My survival secret Red wine and Mars bars… Sir David Attenborough reveals how he keeps going
Is there no stopping Sir David Attenborough Fresh from his breathtaking Frozen Planet series, he’s back with a heartwarming film about one penguin’s fight for love and survival.
The first surprise from Sir David Attenborough – the man whose matchless natural history programmes have mesmerised us for six decades now – is that he numbers himself among the showbusiness fraternity.
Far from elevating himself into some rarefied stratosphere remote from the glittering world of light entertainment, Sir David considers himself on the same plane.
‘I’m in showbiz, of course I am!’ he cries. ‘I think that really worthwhile programmes educate and entertain. I watch Porridge – it’s one of the funniest shows I’ve ever seen, but it’s also one of the most revealing about the human condition.
Sir David Attenborough with a King penguin chick – the second largest penguin – in St Andrews Bay, South Georgia
‘The physicist Brian Cox is brilliant – although I wish I knew what he was talking about. He’s unparalleled at lighting a flame of curiosity. I don’t feel guilty if I can’t remember the wave length of light or what a black dwarf is. The important thing is, he has inspired me to go off and read a book about it.
‘When I make a natural history programme I aspire to appeal to all abilities and age ranges – from five-year-olds to retired professors – and I think unless I’m getting people sitting on the edge of their seats I’ve made a dud.’
Indeed, his latest documentary, shot in 3D for Sky, contains all the elements of a blockbuster: romance, suspense, danger, comedy and even a few bloodthirsty killings. It’s called The Bachelor King and it’s about a penguin’s rite of passage from awkward adolescent to footloose singleton, then, finally, responsible father.
The Bachelor King is about a penguin”s rite of passage from awkward adolescent to footloose singleton, then, finally, responsible father
Sir David narrates it in the tone of hushed anticipation that is his trademark. The real-life drama is set on the subantarctic island of South Georgia, where the penguin’s epic and hazardous journey to his breeding ground takes place. He has to navigate freezing waters stalked by killer whales and negotiate a beach where flatulent three-ton elephant seals could squash him without even noticing.
He dodges thieving skua birds that gorge on penguin eggs and flesh-eating killer petrels, before finally finding a mate. Sir David conceived the original idea for The Bachelor King, and wrote the script, and the programme was produced by the BAFTA-winning team who made Flying Monsters in 3D.
For this project, they had to use specially designed 3D stereoscopic equipment to withstand the demands of the subantarctic climate. ‘3D is always fun for the audience the first time they see it,’ says Sir David. ‘You get things swooshing in and out, and they duck, and you think, “Ha, ha!” But of course, you’re on a hiding to nothing if you think you can make a dull programme good because of it. It isn’t the be-all and end-all. This is a programme I hope people will want to see because it’s good; not because the 3D is making a cheap point, but because it has produced a more informative and detailed picture.’
Sir David has a history of embracing cuttingedge technology. During a brief tenure as controllerof BBC2 he was responsible, in 1967, for its pioneering first colour broadcast. Today, at 85, his eagerness to welcome advances remains. He’salso working as hard as ever and has no thought of retiring. ‘I can’t believe I’m this lucky,’ he says.
‘Thereare plenty of people my age who haven’t got their marbles and I’m fortunate that I’m still active, and luckier still that people wish me to remain so.’ He admits his health is not down to a good diet – in fact, he was rumoured to have survived the shattering cold of filming BBC series Frozen Planet by subsisting on red wine and Mars bars. ‘Doesn’t everyone’ he asks disingenuously.
‘Icould also eat 12 fruit and nut chocolate bars at a sitting, if required,’ he deadpans. He claims not to be able to cook at all. Since his beloved wife Jane died of a brain haemorrhage at their home in Richmond, Surrey, 14 years ago, he has lived there alone, grazing on whatever lurks in his fridge. ‘My daughter Susan has long since given upthe battle to teach me to cook,’ he smiles. ‘Although few people can compete with me when it comes to boiling an egg.’
Sir David and his brother Richard pictured in 2006 during a ceremony making them distinguished honorary fellows of the University of Leicester
But the chocolate-and-wine regimen must suit him: he looks remarkably unchanged since 1979, when he communed with endangered mountain gorillas in his benchmark series Life On Earth.We meet on a chilly winter’s day yet he still wears his signature pale blue cotton shirt – shortsleeved and open-necked – teamed with light casual trousers and stout shoes. Only his knees betray his age. They play him up continually and I ask how they are today. ‘Terrible!’ he cries. ‘I can’t walk far, but I’m 85. I know a lot of people my age who are in far worse condition so I’ll settle for having bad knees, thank you very much.’
I’m sure he must be comparing his lot with that of his brother Richard, 88 – the actor and theatre director Lord ‘Dickie’ Attenborough – who has been confined to a wheelchair since a fall three years ago. His frailty is compounded by the anguish of bereavement: he lost a daughter and granddaughter in the Asian tsunami in 2004. I ask how Lord Attenborough is. ‘So-so,’ Sir David says. ‘He’s still in a wheelchair. He lives near me, so I see him whenever I can. We have laughs and talk about the usual brotherly things: what’s going on in our lives, what’s on TV, the political situation.’
I did an interview with a magazine and the headline on the cover read, “I know I’m not immortal”, as if this was a revelation!
Sir David is determined to remain independent. He has absolutely no intention of moving to a smaller houseand plans to end his days in the home where he and Jane (they had been married 47 years when she died) raised their two children – Robert, an anthropologist who lives in Australia, and Susan a former head teacher. ‘I’m staying in my house. I’m not going anywhere else,’ he says, and yousense intransigence in his tone. Susan, who is unmarried and lives in Surrey, pops in a few times a week to help ‘handle my business affairs and “muck me out”,’ as he puts it.
I ask if he thinks much about death. ‘Oh yes, all the time,’ he says breezily. ‘I did an interview with a magazine and the headline on the cover read, “I know I’m not immortal”, as if this was a revelation!’ he chuckles. He is famously agnostic, and as the years advance he does not feel more inclined to believe in an after-life. ‘I see no evidence of one,’ he says. ‘Although that doesn’t mean there isn’t one.’ His life continues to be rich in challenges, but he admits to regrets. During his marriage, family life was punctuated by his frequent absences to the other side of the world for filming.
He was in New Zealand making The Life Of Birds when his wife slipped into the coma that preceded her death. He flew home and made it to her bedside just in time for her to squeeze his hand in recognition before she died. Sir David is neither effusive nor sentimental, but he says, ‘I miss her still, of course I do.’ He contends he isn’t lonely: ‘I don’t mind being by myself.’ And when I ask if he has ever felt the need of companionship he guffaws. ‘I’m not going down that route! No!’
Sir David”s next project involves a trilogy of 3D programmes about botany from Kew Gardens
There is consolation in visits from his two grandchildren – Robert’s children – now in their 20s, who have moved from Australia to live in the UK. One is at university; the other in scientific publishing. I wonder if he reproaches himself for missing formative stages in his own children’s lives. ‘Yes, it’s a regret that I was gallivanting around the world catching anteaters when they were growing up. I loved my children very much and there were joys I’m very sorry I wasn’t there to share with them.’
He is especially assiduous about fostering children’s enthusiasm for the natural world. He does not employ a secretary and answers every letter he is sent. ‘Oh gosh, I’ll get a rocket from my daughter for admitting it, but I always reply, particularly to children. I do it in the wee small hours when I can’t sleep.’
He even admits to collecting ‘scientifically useless’ fossil remnants while on shoots to send along with his replies – ‘I could envisage how thrilled the children would be.’ He says he does so, in part, because at the age of seven he was sent a parcel of Anglo Saxon pottery by an archaeologist after he’d attended one of her talks. ‘It was so touching. I remember the thrill. It had an effect on my life.’
Aside from his broadcasts, it is such gestures of kindness that have made him an inspiration to so many, and he intends to continue enthralling us with his dispatches from the natural world. His next project will be made on his doorstep: to celebrate his 60 years in TV broadcasting next year he will bring us a trilogy of 3D programmes about botany from Kew Gardens.
‘It’s a brilliant subject to film in 3D,’ he enthuses, his eyes lighting up. ‘There will be time-lapse photography, flower buds opening, plants inflating with water, plants strangling each other – mesmerising!’ Invested with the brilliance of Sir David’s imagination, we can be assured that even the botanical world will be full of drama, suspense – and even blood-curdling thrills.
The Bachelor King airs on Sky 3D on New Year’s Eve at 8pm.