'Apart from the rats it's been an absolute joy!' David Attenborough celebrates his own Diamond Jubilee with a special series of nature documentaries
21:30 GMT, 26 October 2012
Sir David Attenborough is such a jolly soul, you tend to forget he's been knocking around now for more years than television itself.
'Inside, I'm skipping about picking up plants,' he says. 'When you see yourself looking like a limping, bow-legged cripple, you think, “Well, the camera must have got me on an off-day. I'm not really like that”.'
He chuckles and rubs the legs that are giving him gyp. David ('Oh please, not Sir David,' he insists) tore the cartilage in his knee half a century ago and is now, at 86 years old, considering having his 'wrecked' knees replaced.
David Attenborough's new series, Attenborough: 60 Years In The Wild, begins on 16 November on BBC Two
The problem is he can't seem to find the time. 'I damaged my knee in the 1960s,' he says. 'I maintain it was playing rugby, but my wife insisted I was trying to change a light bulb on New Year's Eve when I'd had rather too many drinks.
'Back in those days they cut the cartilage out, so bone wears on bone. Both knees have gone now and need replacing, but they do each knee separately, which means I might be out of business for six months or more, and I'm trying to find six months where I can be.'
David likes to keep going. 'I believe it's better to travel than to arrive. I think achieving something and saying, “That's what I set out for. Now this is it…”'
He doesn't finish the sentence, but I think what he's trying to say is he's frightened of stopping. David has been 'in the business', as he puts it, for six decades now, endearing himself to generations of viewers with his glorious natural history programmes.
David Attenborough with Cocky the cockatoo in London Zoo in 1980, and with his wife Jane, who died of a sudden brain haemorrhage in 1997, and their children Robert and Susan
Next month the BBC marks his 60th anniversary with a three-part documentary series, 60 Years In The Wild. It has, as David says with typical modesty, 'worked out rather well'. The series shows the depth and breadth of his astonishing career.
'I don't like rats at all. I've been
sitting on a loo and had one come up between my legs. I've had them run
over my face in the Solomon Islands.'
Indeed, when he set out with cameraman Charles Lagus to film the first of his natural history series Zoo Quest in 1954, there was no comprehensive understanding of extinction, continental drift or DNA.
He has, as he says in the series, lived and worked through the 'Golden Age' of scientific discovery. 'A lot of the facts you learnt in the 1940s didn't make any sense. The theory of Continental drift at a stroke solved all kinds of illogicalities.
'It was mind-blowing,' he says. 'Today every child knows about DNA. It's not until you say, “Hang on. When I was an undergraduate nobody knew about that”, that you realise how extraordinary the last 60 years have been.'
With the King Penguins of South Georgia in 2000 on BBC One's Life In The Freezer
David is, he says, 'blessed' to have spent six decades being paid to do what he loves. So, what were the highlights 'Watching birds of paradise display, diving on a coral reef, seeing the gorillas at dawn, a lagoon in Spain with everything going on – the clouds, the geese and the sun,' he says.
'At the time, you're too busy to really appreciate it, but the joy of those moments comes back to you when you see the programmes.'
And the low points 'Rats,' he says. 'I don't like rats at all. I've been sitting on a loo and had one come up between my legs. I've had them run over my face in the Solomon Islands.' He shudders, but I sense it was all part of the adventure.
The adventure began all those years ago in Sierra Leone, West Africa, where David, a young man in khaki shorts and married with two children under three, had gone to film Zoo Quest.
'We were very incompetent,' he says. 'We wouldn't survive a minute in today's world. We bumbled about. The gear was pretty amateur stuff. We finished after three months and were coming down the river. We were due to sail out the next day. We hadn't seen the footage.
David Attenborough with mountain gorillas, on location for 'Life on Earth' in Rwanda 1979
I said to Charles, “I don't know, I think we've got six programmes. If they're any good we might be able to stretch this idea out for another series.” I really meant that.'
'In the 1950s when you went away, boy, you went away. When I went away for three and a half months I didn't speak to my wife for three and a half months'
That was over half a century ago. Since then he's travelled all over the globe to bring the wonders of the natural world into our sitting rooms with an enthusiasm that's undiminished by age. None of which, he says, would have been possible without the support of his beloved wife Jane, who he met at university and married at the age of 24.
'In the 1950s when you went away, boy, you went away. There were no mobile telephones, and calling my wife from Borneo involved booking the call at a certain time on a certain date, getting into a canoe and going down the river – often to find there was a fault on the line that might take two days to repair.
'In the end I decided, “Forget telephones. Whenever I can write, I will.” So, when I went away for three and a half months I didn't speak to my wife for three and a half months.'
David remained devoted to his wife, who died suddenly of a brain haemorrhage in 1997, and still keeps those letters. He was 70 years old at the time, an age when many men might consider retirement. But David just worked harder.
David has raised his children, Susan, who runs
his business affairs, and Robert, an anthropologist in Australia, in the same house in Richmond, Surrey, for over 50 years
With an anaesthetised polar bear on Frozen Planet in 2011
'One of the ways you deal with that kind of crisis is by doing something. You're grateful there's something to take your mind off things. Making natural history films is a very rewarding thing to do and easy to lose yourself in.'
'Making natural history films is a very rewarding thing to do and easy to lose yourself in'
We meet at David's home in Richmond, Surrey, where he's lived for over 50 years and raised his children, Susan, who runs his business affairs, and Robert, an anthropologist in Australia. So much of his life is bound up in this place stuffed with books, fossils and memories.
He tells me he likes to throw dinner parties and host Christmas lunch for 14, including his grandchildren and his wife's family. David packs his life with family and friends. He doesn't, he says, 'wallow in nostalgia'.
The camaraderie he's enjoyed with his team over the years ('we were a band of brothers') is as much a valued part of his career as the natural world they explored together. He recalls with delight 'the ribbing', 'the in-jokes' and 'drinking red wine' with the team who made the programmes possible.
With monarch butterflies in Mexico on The Greatest Wildlife Show On Earth in 2000
'One of the joys of making films is you're a little group. If you're away together for months you develop common jokes. You know how to take the mickey. You know what makes them laugh.'
It is this – David's sheer joy in life – that has endeared him to us. In fact, it's impossible to imagine British television without his brilliance. So does he believe there's an afterlife when it all ends
'One of the joys of making films is
you're a little group. If you're away together for months you develop
common jokes. You know how to take the mickey. You know what makes them
'Maybe something is going on up there, but the mere fact you have no awareness of it means all you can do is allow for its existence and then proceed as best you can
Obviously one knows there can be all kinds of disasters – mental disasters, those I'm apprehensive about – but they haven't hit me yet. So why spend time wringing my hands when I can be out there looking at butterflies'
I wonder if it pains him to imagine a day when he's not a part of the natural world that's brought him, and us, such joy.
'You never know, I might be part of it,' he chuckles. What a wonderful thought: this lovely, jolly man skipping around picking up plants for eternity.
Attenborough: 60 Years In The Wild, 16 November, 9pm, BBC Two.