Attenborough discovered his ability to convey his love of nature to a wider public by accident, during compulsory military service just after the second world war. “I was on an air station down in Pembrokeshire [in Wales]. I was an education officer and also a navigation officer. We had a squadron of highly trained Spitfire pilots and all these chaps wanted to do was fly.” He sits back and makes a guttural noise to imitate the sound of a Spitfire in flight. “But the government couldn’t afford to put them in the air. So I was told, ‘all right schoolie, get them interested in something’. And Pembrokeshire was marvellous for natural history. So I started courses on seabirds and fossils and all these gung-ho pilots turned out to be quite keen on it.”
After National Service, Attenborough spent a couple of dull years in educational publishing — “that was a mistake” — and made a failed application to join BBC Radio: “I didn’t even get an interview.” But then he got a letter from the newly formed television service. “I wish I still had it. It said something like, ‘we’ve got this new thing called television in Alexandra Palace. A lot of people are quite rude about it, but we think it might be quite interesting. Would you be interested?’”
The early days of television were full of opportunity: “Within six months, I was producing political discussions, knitting, gardening, short stories ... Then I discovered that someone from the zoo was going on an expedition to collect animals, and I thought great! — let’s try that.” That led to a programme called Zoo Quest, broadcast in the 1950s, which took him to Borneo, Paraguay and Guyana, in search of animals such as the Komodo dragon or the armadillo.
The result led to the birth of the natural history programme, in which the BBC and Attenborough have led the world. What has he learnt, over the decades, about how to make natural history programmes?
He chuckles and takes on a mock-conspiratorial tone: “Just between you and me, making television programmes about animals is not very difficult. You just have to point the camera in the right direction and make sure the lens cap is off.” Of course, he concedes, “the quality of those films we made in the 1950s now looks terrible. But nobody in Britain had ever seen an armadillo or a pangolin. Nobody! Honestly, all you had to be was marginally competent.”
This kind of self-deprecation is charming and old school but I do not get the impression that it is insincere. At various points he describes himself as “half-educated” (“I took a wartime degree at Cambridge, it was just two years.”) and just a programme maker, “not a scientist, not an economist”.
The popularity of his programmes means that Attenborough has a unique ability to shape public opinion. Some environmentalists have accused him of being too reluctant to use that platform — and of concentrating on the wonders of the natural world, without stressing how endangered they are. But he argues that, with more than 50 per cent of the world’s population living in cities, most people have little connection with nature. They have to be shown the natural world before they can be persuaded to care about it. And for 20 years, his programmes have typically ended with an urgent environmental message.
Sometimes the impact can be extraordinary. Blue Planet II showed how plastic is polluting the oceans, with albatrosses choking on bags and a chick dying after ingesting a toothpick. It provoked an almost instant reaction in Britain — with politicians promising new laws and supermarkets changing their packaging. “It’s very strange and it’s quite unpredictable,” he muses. “You strike the chord and the vibrations spread. Those of us who made Blue Planet II got all the credit, but we’re not the pioneers on this. There are campaigners who have dedicated their lives to this issue.”
The fact that his next series, Our Planet, will be shown on Netflix is something of a blow to the BBC, where Attenborough made his career and where he was a senior executive in the 1960s. As controller of BBC2 he commissioned some of the corporation’s most famous programmes — including Monty Python’s Flying Circus and Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation. But Attenborough will still make programmes for the BBC, and is clearly enthused by the ability of Netflix to reach a whole new global audience: “It’s over 200m people, it’s urgent, it’s instantaneous. And it stays there for months, so it can get an even bigger audience through word of mouth.”
WATCH | Our Planet trailer: