Leaving room for elephants: a chat with David Attenborough

Photograph of David Attenborough, 22 August 1984, by Robin Goodfellow
David Attenborough about to be interviewed by Stilgherrian in 1984. (Photo: Robin Goodfellow, later scanned directly from the negative.)

Last night’s final episode of Michael Parkinson‘s long-running TV chat show should have been much better, given the stellar cast. The one stand-out for me was David Attenborough. Something he said reminded me of a conversation we had 24 years ago. I’ll share that episode shortly. But first, here’s the interview we did…

Sir David Attenborough hardly needs an introduction. He was in Australia promoting the TV series and book The Living Planet when I spoke with him. His previous series Life on Earth was the UK’s highest-rating ever at that time. The Living Planet looked to be heading in the same direction.

Attenborough has been a TV producer almost as long as the medium has existed.

From 1965 to 1969 he was Controller of the then-new BBC 2, followed by four years in another executive position. After 8 years behind a desk he decided he’d had enough of computers, accounting and unions, and returned to life as a producer — a decision, he says, that wasn’t hard to make.

I had the good fortune to spend half an hour with Attenborough in his hotel room. I was his ninth interview for the day, and the greying gentleman in his fifties was visibly tired — particularly tired, he said, of being asked questions like “What’s your favourite animal”. But as I set up my equipment we chatted and, once he realised that I knew his work and knew what I was doing, his eyes began to sparkle just like on TV.

Our interview covered conservation, the making of Life On Earth and some remarkably prescient observations about the changing nature of TV programs.

David Attenborough: The BBC had at that stage been doing a series of series, that is to say had instituted the program format, of 12 or 13-part one-hour series, about some major aspect of life. Kenneth Clark did Civilisation, and [Jacob] Bronowski did The Ascent of Man and so on. And it was pretty obvious to anybody that one of the natural subjects to do was natural history.

Kenneth Clark did a marvellous program, but the Venus de Milo doesn’t hop off her pedestal and do a courtship dance. But birds of paradise do. So natural history is actually easier to make a series about than Civilization. It was obvious someone had to do it, and as a matter of fact I was rather alarmed during the few years after Civilization had been established, as it were, as a series that someone was going to do it before I had a chance to. Fortunately nobody did, so I was able to have a go at it when I did resign.

Stilgherrian: What about the style of the program, in terms of it being the personal Grand Documentary approach?

David Attenborough: There are advantages and disadvantages of having a personality, a narrator in vision.

The disadvantages are obvious: you get fed up with the bloke, you may not like him, he has to work in English and that limits translation and sales overseas.

But on the advantage side, it does mean that people can identify with what’s going on. And it also makes it clear that what’s being said is fallible.

One of the great problems about doing television on this grand scale, so it seems to me, is that if you’re not careful it looks like this is the be-all and end-all, and the only way and the only statement and the absolute truth and it’s Big Brother that’s Telling You From the Television that This Is the Way Things Are.

Now there are very few things in life like that. Two and two does equal four, but even then there are a couple of mathematicians who’ll tell you it doesn’t necessarily follow. But certainly on the natural history side, in zoology, things are changing. And so there’s an advantage in actually having it clear that this is one person’s view at one particular time.

Nonetheless I have an obligation to not grind axes, and not take extreme positions without making clear that they are contentious. What I was trying to do as best I could was to represent the way the world sees, at this particular moment, zoology. I wasn’t saying contentious things; they were as objective as I could make them. But even then, they’re fallible.

DVD cover for The Living Planet
Cover of David Attenborough’s book The Living Planet.

Stilgherrian: On that point of contention, both Life On Earth and The Living Planet are soft-sell approaches to ecology. Do you think you could have taken a harder line?

David Attenborough: They’re not soft-sell approaches to ecology. They’re soft-sell approaches to conservation issues, which is a very different thing.

Ecology is simply the study of communities of animals and plants. That there are issues to do with conservation, whether you should knock down forests or not, is certainly a major point. But I think it would have been wrong on every single program, having said “this is the desert” or “this is the forest” or “this is the woodland”, to end off by saying “and it’s in danger and mankind is knocking it down”. Simply because in the end it will go against you.

People will say, “For heaven’s sake, can’t I look at a bird of paradise without being told I’ve got to feel guilty about it?”

So I decided that the right thing to do was to concentrate that issue in the last program. Because the last program deals with what’s happened in the world since the Neolithic revolution of the last 10,000 years, and deals with the latest environment on earth, which is of course the City. And it looks at what mankind is doing with the rest of the world.

Stilgherrian: Filming the series was very much organised before you went out and even shot a foot of film. Do you think that might have been stifling to the style of the final presentation?

David Attenborough: Certainly not! Had I thought that I wouldn’t have done it!

The point is that there are many different types of natural history program to be made. No, perhaps not many, perhaps about three. I’ve been making natural history programmes for 30-odd years, and the majority of them are of two of the types.

Either you go into some particular part of the world, say Borneo, and you travel around Borneo and show what you happen to find, which is a kind of glorified adventure story. Or else you show one particular animal and trace it through its life cycle.

But if you actually want to summarise, let us say, the biology of the jungles worldwide — so it’s the South-East Asian jungle, and the African jungle, and the New Guinea jungle, and the Brazilian jungle — and want to look at what makes a jungle a jungle, which is a perfectly valid biological concept, it would be wrong to simply put in what you happen to come across.

What you should do is look at all the work that’s been-done by people who’ve studied jungles, who have worked with great care to distil the principles which govern life in jungles, and then seek to illustrate that as best you may.

You will want to know how you will actually link something in Brazil with something in West Africa, for example, because they may be examples of convergent evolution or something of that kind.

It’s a different kind of program. Now this doesn’t mean to say that you ignore better ways of saying things if you come across them. But it also means you don’t run down blind alleys or pursue will-o-the-wisps, or get distracted from the main thesis that you’re trying to advance.

Stilgherrian: Going back to the style of the production again, it’s a personal viewpoint and the program’s presented as that. Did you consult much with other zoologists and biologists and so on in making the series?

David Attenborough: Yes. I mean you have to do the job in a finite time. You can’t go on forever. So I wrote the programs, which after all are not very contentious, are not very advanced. They’re fairly straightforward elementary material in an ecological sense.

I write it, then discuss with the directors how we shall film it, and what’s in it, and whether it’s the right kind of shape. And when we’ve agreed on that, we take it apart and look at each one of the sequences and say “Right, who’s the world authority on that particular organism?” That’s not too difficult to find out. And having found that out, you get in touch with him and ask him whether in fact you’ve got that right. You may have got that wrong. [laughs]

You also ask him whether that’s the best example he knows of. He may well say, “Well, that is a good example, but it’s rather a hackneyed example”, which wouldn’t be surprising because I wouldn’t have heard of it unless it’s already been published. And he may well say, “I’ve recently come across a completely new species which shows this particular proposition in much greater detail and rather more dramatically. Why don’t you film that? I can tell you where to find it and what it will do and how it fits into your general thesis and so on.

That kind of research is done all the time with all the organisms.

Stilgherrian: In that sense the TV programs are almost a video book.

David Attenborough: Well, to some degree they are. Of course visual stimulus is a very much more powerful thing than the word, and if you put on a picture which is of absorbing interest, people tend not to hear the words that are being spoken. You have to be very careful about how many words and what kind of words you put in to accompany the pictures.

Similarly, the converse is the case when it comes to the book. You can’t put enormous numbers of pictures in the book, but have a lot of opportunity to put in words. So what the television programme lacks in words, you make up in the book, and I would like to think that the two are complementary to one another.

Stilgherrian: I read recently that now you’ve made 25 programs, Life On Earth and The Living Planet, you think we should look at re-shaping TV programs and see whether we can do something different. Do you have anything in mind?

David Attenborough: Only that I think the whole pattern of television is changing. It’s certainly changed very much in Britain, or is about to.

After all, television programs which we’re making now are derived very much from formulae and patterns that were originally hammered out in the 50s. And they were hammered out with quite a precise audience in mind, to be programs which were seen by a large number of people, all together, at one particular time, once. That couldn’t be reviewed, that couldn’t be hopped into at various places, that couldn’t be run backwards. That was how they were done.

Now broadcasting is rapidly changing. It is no longer that. It is becoming a thing that doesn’t have to be seen by a large number of people. They don’t look at it once, they may see it many times, because they can see it on videocassette.

They can see it when they want to see it. They can actually extract favourite parts from it. They can have different soundtracks to it on a video disc. They can play it backwards. We have completely different audiences and completely different techniques.

So I think it is a mistake simply to go on using the same shapes of programs what were designed for a quite different purpose.

Stilgherrian: Are there any examples of the new approaches to television work that you know of?

David Attenborough: No. No, I think that’s what we’ve got to do. I was lucky enough to be in the business — I joined in 1952 — when we were working out those things, and that was great fun.

I even remember working out elementary things like cross-shooting interviews: you didn’t actually place the cameras nearest to the people taking part, but shooting diagonally across them. And I remember actually working out that little technique. These days nobody would think of doing it any other way.

Well that was great fun, and I think it would be nice to have a go at working out the new lot.

Stilgherrian: You wouldn’t like to do any crystal-ball-gazing into the look of programs we can expect to see?

David Attenborough: No I think not yet, and I think that’s the problem.

[David Attenborough arrived in Australia when debate over building a road through Queensland’s Daintree rainforest was in full swing. But he’d said that he wouldn’t comment on that or any other individual issue. I asked why.]

David Attenborough: If I arrive in a continent which I don’t know well, and I’m asked about a particular conservation issue in an area I haven’t visited and I haven’t seen first hand, and I don’t know both sides of the question, I avoid making a remark about it. It seems to me to be a fairly bold, almost impertinent, thing to do.

If we’re talking about Australia, Australia is full of enormously knowledgeable ecologists, far more knowledgeable than I am about the issues, and far more knowledgeable about ecology than I am. I am lucky, or whatever, to have got some reputation through television — but it’s a very tinsel kind of reputation. The people who ought to be listened to are the people who’ve studied the place, who can actually speak with great authority.

I think it would be wrong of me to make a particular statement about what’s going on in Daintree. What I can do is to say that I actually have travelled in the Queensland rainforest several times over thirty years, and I know it to be a place of overwhelming beauty and interest, full of extraordinary plants and flowers, and orchids, and insects and mammals, and birds — above all birds! — and wonderful landscape. And I know it to be a great natural treasure. And I know it to be one of the last patches that are left in Australia.

I can also say that coming from somewhere like Africa, or indeed parts of Europe, the great problem is to do with population density.

In Africa there are vast numbers of people who desperately need a small patch of ground on which to grow corn for their children. Now that is a major problem. How do you deal with that and at the same time leave room for elephants?

But in Australia you don’t have that problem. In Australia you have a very low population density. So of all places in the world, it does seem extraordinary that there should be a danger that somehow humanity and the real natural treasures, the wildernesses, couldn’t in some restricted form co-exist.

Stilgherrian: One of the claims of the supporters of building a road through Daintree is that it’s just one road, it’s only 20 feet wide, it won’t make any difference. Is that a realistic attitude?

David Attenborough: No of course it’s not, and anybody’s who’s actually been in those areas knows that it’s not.

If you have cars roaring up and down a roadway it’s going to change the environment profoundly and in all kinds of ways, in terms of intrusion, letting in light, all kinds of things.

But I don’t want to talk about that particular issue because, as I say, I would be a false friend to the conservation movement if I actually started making statements so that people who disagreed with me could say, “There you are, that’s the kind of irresponsible statement, the glib reply which is made by somebody who’s never been there”. So I won’t fall into that particular trap. [laughs]

Stilgherrian: Alright then, looking at more global things, what do you see as the big issues for conservation?

David Attenborough: The overwhelming fundamental issue for conservation, which has to be grappled with at some time, is population growth.

A high proportion of the ills which face the world today come because mankind goes on producing enormous quantities of children. And millions upon millions of extra mouths will have to be fed next year, and the year after, and the year after.

Now how you deal with controlling population growth I do not know. China has adopted one way. India has adopted another way. Western Europe has adopted another way. But overall world population still continues to increase, and it’s a great worry.

Stilgherrian: And for David Attenborough, what’s next?

David Attenborough: [laughs] I don’t know. Sweeping up after the series takes quite a long time. We were filming the last program while program number six was going on. The Living Planet has only just been finished really. And coming to Australia is one of the consequences of finishing it up. I have to go to America to do the same thing.

So I won’t, as it were — not that I want to get rid of it [laughs] —” but I won’t shed the consequences of the program until about the middle of next year [1985].

Stilgherrian: You’ve already said that you won’t be doing a similar kind of program. If you continue working in programs, what would you like to do next?

David Attenborough: Oh, there are a number of little ideas which I’ve got in my mind. But I’ll let you know. [laughs]

Autograph: With best wishes, David Attenborough

[This is an edited version of an interview with David Attenborough recorded 22 August 1984. The original version was broadcast on Radio 5UV‘s Science Journal on 29 August 1984 and subsequently on other community radio stations around Australia. I published a slightly different version in my zine Menu for a Palm Court Café in October 1985. Photograph of David Attenborough by Robin Goodfellow.]

4 Replies to “Leaving room for elephants: a chat with David Attenborough”

  1. Hmm. An man as erudite as Attenborough acknowledging his limits. What a contrast with the current crop of celebrities, who cannot resist pushing their asinine, ill-informed opinions down our throats.

    Copyright permitting, I’d like to see more extracts from past interviews.

  2. @Richard: Glad you enjoyed it. As I marked up the text for the web I was hearing Sir David’s distinctive voice in my head. Fortunately it wasn’t saying “Kill them. Kill them all.” If only the other voices… [sigh]

    Putting more of my old material online isn’t so much a matter of copyright as actually still having it somewhere. I did find the audio of the Attenborough piece, though — on a “cassette”. Whatever that is.

    I’ll see what I can find.

  3. I found this hidden gem thanks to your “Best of ’08” post

    It may be asking a lot but would you consider writing a “Best of Stilgherrian” blog post collating the best half dozen/ten articles/interviews you’ve ever written/conducted?

  4. @Neerav: I’d be more than happy to do such a post, and it’d be easy enough if it were only the material online because it’s nearly all here or at Crikey. Some time next week.

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