Sun, Oct 23, 2011 - Page 13 News List

Cold comfort

David Attenborough’s newest TV series, ‘Frozen Planet,’ is being heralded as his take on climate change. Now 85, he explains why — finally — he’s speaking out on the issue, and shares the joys of a long life spent filming sex and death in the wild

By Susanna Rustin  /  The Guardian, LONDON

Photo: Taipei Times

“I’m not a propagandist, I’m not a polemicist; my primary interest is just looking at and trying to understand how animals work,” says David Attenborough. We are talking in a gigantic BBC sitting room. Attenborough, wearing slacks, shirt and jacket, is a trifle unkempt at 85, but sharp as ever and kind, too, listening carefully as I ask what it felt like for the crew on his latest BBC series, Frozen Planet, to meet the Inuit people whose way of life is cracking up with the ice underneath them. I tell him I found this upsetting, but imagine he doesn’t cry easily.

“No, I don’t cry easily. Yes. [He pauses.] Yes, but there’s inevitability about it. You can cry about death and very properly so, your own as well as anybody else’s. But it’s inevitable, so you’d better grapple with it and cope and be aware that not only is it inevitable, but it has always been inevitable, if you see what I mean.”

The series, which is stunning, and took four years to make, has been heralded as Attenborough’s take on climate change — though for most of it he is the narrator rather than author-presenter. But while it might look like a political statement for the BBC to invest a vast sum in seven hours of TV about the Arctic and Antarctic — for what better way to get people worrying about polar bears and ice caps than to send Attenborough to the north pole, for the first time in his life, in his 80s? — he insists that reporting on climate change was not the main purpose.

“These are fascinating, low-temperature ecosystems with wonderful, amazing things to be discovered. So most of the series is about that, but if you’re going do it as thoroughly as we hoped to, you have to at some stage address the question of whether or not we are damaging it, or it’s disappearing or changing. I won’t say that we were reluctant to do so because that wouldn’t be true, but it was not the prime motive.”

And so, in the final program, Attenborough appears on location, talking to camera in his own measured words about shrinking glaciers, warming oceans, and the threat posed by man-made global warming. “The polar bear is the easy one, it’s a very charismatic animal that people can identify with,” he says. “It’s beautiful, and also savage; it’s got a lot going for it. But it’s only a white grizzly bear, really. All these big issues need a mascot and that’s what the polar bear is. But climate change is going to affect us much more profoundly than the loss of the polar bear.”

When the broader picture is so dark, how do they strike the right balance between comedy and tragedy, sex and death? These are seven films about survival, and there are some gruesome moments. In one extraordinarily powerful sequence filmed from land and helicopter in the Canadian Arctic, a wolf chases down a bison several times her size and scraps with it, one on one, until the poor bison lies down to die, exhausted. In another sequence, polar bears are filmed mating in what they think is a secluded spot.

“If you cut out all the savagery and so on, then you turn it into a fairy story,” Attenborough says. “I mustn’t sound too highfalutin, but that’s a problem anybody has with a novel. How do you deal with the sex scenes without being lurid? So yes, you have that problem, and you have it in a vivid and obvious way. People who accuse us of putting in too much violence, [should see] what we leave on the cutting-room floor. My conscience troubles me more about reducing the pain and savagery that there is in the natural world than the reverse.”

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