Sir David Attenborough: The ESQ&A

With a new 3D show on air this month, the 88-year-old broadcaster and naturalist is on fighting form. Just don’t ask him to tot up his Air Miles

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What’s the idea behind your new show, Conquest of the Skies 3D?
To explain the idea of birds in flight in 3D, using the lessons and techniques we’ve developed over the last 15 years. When you see birds in 3D, it’s more sensational, more thrilling.

You’re acting alongside some extinct CGI birds. How was that?
It was nothing that required the Royal Shakespeare Company. I just had to duck when required. Not a great feat of the imagination.

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This series runs to three episodes, but your classic Life on Earth was 13. Have our attention spans got shorter?
There are no big documentary series anymore. I don’t know if those responsible for programming the network have decided they won’t get a bigger audience. I don’t believe that’s true. There is something called EastEnders for a kick-off. But these things go in fashions. The most extraordinary thing is the length of programmes. You wouldn’t believe me, but I’ll tell you: when I was running BBC Two, no documentary programme of any kind, on any network, was longer than 30 minutes. One of the things BBC Two did was to say documentaries could run at an hour. There were a lot of people who said, “People won’t watch that – rubbish.” But if the programme’s good enough, they will.

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What would you commission for the BBC now?
They’d have to pay me a lot more money! They couldn’t afford for me to tell you that! I mean, I am available. Have they got the money?

How would you encourage children to get into nature today?
Put a pond in your garden. They have communities: they’re their own little worlds. The danger is that children grow up thinking animals are just for patting. And parents encourage this, I regret to say.

Björk’s a big fan of yours, isn’t she? She’s used your voice to accompany her music, and you recorded a documentary together. She called you “my rock star”.
Yes. Well, no… She said something else. What she said was: “David Attenborough, you want to watch him. ’Cos when you look under a stone you might think there’s nothing there. But if David Attenborough shows you, he will reveal that it’s fucking rocking.” That is a precise quote.

People really respond to your voice on television though, don’t they? It’s famously authoritative and reassuring…
Who knows? I’m stuck with it.

You could have made a killing doing adverts.
I’ve never done an advertisement and that might sound worthy and pompous but adverts are not true. And if you get a reputation that you give a chap a fiver and he’ll say anything then no one will believe you. If I say something on television, I would wish that people think I’m speaking the truth. If I did a commercial people would know that was not the case.

The other thing you’re stuck with is being voted Britain’s Greatest Living Icon.
[Bats the idea away; shakes head] What does it mean? It doesn’t mean anything much.

Is there someone you’d nominate instead?
I’m not into the icon creation business.

It’s also been suggested you’re the most travelled man in history…
Rubbish. Look at any airline pilot. Anybody can go anywhere if they’ve got the money to buy an air fare. If you work for an organisation that has a decent amount of money, they’ll send you. So it’s no credit to me.

But an airline pilot doesn’t get to go to half the places you’ve been. They’ll be working for 40-odd years, whereas…
…I’ve been doing it for 60 years, so it’s hardly surprising. So what? It’s not worth a minute’s worth of investigation whether I am or not.

Is there somewhere you think every Esquire reader should visit at least once?
Depends what they want. London Airport? They’ve got a good Duty Free.

We’re in the midst of the Ebola crisis. One theory is deforestation shares the blame for its spread. What’s your view?
I don’t know about that. We’ve had plagues before: cholera, the Black Death. Human science is very ingenious and they’ve known how to deal with plagues, so I think they will deal with Ebola. It’s been around for some time.

Are you generally optimistic about the survival of the human race?
Depends what you mean. The human race can’t go on increasing in numbers indefinitely. It’s got to stop sometime. And I hope it stops before it wrecks the entire planet.

How will you spend Christmas?
I will be at home. My grandchildren will be there, too.

Will you watch Conquest of the Skies 3D as it’s broadcast?
Yeah. It’s a very odd thing that actually your shows tend to look very different when you see them on your own set at home. The knowledge that there are a hell of a lot of people watching at the same time means you look at it in a different way. And also, you want to see if the engineers have made a mess of it.

Conquest of the Skies 3D starts on New Years Day on Sky 3D and Sky1

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MORE ESQ&A'S:

David Cronenberg
Chiwetel Ejiofor
William H. Macy
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