Sir David Attenborough does not think he was the best choice of presenter for his latest television series The Life of Birds, which begins on BBC1 in October. In fact, when the BBC approached him, he was less than enthusiastic. "You shouldn't ask me, because you have all these expert ornithologists," he told them, but the BBC wanted a naturalist who was not primarily an ornithologist, a non-expert who would be more accessible to viewers. Eventually he agreed, telling them: "If you don't want someone else to do it, I would be delighted."
It is a misleading story. Ask any member of the public to name a well known ornithologist and the only name likely to spring to mind would be Bill Oddie -- hardly a heavyweight of Attenborough proportions. Besides, the series, The Life of Birds, is the latest instalment in Attenborough's ambitious televised natural history of the Earth, which began in 1979 with Life on Earth. It forms a monumental canon of work-including The Living Planet, The Trials of Life, Life in the Freezer and The Private Life of Plants -- which has had an enormous impact on popular understanding of live and evolution. With credentials like these, it is difficult to see how anyone but Attenborough would have the clout to pull off such an ambitious project.
Attenborough had already been working in television for 30 years when "Life" was first broadcast in Britain. His earliest natural history broadcasts were, in his own words, "nature-light" in comparison. In fact, he describes the films he made in the early 1950s as "thinly disguised travel programmes". Yet it was from these efforts that modern natural history broadcasting developed. Attenborough says that by the late 1970s wildlife broadcasts had got into something of a rut, taking one of two basic approaches. "[There were] the kind that says: `Here is the little creature and it is winter and spring comes.'" He walks his fingers along the arm of his chair, his voice assuming the patronising tone of a children's television presenter. "And goodness me, there are new ones born. But there are enemies. Some of them will die. And we come to the end and winter returns. Will the species continue? It is rare and it is all your fault." The other type of film he describes thus: "This wonderful spark of nature in this wonderful spot of nature and human beings have hardly been near. Intricate little mechanisms with things that eat and other things ... all depend on the plants and one thing and another. Then winter comes and ... you know, it's saying the same thing."
His sarcasm comes as a surprise. I had expected someone less ironic, more, well, pompous. We are in the sitting room of his neo-Gothic cottage, eating homemade Garibaldi biscuits and drinking instant coffee. From the outside his home looks like that of Victorian naturalist, but the room we sit in is stark, masculine and modern. The walls are painted white, there are a few bits of furniture and an impressive collection of ceramics is displayed in orderly fashion on wooden shelves.
Leaning back in his leather armchair, Attenborough continues: "People were waiting for another kind of programme to come along, and that was the one which I tackled with Life on Earth. [It] said: `Okay, so we've been looking at all these little bits of the country and these little groups of animals, but how do they all fit together? To tell that story -- a riveting one -- you have to have at least 12 hours, which is what we got."
Those big subjects, he says, are nice things to get your teeth into, and the results are undeniably impressive; according to the BBC, Life on Earth has been seen by more than 10 million people worldwide.
Attenborough is wary of any suggestion that he has a mission. "I am not high minded," he insists when asked what motivates him. He thinks mankind has a responsibility for "all that sort of stuff", meaning nature, and says that his pleasure in life is "rekindled" by telling someone about it. Communication, he adds, is fundamental to the human psyche, not least his.
"Human beings are actually besotted with communication. You only have to look at them going down the street and talking on their mobile phones. Communication is absolutely essential to what we do, to us as a species. And in the end it is probably the key to why we are a Successful species, not because we feel it is important for the future of the world."
Attenborough admits to having a sense of responsibility when it comes to conservation, but it is not, he says, the reason he chose to make natural history films. "Conservation is a side issue. When I went into [natural history broadcasting] in 1952, I didn't know we had any problems, we didn't think about conservation.
"I didn't go into filmmaking because I was going to save the world, I went in because I asked myself what I'd like to see when I turned on the TV after a day in the office. I wouldn't mind seeing mongooses and chimpanzees."
Times have changed and filmmakers, including Attenborough, now play a key role in raising conservation awareness. "We were not aware when we started that there were species on the verge of extinction," he says, but ornithologist and painter Sir Peter Scott changed things with his films about the Hawaiian goose in the early 1960s. "There had been people doing something, but by and large, people thought: `What does it matter if the Hawaiian goose disappears?'"
It was the realisation that these things were not just important or interesting in themselves, but they were markers, that changed attitudes. "The reason the Hawaiian goose was disappearing was because the whole of Hawaii was changing," he says. People started to realise that the Javan rhino and Siberian tiger were threatened because their habitat was being destroyed.
"It was that realisation that what we were doing, like destroying rainforests, did make a difference, because they changed climatic patterns," adds Attenborough.
In the 1950s, Attenborough notes with a chuckle, most people would have been bemused at the idea of a minister for the environment, let alone the thought of environmentalists having enough political influence to force mainstream politics to include green issues in manifestos. And this is a very good thing, he says, "they bloody well ought to".
But has the environmental movement gained too little too late? "Of course, you could say that if it had started earlier then it would have been better," he agrees, "but the issues have got worse in the last 40 years, primarily because of the great increase in human population."
One has the nagging feeling when talking to David Attenborough that conscience-raising is less important to him than making superlative films. He becomes animated when asked about the rare footage of bird and animal behaviour featured in his films, not least The Life of Birds. This latest series features, for example, extremely rare footage of egg parasitism by the north America canvasback duck, captured by cameraman Barrie Britton. "Barrie has this fantastic knowledge of birds," says Attenborough. "It is almost a sixth sense that he knows what a bird is going to do. He is able to anticipate, which is a great skill so you actually press the button of the camera before the thing does it, not after."
The BBC describes the 10-part series as "the definitive story of one of nature's most successful life forms". Three years in the making, Attenborough and the BBC Natural History Unit visit 42 countries from the Arctic to the Antarctic. They gathered, in all, 175 miles (280 kilometres) of film, using infra-red cameras to find oilbirds deep in pitch-black caves and ultra-slow motion film to unravel the complexities of bird flight.
We will see crows cracking open nuts with the help of cars, Australian choughs ganging up and kidnapping their neighbours' young, and penguins in Florida chattering to their chicks in the egg. Closer to home, we are offered a rare glimpse into the mating habits of the dunnock, the male of which pecks out any sperm left by rivals in the hen's genital opening in order to ensure that any chicks born are his. "It is extraordinarily interesting behaviour to see," he says, after performing a full blown impersonation of the bird, complete with flapping wings. "People didn't know about it until a few years ago. It is a very recent discovery and it has never been filmed before."
He hopes that nobody else has filmed it, he says, displaying uncharacteristic self-doubt. "But, as I say, it only happens in spring and I think we are the only ones who have got it."
The race to be the first to get animal behaviour on film has led to some wildlife filmmakers setting up shots. In recent months one group of filmmakers came under fire for throwing monkeys to eagles in their quest for shots of the birds feeding.
Attenborough displays a more generous attitude to those crossing the line than one would expect, especially given the BBC Natural History Unit's tight code on the issue. "It is extremely difficult. I don't suppose anybody would feel it was terribly wrong to feed an earthworm to a bird, to pick it up and chuck it to a robin. There are some, I suppose, who would feel slightly squeamish when they see anglers stab one on the hook and put it in the water, but by and large, people wouldn't feel too bothered. Then what about grasshoppers? Would you feed live grasshoppers, locusts or flies to a chameleon? Well, okay, what about little lizards? You can go through until you end up wondering whether you would throw a monkey to a monkey-eating eagle. At what stage do you stop?
"I suppose people might feed a live fish another fish, but we don't," he ruminates. Attenborough points to the hypocrisy that informs popular debate on the subject. "You will set a trap for a mouse and you don't mind if you break its back," he slaps his hands. "But would you mind if you put the trap down every night to get a picture of an owl? Tricky. I suppose in general terms what you think is that the more complex an animal is, if it is a mammal say, the more likely it is to have the mental processes and systems that would cause [it to feel] pain."
Anyway, whatever the ethics, he concludes with characteristic ambiguity, set-up shots are not terribly convincing. "So, apart from being very high minded, it doesn't work very well."
Somehow this comment sums up this complex man -- his passion, his ambivalence, his ambition and compassion -- a far cry from the reductionist caricature of television impersonators. It is also why David Attenborough was the natural choice for The Life of Birds; he makes films that millions of people want to watch.
Danuta Kean is news editor of The Bookseller. A book, The Life of Birds, which accompanies the television series, is published by BBC Books and costs 18.99 [pounds sterling].
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|Title Annotation:||United Kingdom; David Attenborough, BBC series 'The Life of Birds'|
|Date:||Oct 1, 1998|
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