David Attenborough.
David Attenborough.
Image: Getty Images / Danny Martindale

Sir David Attenborough and Elizabeth II were born within three weeks of each other in 1926. And to many in Britain, Attenborough enjoys almost royal status. Asked in a 2017 poll who should appear on the next £20 note, 40 per cent of Britons chose the presenter — with Prince Charles, the heir to the throne, the runner-up with 7 per cent.

In television series such as Life on Earth and The Blue Planet, Attenborough has guided generations of viewers through the wonders of the natural world. His style is inimitable — his eyes wide in delight, his arms spread, his voice lowering to a whisper as he introduces viewers to some marvel, whether it is gorillas in Rwanda or birds of paradise in New Guinea. The Attenborough fan club is international. On his 89th birthday he was invited to the White House, to be interviewed on camera by President Barack Obama.

Now 92, he is still travelling, working and campaigning. In December, he addressed the UN climate change conference in Poland. In the preceding months, he was filming on the Zambezi river in Africa and visiting Kenya for the World Wide Fund for Nature. We meet during his first trip to the World Economic Forum in Davos — home to the endangered liberal plutocratic elite.

I arrive early and bump into Attenborough, who is accompanied by his daughter Susan, a retired teacher who lives with him in west London. He is a stocky figure in a blue blazer, white shirt and black trousers and seems slightly hassled, without the beaming bonhomie of his on-screen persona. I have the impression that he would prefer to be surrounded by chimpanzees than CEOs.

Attenborough has a packed schedule. So we are meeting for “lunch” at 10.15am in an upstairs room — overlooking the foyer of the Congress Centre — which has been stocked with coffee, plates of sliced fruit and a cakestand of petits fours. As we settle into our chairs, I get off on the wrong foot by asking to take a photo of him. He groans. (I later discover that he loathes having his picture taken.) As we begin talking, I ask what he makes of Davos. “Well it’s not exactly my scene,” he replies cautiously. So why make the trip? “Social conscience,” he replies, slightly gruffly, then laughs.

Five minutes into our conversation, it is clear that this self-deprecating remark does not capture what is actually driving Attenborough. He really is driven by passion. He knows that the natural wonders that he has brought into living rooms all over the world are critically endangered. “We’re heading for big disasters if we go on the way we are. We are changing the climate, we are changing the seas, we are wiping out entire species and ecosystems ... We only have one or two decades left to fix it.” His mission is to try to persuade world leaders to do something.

I’m convinced that there is a real chance that we may be able to do something to heal the world. If there was one chance in a hundred, you would take it, would you not?

Once he has warmed to his themes, Attenborough’s initial reserve drops away. He talks engagingly, leaning forward in his chair to make points. Despite his age, there is nothing tremulous about his voice. And although he is eminent and old, he does not lecture.

In his latest television series, Dynasties, he followed families of tigers, chimpanzees, painted wolves, penguins and lions. It was full of breathtaking footage but also seemed to have a tragic subtext. The common thread, for all the dynasties, is that human encroachment is threatening their very existence. In one sequence, a lion cub is dying after eating poisoned meat left by farmers.

WATCH | Dynasties trailer:

Attenborough explains that he did not set out to preach. “You do a programme about lions and you say, ‘I’m going to tell you the truth of what happens to them.’ We didn’t want it to happen, of course we didn’t — either from an ecological point of view or from a storytelling point of view. But that is what happened.”

That story was all too typical of what is happening to African lions, whose numbers have fallen more than 40 per cent in the past three generations. There are now only 20,000 left in the wild in Africa. Other species are even more critically endangered. Rhino numbers plummeted two-thirds between 1980 and 2006 and have fallen further since, while the melting of polar ice is endangering polar bears and walruses.

Given these grim statistics, I suggest that it may already be too late. He leans forward for emphasis and says, with some anguish: “I’m convinced that there is a real chance that we may be able to do something to heal the world. If there was one chance in a hundred, you would take it, would you not?”

Talking urgently and sipping from a cup of coffee, he clearly has little interest in the snacks laid out before him. And scoffing patisseries while my guest laments the destruction of the natural world seems inappropriate. So, trying to maintain eye contact, I surreptitiously spear a slice of mango and change the subject to his early life.

The honours and titles that have come Attenborough’s way — added to the fact that his older brother, Richard, who died in 2014, was a highly successful actor and director — have left me with the impression that he must have come from a rather grand family. But he gently corrects that impression. “My father was the son of a small village shop owner in the 19th century in the middle of England. His education was funded by grants and scholarships and he became a fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, studying Anglo-Saxon.”

With a flash of pride, he points out that his father’s book on Anglo-Saxon kings has recently been republished, almost a century after it first appeared. “Anyway, he ended up as principal of University College, Leicester and I can tell you the principal of a suburban university college in the middle of the 20th century wasn’t paid a load of money. He said to me, if you want to go on to further study, you have to get scholarships.” He adds quietly: “And that is what I did.”

While David worked his way through grammar school and then Cambridge university, Richard took a less scholarly route. “He was passionate about the theatre ... and failed all his exams, which my father found very hard to understand. But he said to Dick, ‘I’ll give you the entrance fee for the toughest drama-school scholarship you can find, which was to Rada, and if you get it — I’ll back you’. And Dick took the exam. And he got it.” His voice rises in fraternal triumph at this decades-old memory.

Like his brother, Attenborough is a natural performer. His joy in the animals he encounters is transmitted easily to viewers and there is now a huge stock of Attenborough moments on YouTube. I mention one sequence that had delighted me, when he sits next to a cheetah that is purring like a domestic cat. “No, no, the purring was me.” He pauses. For a moment, I wonder if he is being serious — before a chuckle tells me he is not. I ask the obvious layman’s question: wasn’t it a bit dangerous? He explains that “by and large, animals, big mammals, they don’t want to attack you. They would much rather have a quiet life ... you usually know when an animal is relaxed and easy.”

We aren’t the only creatures that live on this planet. We don’t have the right to exterminate other animal species
David Attenborough

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:

The reach of Netflix may help Attenborough engineer another of those shifts in public opinion. But he knows there will also be setbacks. “Trump is a setback,” he notes. “The new president of Brazil is a setback.” The aforesaid president, Jair Bolsonaro, wants to chop down even more of the Amazon.

Is he surprised by how short-sighted people can be about the environment? He is reluctant to condemn: “I’ve only got to think back 50 or 60 years ago, when I was short-sighted ... It didn’t occur to us that mankind might exterminate whole species and whole ecosystems and indeed at that stage, we were not doing so. But since that time the population of the world has tripled.” His voice rises in incredulity.

The population explosion in Africa — where it is likely to double to 2.4bn by 2050, according to the UN — poses a clear threat to the continent’s wildlife. “The one hope we have is the empowerment of women,” he says. “When that happens, birth rates drop. It’s not the solution to everything. But it’s a start.”

He was once a fan of China’s one-child system, but he acknowledges it ultimately had to be changed. I wonder if he thinks that authoritarian governments might be better placed to take long-term decisions to protect the environment. He nods in agreement. “Absolutely so, you can take really draconian decisions. It’s a double-edged sword, but they have the authority and mechanisms.”

His food is untouched. Now he has to head off to engage the rich and powerful. Warm words do not necessarily translate into radical action, and Attenborough knows that this task requires an appeal to self-interest. He believes that his invitation to Davos demonstrates that global leaders are increasingly understanding that “the whole of our civilisation is dependent on the health of the natural world”.

But for him, this is clearly about something more than self-interest. “We aren’t the only creatures that live on this planet,” he says. “We don’t have the right to exterminate other animal species.” Then he heads out into the melee.

- Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019.

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