airborne scraps: “And – even here – there is life!” By introducing and explaining ecology – in such beautiful and glorious detail – both the word and the concept entered mainstream human thought. Ecology was no longer a matter for specialists: it was something that concerned us all. No habitat, no wildlife. No environment, no life.
In the last episode,‘New Worlds’, Attenborough contrasts the monocultural wheatfields of North America and the world’s ever-expanding cities with the diminishing rainforests and the evermore depleted oceans. He closes the series thus: “Immensely powerful though we are today, it’s equally clear that we’re going to be even more powerful tomorrow. And what’s more there will be greater compulsion upon us to use our power as the number of human beings on Earth increases still further. Clearly we could devastate the world… As far as we know, the Earth is the only place in the universe where there is life. Its continued survival now rests in our hands.”
Note that in these words Attenborough brings together the questions about human and about non-human life. The crisis he predicts is not just about the potential loss of nice fluffy animals: it is explicitly concerned with the future of all life on earth. We are not just losing indris: we are in the process of destroying our own survival machine.
Attenborough maintains that he was the teller of a tale, not a proselytiser or a crusader. The way he told the tales was irresistible, and that’s why he was able to make the points that needed to be made far more forcibly than any mere preacher. Every Attenborough series concludes with a strongly written and superbly delivered piece about the potentially disastrous changes that humans were making to the planet.
Now it’s all very well saying such things. Plenty of people have done so. It’s having them listened to and then believed – and acted upon – that actually matters. Making that happen is first about capturing your audience and second about gaining their trust. After this programme, the idea of saving the rainforest took hold of a public that until recently had no idea what a rainforest was or why it mattered.
Attenborough has been listened to because he has shown us so many wonderful things. In an increasingly nature-deprived world, he has constantly reminded us all – me included – of the extraordinary and bewitching nature of life – the life that exists beyond and alongside humanity on the planet Earth. He has led us to understand how greatly non-human life matters.
And he has, throughout it all, maintained his reputation as a person we can trust. There is always a place for the impetuous, just as if there is for those with a more measured approach. The Greenpeace activists who got between whaling-ships and their targets made a brilliant point: Attenborough has made the same sort of point in a different and equally valid way. One that has lasted.
The third part of the Life trilogy was Trials of Life, first broadcast in 1990. It was about ethology, or animal behaviour. In some ways it was the most enthralling of the three, with daring links between the similar behaviour of wildly different species. And again and again what comes through is our kinship with our fellow-animals: not how distant we are, but how close. There is no us and them. Only us.
It was the right way to close a decade that brought us the disasters of Bhopal, when a gas leak at a pesticide plant caused 16,000 deaths, the nuclear leak at Chernobyl with even more deaths, and the murder by cattle ranchers of Chico Mendes, the Brazilian environmentalist who fought for the rainforest. Books published at the end of the decade included Edward O Wilson’s Biodiversity and Bill McKibben’s The End of Nature: one on the importance of non-human life to the future of human life, and the other on the escalating climate disaster.
How many writers, scientists, environmentalists, conservationists and campaigners trace the beginning and the development of their enthusiasm to David Attenborough? From the highest and loftiest influence on global thinking, to the humblest person whoever put out food for the birds and paid subs to a local conservation organisation, practically everyone will tell you that it was watching Attenborough that started me, watching Attenborough that got me focused, watching Attenborough that made me understand.
I remember the opening of a nature reserve by the Norfolk Wildlife Trust. Attenborough attended, as patron of the Wildlife Trusts, and was inevitably surrounded by all manner of people: local volunteers, wealthy donors, people of local and national influence: all of them almost literally, wishing to do no more than touch the hem of the garment of the great man. These occasions can be a tad claustrophobic; once or twice he has taken a break to tell a mildly improper story.
Attenborough is a collector: his house is full of treasures, and tribal art dominates the gallery of that marvellous room with the piano in the middle. On one visit he was able to baffle me with a fossil I couldn’t recognise: a perfectly rounded lump of stone with no easily discernible markings. It turned out to be a coprolite – “Dinosaur poo!” as he exuberantly explained.
And on one of these public occasions he told me how, driven by a combination of haste and collection mania, he paid a hefty sum for a fossil of two conjoined trilobites (extinct marine creatures) one on top of the other. “Trilobite jig-a-jig!” the salesman had told him lasciviously. Some time later Attenborough realised that the trilobites, rather than being fossilised in flagrante, had been superglued together.
At the Norfolk do, Attenborough was introduced to some children who had completed an exceptional wildlife project. It was an education watching him: the immense seriousness, the complete lack of a patronising manner, the shrewd and genuinely helpful advice he gave them to expand their interest and knowledge.
I was reminded of his meeting with Barack Obama, whom he listened to with as much seriousness as he did these children. Obama asked him how he got his interest in wildlife, to which Attenborough responded, as he always does: “How did you ever lose yours?” It’s something we are born with, something that the pressures of modern life encourage us to leave behind – and something that, again and again, with person after person in generation after generation, Attenborough has helped to find again.
By the beginning of the 1990s I was writing a newspaper column about wildlife and working on a book about a bird reserve in Suffolk. It had taken me a while to get there, but I was finally treading the path that Attenborough showed me when I was child. A deeper involvement with the wild world: making a small contribution to its conservation.
I realised, of course, that this contribution didn’t make me virtuous: it was more basking in a sense of privilege – and I was reminded of a programme that contains what I always think of as the Attenborough moment. He was in a cave in Borneo in a programme of 1972 (he was still able to make programmes during his time in administration) called Eastward with Attenborough, and, in pitch darkness broken by harsh television lighting, he climbed a mountain of bat droppings to explain the ecology of the cave.
It became my party piece: me climbing and turning to the camera, sweating and panting: “I am now standing – on the biggest heap of shit – in the entirety of the known world – and – even here – there is life!”
The enthusiasm, the relish for life, the joy rising above the discomfort and the stench of ammonia that you could almost smell back home, and the way he turned it all into a compelling narrative: what could be better than that? Well, the only thing that could be better was the certainty that behind the fascination and the entertainment, this was a subject – this was the subject – that mattered. And it was to matter more and more with every passing year.
In the 1990s Attenborough continued to be magnificently productive, producing one great series after another. In The Life of Mammals there is sequence in which he sits in a very small boat as a very large blue whale erupts alongside: his great soul cry – “the blue whale!” electrified millions across the world.
When I saw a blue whale for myself I wasn’t half as eloquent. I stood on the heaving deck repeatedly saying, in a voice more associated with prayer than obscenity: “Fuck!” “Well I thought that,” Attenborough told me generously. Life in the Undergrowth celebrated terrestrial invertebrates. Here are the final words of the series: “If we and the rest of the backboned animals were to disappear overnight, the rest of the world would get on pretty well. But if [the invertebrates] were to disappear, the land’s ecosystems would collapse. The soil would lose its fertility. Many of the plants would no longer be pollinated. Lots of animals, amphibians, reptiles, birds, mammals would have nothing to eat. And our fields and pastures would be covered with dung and carrion. These small creatures are within a few inches of our feet, wherever we go on land — but often, they’re disregarded. We would do very well to remember them.” The loss of invertebrates is central to the ecological crisis that now envelops us.
Does any have a bad word for him? Apart from the routine sacred-cow slayers? Lynn Barber, an interviewer with an agenda for delving beneath the public persona, went to interview him with a tape-recorder that ran out of battery. “I babbled apologies and fiddled desperately with the machine while he silently watched me with a cold eye. Eventually, I had to ask, did he have a tape recorder? ‘Not one,’ he said with satisfaction. ‘Can’t you do shorthand?’ No I can’t (can he?). Eventually, his daughter came to my rescue with some fresh batteries, but I was shaken to the core. How could someone so seemingly friendly be so unsympathetic? He must know he is terrifying, but he doesn’t go out of his way to mitigate it.”
However, the idea that Barber is more to be pitied than blamed for a failure of basic professional competence doesn’t entirely stand up. Attenborough is a pro, and he expects a fellow-pro to have professional standards. On the many times I have interviewed Attenborough, I have taken more than usual care to prepare appropriately. My father was present at a studio malfunction when a technician said to Attenborough: “These machines aren’t infallible, you know.”
“Nor are those who operate them,” Attenborough said.
The 1990s brought the Rio Earth Summit, the Red List that is used to assess the state of species across the world, and the Kyoto Protocol: making this the decade in which people and politicians began to accept that the scaremongers and doomsayers were right. What Attenborough had been warning us about was something to take seriously. He closed the decade with his 1999 documentary entitled starkly enough, How Many People Can Live on Planet Earth? This was powerful stuff: he was taking on the problem that dare not speak its name.
The turn of the millennium was a time for greater involvement. I became a council member of the World Land Trust; the organisation finances the acquisition of land of high conservation value. Such land is owned not by World Land Trust but by partner organisations, the local NGOs – highly motivated, transparent and cash-strapped – that exist across the developing world.
As a result of this involvement, I met Attenborough for the first time, in the gracious double-decker library of the Linnean Society, the place where, in 1858, Darwin’s big idea was introduced to the world. Here we raised a glass and talked: a knighthood would have been a lesser honour.
By this time, Attenborough was increasingly vocal as environmental issues began to climb up the public – and eventually the political agenda. In 2006 he made a two-part series on climate with the uncompromising title Can We Save Planet Earth? “When I look back to some of the programmes I’ve made, I always ended up by saying: ‘Look, we’re wrecking the world’. Now people believe it and understand it. In this country, at least, it would now be political suicide for a party leader to say, ‘I don’t believe in global warming’.
“People say to me, why do people still say it’s not happening? And I say, hasn’t it occurred to you that it’s rather nicer to say that it’s not happening? You don’t have to worry or spend money and your business isn’t going to be in peril. It’s much more convenient to say it’s not happening.”
In 2009 he became patron of an organisation called Population Matters, and he has frequently spoken out on the subject of human over-population. “It seems to me that every one of the ills of the past 200 years – hunger, famine, forests disappearing, loss of identity, overcrowding, loss of dignity, loss of countryside – it’s all to do with increased population.
“The only way you can deal with this situation – well, I can’t see myself getting up on a soapbox and saying ‘stop having children’ – is when people are better off without so many children. Anywhere that women have control of their bodies and education and are literate and politically independent, the birth-rate falls. Kerala in India is an example of that.”
That same decade the Kyoto Protocol was enforced and ratified by Russia. Al Gore brought out his own documentary on climate, An Inconvenient Truth. It seemed that humanity might stop sawing away at the branch we are all sitting on.
Attenborough’s grasp of the hard realities of survival come from his love of life, of nature, of the way the planet works. There are plenty of people to point out that we’re all doomed: when the message about the planet’s problems comes from someone we trust, someone who has shown us all the wonders of the world, we are more inclined to listen. But as Attenborough would say himself, it’s not Attenborough that makes us listen: it is the wonders that Attenborough shows us.
This sense of wonder began when he was a boy fossil-hunter in Leicestershire. One of the formative experiences of his life was the first time he split a stone and revealed the long-dead creature within: a species now extinct and an individual no human had set eyes on before. The glory and the fragility of life were both revealed by a single blow of the collector’s hammer.
That joy has never left him: child-like but never child-ish. In his great television works the warnings they contain have depth because of the wonders that came earlier; in more recent decades, the wonders have more resonance because we now know about their fragility.
He worked on more blockbusters as commentator rather than the auteur: but his voice and tone are what give the gravity to Planet Earth II and then Blue Planet II. I was with a young person the other day who visibly cringed when offered a plastic bottle of mineral water: the sudden horror at our profligate use of plastic is a direct result of Blue Planet II.
The decade also brought us the UN Climate Change Conference and in 2015, the Paris agreement, in which 195 nations signed up to a programme that basically involved a commitment to stop talking about it and start doing something. In 2017, Donald Trump pulled out of the agreement: “It was a major setback,” Attenborough said. “I don’t think it’s permanent, since all the world is opposed to America on this issue. But it’s certainly slowed things down.”
Never flinch from the truth; but never forget the wonder and glory. I have tried to follow those guidelines in everything I have written; the smart reader will guess where I learned that principle. I have just completed a book about the handful of acres next door to my place in Norfolk, which we manage for wildlife: it is wet and boggy and tussocky and overgrown – and – even here – there is life!
Attenborough is not a living national treasure. Such a title is appropriate only to someone whose best work is in the past. Attenborough remains relevant, rooted in the future, prepared to tell us vast uncomfortable truths and equally able to crow in delight at the wonders of the world we live on.
So he rejoices in the way young people have taken up the causes of climate change and extinction. The Extinction Rebellion and the voice of Greta Thunberg are important to us all: “Politicians have to listen because they are their future voters and they must take control of these matters. This is not about a few eccentrics with straw in their hair, worried about the plight of some rare bird. It’s young people concerned about the future of their planet – and they are the inheritors of the earth.”
He did an eight part series, Our Planet, that was put out on Netflix this year: a radical, unexpected and initially unplanned departure. He is delighted by the way it has worked: it’s been watched by 150 million people so far. “It’s available all over the world, at any time you want. You can speak to the world.”
Last month he addressed the throng from the main stage at the Glastonbury Festival which had banned the sale of single-use plastics, largely because of Attenborough’s influence. All those people – all those young people – longing for a deeper commitment: this was not an opportunity he was ever going to pass up. The universality of Attenborough was established for all time in the tumultuous welcome he received.
Earlier this year I did a filmed interview with Attenborough at the Royal Geographical Society. It was, of course for the World Land Trust, and we talked the big questions, and he was, as ever, quite outstanding. I’m happy to say that the sound recording equipment functioned admirably.
I asked about special moments. “I’m not a deeply introspective person really, and I don’t have a mystical view of nature particularly… But I remember a particular occasion on a billabong in Northern Australia in Arnhem Land. It was very wild, and there was a marvelous lake, a big billabong covered in wildfowl of one sort or another, magpie geese and crocodiles. In order to get the shots we wanted we put up a hide and then went there in the dark so that the birds wouldn’t be aware that you were there. And the sun began to rise over this wonderful lake, with lilies; purple lilies, pink lilies as well as white lilies, and the magpie geese, egrets and crocs and you suddenly had a vision of the natural world without humanity. That was a – I was going to say a holy moment, but you know what I mean?
“And then something happened. I’ve forgotten what it was, but something scared them. And having this wonderful, magical vision and then suddenly the whole thing peels off like taking a rug off the surface of the lake, and all that is left is the ripples and the water lilies. But that was a moment which I don’t forget.”
How very marvelous such things are. And how very easily spoiled. He’s been telling us those twin truths in a million different forms for as long as there has been an Environment Movement. Have we now started to listen? To understand? To act?
Portraits by David Chancellor all other images Getty Images and the BBC