Thu, Oct 01, 2009 - Page 13 News List

David Attenborough’s long walk on the wild side

Since the 1950s, the 83-year-old British naturalist and broadcaster has produced a formidable body of work. How has he kept up with the momentous changes in his subject? And does he think we’re all doomed?

By Nicholas Wroe  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

So he returned to program making and began to build on his BBC2 legacy. His ambition to reinvent documentary television coincided with the arrival of color, and the upshot was Kenneth Clark’s mammoth art history series, Civilisation. It was followed by other “tombstone” projects, as they became known, such as a history of science presented by Jacob Bronowski, The Ascent of Man, and Alistair Cooke’s America. “So why not natural history?”

Life on Earth took three years to complete and aired in 1979. Its combination of rare animals and state-of-the-art photography ensured it was an immediate success, and its follow-up series have built a globally successful franchise. They have even cracked the US. “When we first went there, their nature program were all whiz-bang stuff such as catching elephants or lassoing rhinoceroses. They thought the idea that you could do a program on plants or caterpillars was absurd. But people seemed to like it.”

Its reception in the US was also an early indicator that Attenborough’s subject matter was becoming more contentious. The series became embroiled in rows with the evolution and creationist lobbies. Television, he says, does not deal easily with divisive opinions. “The population issue has barely been covered at all, partly because there are large groups of people who might find it offensive. And television, by and large, is not a crusading medium. The BBC doesn’t like to take sides, and commercial television doesn’t want to antagonize large chunks of its audience, because that doesn’t encourage advertisers.”

He says climate change provides an interesting example of this predicament. “When do you move from something being debated to being implacable fact? You first have to decide whether it is beyond the various extremes that have afflicted the world for the past thousand years. The next debate is what is responsible. It’s a very fine judgment. And the BBC has a responsibility not to be too far ahead or too far behind general opinion.”

So is he comfortable putting his head above the parapet on population? “No, but I think you do have an obligation to speak the truth as you see it. And while people say, with good cause, that it’s all doom and gloom, I also think we’ve come a long way. It’s not so long ago that the idea of having a minister for the environment would have been absurd. Now no party could possibly be elected without a policy on the environment. I think people are increasingly realizing that if we get out of kilter with the natural world, we are heading for catastrophe. And the associated emotional, spiritual and physical loss is the road to madness. The natural world is still a source of solace and pleasure and delight and beauty and reassurance.”

After his North Pole trip, Attenborough will travel to the South Pole next spring and is also writing the script for a new BBC television series called Life — “not an entirely original title” — which will be screened this month. “Yet again they have come up with some amazing material. I’ve just been looking at film of weedy sea dragons. They are like elongated seahorses, and their fins have turned into what looks like fantastically colored seaweed, so every part is fringed with fronds and tassels. The film is of their courtship, which takes place off the Australian coast at dusk, so very few people have seen it before. It is just the most remarkable thing. You could cry at how beautiful it is. It certainly doesn’t need words from me. You just sit and gape at this wonder.

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