Interview: Sir David Attenborough

Britain’s most famous naturalist talks to How It Works about his latest show and a lifelong career working with animals

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Interview: Sir David Attenborough
How It Works: In your new show Natural Curiosities you look at just ten animals across five episodes. How did you decide which creatures to focus on?
David Attenborough: When you come to think about it the editorial attitude you take to natural history on television is quite limited. I mean, there’s the adventure story, in which the amount of time you see animals is minimal. A [presenter] will say, “Here we are and if I keep walking maybe I’ll catch up with the animal in question, do a bit of exploring to find it, take a snapshot of it and say, ‘Hooray’.” Well, that is in a sense an adventure and it is none-the-worse for it. Then there’s the big sledgehammer series where you use all the visual apparatus you can think of to get mindblowing images, such as in Frozen Planet, and that’s fine too. And then there’s the conservation angle, where it is very much looking at what is being done to protect environments and animals. But there are other ways of doing it and there are other things about animals that are not included in those aforementioned types. One of them is the history of how human beings came to an understanding about an animal, the myths surrounding them, putting them into a historical context – how they were discovered, what we have learned about them and how they have evolved. This is the approach we have taken with Natural Curiosities and it’s very exciting, as it’s a brand-new [format].

HIW: You deal with a lot of myths in the series – what role has folklore played in shaping these animals’ identities?
DA: I think you have to allow for the fact that the human imagination will elaborate and fill gaps, as it were, and will invent an animal like a dragon that breathes fire whether or not there is one. You’re quite at liberty to, as no one can prove conclusively whether you’re right or wrong. I mean, the Komodo dragon is one example – it has nothing to do with dragon legend, because no one knew it was there, and it was only post-hoc that someone gave it that name. But equally there’s an episode in the series that deals with narwhals and how they were said to have unicorn horns. In it we describe how [English explorer] Martin Frobisher comes back from the Arctic and says to Queen Elizabeth I, “I’ve got a unicorn’s horn! It’ll only cost you a million quid.” That sort of offbeat aspect of natural history has not been addressed anywhere else before.

HIW: Do you feel discussing animals in a more human context makes it easier for the audience to connect with them?
DA: I think so. If you look at myths it tells you a lot about the human mind, which is very interesting, as well as the animals themselves. But it’s just like reading a story; you don’t always have to have biographies that are true, or indeed just fairy stories that are [made up]. There are lots of different ways of looking at these things and all of them should have a place because they are fun, interesting and allow the imagination [free rein]. It would be a great pity if the only shows we ever made were things produced as a scientific statement.

HIW: Do you feel scandals around certain species – such as the duck-billed platypus – have affected how we perceive them as well as how they are studied?
DA: The story of the discovery of many creatures – in which London’s Natural History Museum has played a crucial part – is a riveting one. But it tells you more about naturalists than it does about the animals. The study of history itself is a fascinating subject and the discovery of dinosaurs, or ammonites, or the platypus is just as interesting in a different aspect of our story. The platypus represents a stage between reptiles and mammals – and birds come to that – which is a transitional phase. And in evolutionary terms transitional phases don’t last long. What happens is you get a transitional form that exploits some new faculty or another, but once it’s fully developed that creature will become much more efficient. As a result the [in between] phase [can’t compete] and becomes extinct. This is why these links between the great groups are so rare. So there has to be a particular specialism to enable a certain transitional form to survive and the duck-billed platypus can boast one of those: it is a highly specialised feeder. The thing on its head that looks like a beak is in fact a radar probe that it uses to detect little crustaceans. It’s a mammal and the bill has nothing to do with birds, but it also retains a lot of reptilian characteristics, eg it’s one of just two living mammals to lay eggs.

HIW: What was it like revisiting certain species on film after so many years?
DA: Well, I didn’t choose that footage – that was done by the show’s producers, who looked back through the BBC archive and said, “Oh, we ought to show that” and I said, “Are you sure? Me eating turtle eggs!” I think they were right to include it in the end though as it shows how the world has changed. Of course we were the first generation who could do that – where you could hear yourself speaking after you have spoken, and what a funny thing it is too. The way your accent changes is incredible.

HIW: Which is the most extraordinary animal that you’ve ever encountered?
DA: What’s the most extraordinary animal I’ve ever encountered? I really don’t know. I mean, there are so many absolutely astounding things and the more you know about them the more astounding they get. So I don’t think I could possibly say a particular one… I don’t know how I’d even start.

HIW: Did you learn anything new during Natural Curiosities that made you view the species in a different light?
DA: Mostly I have to say that it was the historical background to many of the species. For example, I didn’t know that Lord Clive of India was very fond of zebras. So much so that he had a pair and he thought it would be nice if he could tame them. He thought that one way to tame them would be to take a male zebra and get it to breed with a female donkey in the hope that the offspring might be more malleable. So, he introduced his zebra to a female donkey that had been painted with black stripes, and the male zebra reportedly went, ‘Wow!’ and they produced a foal. Whether or not the offspring was domesticated, we don’t know.

HIW: Do you feel quirkier stories are better at engaging younger viewers?
DA: I think unusual stories are as engaging as any other. But, you know, young people are just fascinated by animals – they don’t need spoon-feeding. You show young people animals and they are [instinctively drawn to] them, and rightly so. I think everybody of any age is interested in animals. As children grow up they get attracted by iPhones and computer games and what have you, and that’s great, but these things never cause them to lose sight of previous interests, which are pretty precious. I mean, why are nature programmes so popular on TV? Because they are beautiful, they are unexpected, they are true. They aren’t trying to sell you anything or win your vote, they are nature and you know you are part of it. It’s amazing to think how long it took for television to latch on to how popular natural history is and, in some countries, they still haven’t. In Britain, however – thanks to the BBC, who started very early in the Fifties – wildlife programmes are now a huge thing.

HIW: A lot of filming for this series took place in the Natural History Museum. Was that a favourite place of yours growing up?
DA: Oh yes! The Natural History Museum is a great, great place with loads of fossils. Although I do remember travelling all the way down from Leicester to see this dinosaur – a diplodocus – and when I got there I read the label and discovered it was a cast. I really felt betrayed and thought, ‘That’s not right, I want to see the real thing.’ It wasn’t until I went to the States that I saw a big sauropod like that. In retrospect, I think children can be very sensitive to that sort of thing.

HIW: You must be one of the most well-travelled people on Earth. Is there one place you favour over all others?
DA: Richmond in Surrey. My home.

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