Sir David Attenborough on world wildlife conservation, the green belt and Richmond life
PUBLISHED: 10:40 09 September 2015 | UPDATED: 16:41 23 April 2018
It may be his 90th birthday next year but Sir David Attenborough is as busy as ever, working not only on a new BBC TV series about the Great Barrier Reef but also on a groundbreaking documentary about dinosaurs. Closer to home, the Richmond resident continues to give his annual lecture in our county – where Surrey Life editor Caroline Harrap met up with him for an exclusive interview
It’s not every day that you find yourself waiting to meet a legend, or in fact your own personal hero, but here I am – and he’s late. Very late. Photographer Andy and I steal a nervous glance at each other; is this really going to happen?
We’re tucked away backstage in a dressing room at Kingston’s Rose Theatre and, in a scarily short amount of time, Sir David Attenborough, the godfather of natural history programmes, is due to take to the stage to give his annual lecture for the local Environment Trust – after hopefully granting us an interview. Problem is, this also means a car journey from his home on Richmond Green, down the busy A307, and into the throng of bumper-to-bumper Saturday afternoon shoppers heading into Kingston town centre. I try not to think about that and focus instead on willing time to stop. Then, just when I think that it has, there’s a flurry of activity, and he’s here.
Despite the traffic, and the stressful journey, and the fact that he is due to give a lecture in, well, a matter of minutes really, he smiles broadly – kindly – before calmly removing his tan jacket, folding it neatly on the table and settling down in his chair. After all, this is the man who has had gorillas try to steal his shoes in Rwanda, watched an army of crabs crawling up his inner thigh on Christmas Island and even come face-to-face with a tribe of cannibals in Papua New Guinea. He’s not about to have his feathers ruffled by a queue of people planning to go to the Bentall Centre. So what was it, I hear a small voice ask, which I suddenly realise is my own, that made him decide to get involved with the Environment Trust in particular?
“Because the environment is of importance to us all and the more everybody takes part in looking after it, the better it will be,” says the distinctive voice of a thousand wildlife documentaries. “The trust has been engaging people in improving, preserving and protecting their local environment for over 30 years – initially in Richmond and now in Kingston and beyond – in all sorts of wonderful ways. So, yes, it’s a good thing for everybody to be involved with.”
He first started working with the charity back in 2009, becoming a patron the following year, and has been giving an annual family lecture, based on the model of the Royal Society Christmas Lectures for children, pretty much ever since. As well as his belief in the importance of their work, plus his desire to enlist youngsters to the cause, it’s also his one real concession to local life – not that he wouldn’t like to do more but, given that so much of his own life is spent in far-flung corners of the globe, he doesn’t really have a lot of time to get involved with local charities – or even explore the delights of Surrey.
“The thing is, I’m so often away that, when I am here, I like to be at home really,” says the 89-year-old. “I don’t go for long walks nowadays, either, but I do still visit Richmond Park regularly, which I enjoy, or Kew Gardens perhaps, but I seldom eat out or anything like that. I tend to stay very close to home these days.”
A Python-esque start
Born in London in 1926, and having grown up in Leicester, he went on to study natural sciences at Cambridge University before moving to his home in Richmond in 1952, the same year that he joined the BBC. It was the start of an extraordinary career that would see him introduce colour TV as the controller of BBC Two (1967), go on to commission shows such as Monty Python’s Flying Circus (1969) and travel the world making landmark series such as Life on Earth (1979), The Living Planet (1984) and The Trials of Life (1990), to name but a few.
But wherever he’s away filming, he’s always been grateful to return to the home that he shared with his beloved late wife, Jane, who he was married to for 47 years, and their two children, Robert, now an anthropologist in Australia, and Susan, a teacher, who lives locally.
“When I first moved here, my brother (the late actor and director, Lord Richard Attenborough) lived on Richmond Green too,” he continues, musing on the reasons that first attracted him to the area. “And I also wanted to be somewhere where there was plenty of space, and here there was Richmond Park, Kew Gardens, Wimbledon Common, the Thames… The only other place I might have gone to was Hampstead Heath but the houses in Richmond were actually cheaper at that time so I came here.”
While it may have been the open space that first drew him to Surrey, the irony of course is that it has never before been more at risk, with the Green Belt under threat from all sides – whether that’s from prospective oil companies, potentially expanding airports (at both ends of the county) or, perhaps most pressingly, from property developers. He’s sympathetic to the plight of those seeking to protect our countryside, but also acutely aware of the pressures that it faces.
“Of course, I feel strongly about it, but then one has to worry about people who haven’t got any homes at all; I mean, Britain is a very, very crowded place. The government is also forced by the electorate to say they are going to build so many new houses, and it’s got to put them somewhere. Sadly, they can’t accommodate all the houses that we want on brownfield sites; there just aren’t enough. So, I think we should defend the Green Belt, of course I do, but nonetheless it’s a problem.”
With time of the essence, I don’t press him on the point, but he is undoubtedly referring here to his views on population control – which, bizarrely, are sometimes referred to as “controversial”. In actual fact, he is just espousing common sense; namely that to secure the future of the planet and its resources, we need less people, and the way to achieve that is through education about birth control.
“You’ll discover in countries where women have control over their own bodies, where they have education, where they have birth control, where they have facilities and where they are literate, the birth rate falls,” he said in a recent interview with The Independent. “Always. Always.”
Our exotic visitors
His belief in the importance of education is one of the reasons that he still undertakes commitments such as his annual family lecture in Surrey. At today’s event, entitled Wild Neighbours, he’s going to be talking about the non-native creatures from more exotic climes who have made Surrey their own – from the grey squirrel and the Mandarin duck to the county’s famous green ring-necked parakeets. And he has a wonderful anecdote about those too…
“A long time ago, when I was working with London Zoo, I would help bring animals back to Britain, and I got something of a reputation for keeping odd pets at home in Richmond, such as bushbabies, chameleons, lemurs and snakes, as well as a green parakeet.
“Anyway, one day, my wife looked out the window and thought that the parakeet must have got out, because she could see him in the garden – and that’s the first time I realised that we had ring-necked parakeets in Surrey. The rumour goes that they escaped when The African Queen was being filmed at Shepperton Studios, but in actual fact, they were first introduced here back in the 1850s.
“Nowadays, of course, we have roosts some 5,000-strong – for instance, at Esher Rugby Club. So do we protect them? Do we get rid of them? For my part, as things stand, I welcome them. But if they do become a problem, such as a threat to our native birds or commercial crops, then it may be a case of thinking again.”
While there might not be any exotic animals living with him in Richmond these days, he says he enjoys welcoming not just the parakeets but all kinds of wildlife to his walled garden. Especially because, as president emeritus of the national network of Wildlife Trusts, he’s a firm believer in their ‘green spaces’ campaign to encourage wildlife-friendly gardens.
“As my garden is enclosed, I don’t get badgers or hedgehogs sadly,” he says. “But I do get foxes, quite a lot of birds and great crested newts in my pond – as well as stag beetles coming over from Richmond Park – which is lovely.”
New TV series
Whilst most people his age would be more than content with simply enjoying their garden, he remains just as busy as ever. As well as his two recent programmes for BBC Two celebrating our feathered friends, Attenborough’s Paradise Birds and Attenborough’s Big Birds, he is also working on not just one but two major new television projects at the moment. The first of these is a series of three programmes in 3D for the BBC about the wonders of the Great Barrier Reef, scheduled for transmission at the beginning of next year, while the other is a documentary about a new species of dinosaur – the biggest ever discovered – found in Patagonia.
“It’s incredibly exciting because the excavating and assembling of the skeleton is still continuing,” he says. “So far, they have recovered over 200 bones, which is exceptional. Some specimens are known from only a dozen or so. Currently, it is thought that the animal must have weighed about 77 tons and stood 20m high, which is bigger than the biggest find hitherto. I will be going back to Patagonia to film the last stages of the work in the autumn.”
For now, the time has come for him to take to the stage and inspire a whole new generation of naturalists to follow in his well-travelled footsteps. As he puts on his jacket to leave though, we touch briefly on the fact that, despite all the amazing places in the world he has visited, he recently declared Richmond to be his favourite. So it seems there really is no place like home?
“Well, I’ve lived there for however long it is now,” he says, eyes gazing into the middle distance for a moment. “And I hope to end my days there if I can.”
• For more information on the Environment Trust, pay a visit to their website at environmenttrust.co.uk
The trials of life with Sir David Attenborough...
Most exciting adventure? “The most exciting moment, looking back over many years, would be the first time I dived on a coral reef – which is a wonderful thing to do. It allows you to move in any direction: up, down, hover… On the Barrier Reef, where we’ve been filming recently, there are strange creatures that I had never seen before. It was a moment to be treasured – but every time you do it, it’s a thrill.”
The rarest animal ever seen? “There are a dozen or so different kinds of giant tortoises living on the islands of Galapagos. Once, there were half a dozen more. Those that once lived on the island of Pinta were thought to have become extinct a long time ago, but in 1972 a single survivor was discovered. No one knew how old he was, but he was certainly over a hundred and very creaky. He was brought to the main island and given his own special enclosure where I filmed him a few years ago. And then two weeks later, he died. He was the last of his kind. So he was certainly the rarest animal I have ever met.”
Advice for youngsters? “It’s easier now than it has ever been to make a natural history film with home video cameras readily available. So are computers with which you can edit your shots. So why not have a go? Your subject could be something that is easy to see – a pigeon perhaps. Even a snail. Making such a film, you would learn a lot – and not only how to tell a story with pictures. You might also discover whether you really want to spend all your time doing such a thing. And you might even make a film that will show a potential employer how talented you are and persuade them to give you a job.”
Most dangerous experience? “I haven’t really had any. My job is to make films showing animals behaving as though I wasn’t there. So I do my best to make sure they behave normally and don’t attack me. In fact, the most dangerous animal I have encountered is a male human being who has had rather too much to drink, doesn’t speak your language and has a loaded gun in his hands.”
Favourite animal of all? “It changes every day. The natural world is so full of strange creatures. Today, I’ll say the weedy sea dragon, which lives in the seas off the south coast of Australia. When males and females meet, they dance to each other – and it’s one of the most beguiling spectacles you’ll ever see. But tomorrow it will be something else.”
A career in broadcasting
A few of the landmark programmes
• Zoo Quest (1954-1961)
• Wildlife on One (1977-2005)
• Life on Earth (1979)
• The Living Planet (1984)
• The Trials of Life (1990)
• Life in the Freezer (1993)
• The Private Life of Plants (1995)
• The Life of Birds (1998)
• State of the Planet (2000)
• Blue Planet (2001)
• The Life of Mammals (2002)
• Life in the Undergrowth (2005)
• Planet Earth (2006)
• Life in Cold Blood (2008)
• Frozen Planet (2011)
• Kingdom of Plants 3D (2012)
• Natural Curiosities: Series 1 (2013)
• Africa (2013)
• Natural Curiosities: Series 2 (2014)
• Life Story (2014)
• Attenborough’s Paradise Birds (2015)
• Natural Curiosities: Series 3 (2015)
• Attenborough’s Big Birds (2015)
More for Surrey's nature lovers...
• Surrey Wildlife Trust has a monthly column in Surrey Life magazine
• Actress Virginia McKenna on 30 years of Born Free and the battle to save the Surrey Hills
• British Wildlife Centre, near Lingfield - a wild day out in Surrey
• The new WWF headquarters in Woking: one of the UK’s greenest buildings and a new Surrey attraction
• Nicholas Owen meets Wildlife Aid’s Simon Cowell
• Discover how the Shalford-based David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation is helping to protect the world’s endangered species