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Sir David Attenborough - Earth in Vision

Updated Friday, 6 May 2016
Sir David Attenborough discusses his inspirations, regrets, CGI, digital archive and the future of the planet.

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Sir David Attenborough

Sir David Attenborough is an English broadcaster and naturalist, with a University of Cambridge degree in natural science. He has been producing and presenting natural history programmes for the BBC since the 1950s, when he made his first series Zoo Quest. The programme he is most proud of and best known for is the landmark series Life on Earth, which he wrote and presented, and which was first broadcast on the BBC in 1979. Since then he has presented numerous series, including The Living Planet (1984), The Blue Planet (2001) and Frozen Planet (2011), which was co-produced by the BBC and The Open University.


Sir David Attenborough Interview 2015

Earth in Vision Project


What first sparked your interest in the natural world?

Finding fossils, I think, but then I don’t think that’s in the least remarkable, I don’t know any four-year-old who’s not interested in the natural world, I truly don’t. I think that every child starts with a fascination of the world, whether it’s watching tadpoles change into frogs or splitting a rock and seeing a fossil inside or listening to birds, so I can’t say more than that. Of course it is true that today that access is much more limited than it was when I was a boy. I could get on my bike, I lived in the city, I lived in Leicester, I could get on a bike and within 20 minutes I could be in the countryside, in a hedgerow, and not only are a lot of children not able to do that now, their parents don’t allow them to do that now, maybe correctly, but they don’t.

I’m much involved and much concerned really at the way in which natural things are now removed from young children. I’m involved, and have been for a long time, in an organisation trying to create natural playgrounds in which children can look at ponds and so on. And the number of schools without that is huge and tragic and with the increase, with the pressure on schools now, more and more children, bigger and bigger classes, they’re having to use up even those areas where we managed to get natural playgrounds for children, which is tragic.

So why does it matter?

The trouble is if you don’t know what it’s like to be cold, if you don’t know what it’s like to be tired and weary, if you don’t know what it’s like to paddle in mud, these things tend to be just pretty pictures. If you live a total urban existence and you hardly ever hear birds sing and you don’t know what it’s like to spend time just watching, it becomes a picture book and, of course, picture books are very good and people and children with their imagination can use picture books, but the imagination needs to feed on solid fact, and direct experience of animals and direct experience of countryside is absolutely crucial, otherwise you don’t know what it implies.

Obligations of the filmmakers…

Filmmakers making on the natural world have a responsibility to make it truthful. Does this matter? Yes, it matters hugely, because as we all know, it’s a cliché, human beings are dependent upon the natural world for the very air they breathe, for every mouthful of food they eat, and we all know that the natural world is under threat, so we have to do things about it. And what we have to do may cost money, may cost labour, may cost taxes and those sort of things and if the electorate doesn’t understand how important that is they won’t back those policies. And so a realisation that the protection of the natural world is crucial to humanity is very, very important.

The whole range of natural history is important and it has to be a wide range, we have to look at it from all kinds of points of view, not just one programme, but natural history filmmakers can make films about the pleasures of just watching birds fly, but nonetheless, that involves an engagement and, ‘Do you think birds are important?’ and so on. So it’s the totality of natural history broadcasting we’re talking about and the more facets that has, the better it will be. I don’t think any of them are despicable; some can be trivial, but not more than that, but that the attitudes and the approaches should be varied is very important.

Natural history filmmaking – ‘The truth’

The fundamental obligation is to tell the truth, but that is not as easy as it sounds, because the best way of telling a profound truth might be to tell a rather trivial untruth, in the sense that … the literal truth is not what I’m talking about, I’m talking about a profound, fundamental truth. I’m not talking about linking together shots of two different animals and pretending they were the same one, the same polar bear, for example. There’s a very, very grey area there and it is the ambition of the producer to tell the truth, not to be sensational, not to distort things in the name of sensationalism, but if you are to manipulate things, and things are manipulable, then it is to be done with the aim of revealing a truth. The problem comes when you are yourself actually mistaken about what the truth is, and when you think that you know the truth, even though you haven’t seen the evidence of it. And there are well-known, classic examples of that happening, of which the Disney example of the lemming, which was supposed to be migrating, everybody knew the stories, that lemmings under certain circumstances, as it were, committed mass suicide by swimming out to sea, and Disney wished to show this but couldn’t get the damn lemmings doing it and so they manufactured it. I mean they sent people up to catch lemmings and then they herded the lemmings into the St. Lawrence River. And then of course it was discovered that actually the lemmings didn’t do it in the way that they did, and even if they did, it wasn’t the species which they had tried to do it with, and so the thing was a disaster and misleading.

So it’s not all that easy, with the best will in the world. We could go on with examples of where you honestly tried to sell the truth and didn’t tell the whole truth. I mean the thing that has almost become as threadbare argument as the lemming one is the one of the polar bears giving birth in the middle of the night when they did it in the zoo. Well, if you wanted to tell a truthful story about the biology of the polar bear, the key fact is that the females hibernate during the winter and give birth while they were still in a hibernating state. Now, you can’t possibly do that in the wild. If you did you would probably cause the death of the young cubs, or indeed the death of the cameraman if the female bear woke up. So it was done in a zoo. And I thought it was very well done, I mean I spoke the commentary and I thought it spoke the truth about the biology of the polar bear. We actually also said at the end, they put it in the credits that there was a zoo involved, we didn’t underline it heavily with exclamation marks, but we did say that and it was somebody who picked it up and said, ‘What was the zoo?’ and we said what it was and they said, ‘Ooh, terrible.’ But that’s in the grey area, isn’t it? I mean we certainly conveyed the truth about the biology of the polar bear, even though we may have misrepresented the ways in which it was done.

What I’m most proud of…

I would have to say it was a series called Life on Earth, which was 13 one-hour programmes which traced the evolution of life from the very beginning to the most sophisticated mammals. And that had a continuity which I was very pleased with and it presented a panorama of the variety of animal and plant life, not cutting too many corners. Of course, the whole totality of the natural world can’t be encapsulated in 13 hours, but it was an attempt, and it was a serious attempt and we didn’t cut corners, so that we started with the very beginning of life with invertebrates and in the sea. And I remember trying to sell it <laughs> to an American impresario who was buying programmes, interested in commissioning programmes, and I waxed very enthusiastic about it and asked that we start at the very beginning with the Precambrian, and he said, ‘You mean the first of this 13-hour programme series has one hour on green slime?’ And I said, ‘Yes, it does!’ <Laughs> It didn’t impress him!

Do you think a 13-hour series on evolution would be commissioned today?

No, I don’t, and there are reasons why that should be so, because the way in which people watch television has changed. I’m talking now about 1979, 1980, when Life on Earth was commissioned – in 1980 I think there were three television networks, BBC1, BBC2 and ITV and people made appointments with watching television and took it much more seriously, which was a hangover from the time when I joined, when it was a monopoly and when people actually felt they’d paid their licence money, so they were going to watch every programme there was; it was a waste otherwise! But people don’t look at television that way these days, because there is now a multiplicity of different ways in which it may communicate with you, with your friends, with the nation, with reality, with authors, with all sorts of people. So people don’t make dates, as far as I understand it, they don’t make dates with a thing and watch it with any degree of dedication, and so making a 13-hour series, as we did on BBC 2, becomes a much more difficult thing to do now than we did then. Mind you, they haven’t tried it for a bit!

Any regrets?

Oh, there’s lots of trivial programmes, yes, but I don’t think there’s anything I’m ashamed of. I would be ashamed if we bowdlerized nature, if we deliberately distorted nature in the name of popularity, that would be something to be ashamed of, but I don’t think I’ve done quite that. I’ve done programmes which are quite forgettable, that’s perfectly true.

What has changed most in natural history television?

Well, when I started in 1952, I made programmes with one other person, with one cameraman, I did the recording, he did the pictures, it was a clockwork camera and we went off to West Africa and we made programmes and there was only he and I involved. The last 3D programme I made just recently I think I had something like 25 people on location and tons of equipment, tons. And we carried all our own equipment ourselves, everything, so it’s changed hugely, and to that extent of course, one’s obligation, or the credit for putting on the screen involves many more people and it should be attributed to many more people. And more complicated than that, I get the credit, because either my face is there occasionally, or indeed just because my voice is there, the public actually think I took the shots. Now on Life on Earth I think we had something like 15 crews working at various times and I can’t be in 15 places at the same time, so clearly, it’s only a tiny minority in which I can really claim credit for being there at the time and nearly always that would be when I appeared in picture. If I didn’t, the most likely is that I wasn’t there either! So I think it’s only fair that people should get proper credit for their contribution.

Why did the BBC introduce the ‘making of’ programmes?

The reason that you have these 10-minute fillers, you might call them, or 10-minute pendants at the end of the programmes, is actually because at one stage BBC programmes were made at 50-minute length in order to sell them to the States. And then 50 minutes, speaking as a scheduler, from when I was responsible for a network, it’s a pain in the neck to have 50 minutes, and at one stage, while we were in the middle of production, a decision was made in planning, ‘No, we’re going to forget that, we’re going to make hour programmes.’ So we were half way through a programme and making a series and they rang up and said, ‘Sorry, we didn’t mean 50 minutes, we meant 60.’ And we got very high, aeriated about it and said, ‘You can’t just inflate programmes just like that, they’re not balloons, it’s all carefully thought about’ which, of course, was largely hogwash, but nonetheless we took a very high line and said not only that, but we were going to need more money if they’re getting another 10 minutes. And in the end, we thought, ‘Why don’t we make a film about the way this thing was made?’ And actually that was a rehash of a programme I made called The Making of The Living Planet, which was an hour programme about how we made it, because I was getting concerned about the complexity of the techniques we were using and that people were getting misled as to what it was they were seeing. So we harked back to The Making of The Living Planet and put it into 10-minute segments. And the embarrassing thing now <laughs> is that a number of people think it’s rather more interesting than the programmes themselves, but there we are!

Is the ‘golden age’ of natural history television yet to come?

Well golden age, golden is a very good adjective, because it requires gold and to do Life on Earth it was a big financial investment, I mean it was a big crew, it was working for three years, and that means a lot of money in terms of controllers and commissioners. And with the multiplicity of networks that there now are, there’s less money, almost inevitably. In my time Life on Earth cost a lot of money, cost a lot of dedication, and I doubt whether many network controllers would be… I think we got an audience of something like 10 million, 10 or 12 million at the height of Life on Earth. I’ll need checking on that, but it’s something like that. And now if you get 3.5 you say, ‘Jolly good!’ Well inevitably network planners must think about cost per head of what it is, how they’re spending their licence money or their advertising money or whatever their income is, and I doubt if that sort of money is going to be available anymore; so to the extent that if we are looking at golden age meaning expensive programmes, we probably were a golden age in the seventies and the eighties.

Blue Chip versus environmental issues…

Yes, it’s perfectly true that it’s much easier to capture an audience and hold its attention with a story involving the life of a particular animal or a particular species, particularly if it’s a mammal. It has a natural thread, it has birth and life and death and problems and hunger and maternity and so on, whereas if you’re talking about rises in temperature and you’re just looking at graphs and thermometers, the audience is not as interested. I’m not as interested actually, to be truthful. <Chuckles> If I’m sitting at home after a hard day’s work I would enjoy watching a thing about the life of a polar bear rather more than watching about scientists talking about the environment, climate change and the rising temperature. I would like to think that I would do that because I think it’s important, but I would enjoy it as much.

Our changing planet: The obligations of a public service broadcaster

I think that the network controller should say, ‘I must have a rounded and widespread variety of programmes that deal with the natural world, and of course I won’t be cross or not commission any more if the programme about temperature and the complex stuff about atmospheric chemistry doesn’t get as big an audience as a programme on a chimpanzee community.’ But that’s what public service broadcasting should be about.

I personally think that the idea of trying to define a public service programme is a nonsense. What defines public service broadcasting is a schedule and a rounded schedule, and you judge your success as a public service broadcaster by the width of the spectrum that you manage to cover, and the continuity of that spectrum, without gaps in it. That’s what defines public service broadcasting, and I don’t blame commercial broadcasters for not doing that, because their structure is not that, they’ve got shareholders and things, but it is criminal if public service broadcasting doesn’t do that!

With difficult issues like climate change, should broadcasters use gimmicks to attract audiences?

No, I don’t think you have to provide tricks, you have to make it as interesting as you can, and as accessible and as comprehensible as you can. But to dress up a serious programme about the consequences of climate change with dancing girls or whatever is a disrespect to your audience, you won’t win anything that way. You’d lose on all counts. No, the responsibility is with the network controllers and with your broadcasting organisation.

When is it right for someone like you to speak out on issues like climate change?

I was brought up as a public service broadcaster, and I joined the BBC when there was no other television, and the BBC ethos at that time was quite clear. We were not propagandists, we didn’t grind axes. We were trying to be as objective as we possibly could and be as responsible as we possibly could for the veracity of what we were putting up, and that’s still in the marrow of my bones. I believe that is what the BBC ought to be doing, public service broadcasting ought to be doing.

And so when you’re faced with an issue like, as twenty years ago, the rise in temperature or indeed the loss of rainforest or whatever, what you wished to do was to get somebody into your programme who was properly engaged in that sort of thing, knowledgeable about it and taking a view, and if you thought it was problematic or not absolutely justified, then you would actually introduce another voice to try and criticise it or to tease out the truth, and represent them both, whatever variety of opinions there were. And so I didn’t publically go out about climate change. I went public about the fact that we were losing certain species of animals, yes, of course, because you could demonstrate that that was the case, and we did, but the issue about climate change, perfectly responsible people were doubting whether it was true, so if you dealt with it, then you had to put both voices.

Now I was in charge of a network, or indeed I was in charge of a programme, and it would be irresponsible of me to have prejudged that issue while it was controversial. In my private capacity of course you did something else, because you were involved in all kinds of other charitable organisations or whatever, or indeed academic organisations which took different views, and so that was proper too. But the issue of the reality, that the temperature of the world has risen over the past 100 years, has been demonstrated beyond question, and so it was right and proper that one should assume that and say so. But of course there’s a grey area in the middle. At what time do you change from being controversial to being an accepted fact? And that’s up to your own conscience.

What are the pitfalls of keeping archive?

The value of the archive varies. I remember very well one of the first natural history film makers, as far as African natural history was concerned, in the fifties, were people called Armand and Michaela Denis, and when eventually they came to retire, they were quite clear in their own mind, they said so to me, that their archive was worth a fortune, an absolute fortune, and they were asking for bids. Well they didn’t get any, and they didn’t get any because they shot on Kodachrome and the contrast ratio of Kodachrome was such that it was, in black and white, which is what television was at that time, it was whitewash, and nobody wanted to be seen dead with it really, because we’d moved on. We were now moving on to Ektachrome in colour, so that archive – I suppose you might have dimly seen that there was a species they happened to shoot when they were in Gola or somewhere, and that would be proof, but it would be a very limited proof and the expense of keeping that archive in a manageable way would be huge.

So if you’re going to do archive, you have to take it very seriously to make proper use of it. I mean you have to say under what circumstances those things were shot, and there are quite a lot of things in which you, I mean… was the animal captive; was it restrained; what time of the year was it? All sorts of things like that. Now a lot of film that we have in the library doesn’t have that.

Archive is a very, very expensive thing to have, building vaults for looking after film is a very expensive business. And so yes, archives, but I suggest that a) they’re very expensive b) they are more limited in the information they can give you than you might suppose.

Most blue-chip programmes ignore environmental issues. Is this right?

The first thing is that natural history broadcasting covers a whole span of things and they don’t necessarily have to do everything in the same programme, and if we never drew attention to the disasters in this world, we would be culpable, and so that’s that. But to say that every programme you did had to reflect the current situation in terms of threat or whatever, is like saying ‘the only programmes you can make about humanity are of people in hospital or in lunatic asylums’. I mean it would be absurd to deny the splendour and beauty of the natural world to the audience that we’re dealing with. The world is beautiful. That’s as big a truth as the fact that the earth is also in danger. So you have to cover those things and to say that you have always to do it in the same programme, is I think also limiting, not to say absurd, and I think that things like The Living Planet, Alastair Fothergill’s series, which conveyed the grandeur of the world, is as valuable as knowing that it’s in danger. In fact, if you don’t think it’s important and wonderful and beautiful, you won’t bother to save it! So I don’t have any problem about justifying things like Living Planet or Blue Planet. It shows the splendid planet we’re living on quite properly.

You’re now working a lot with computer generated images (CGI). What are the dangers?

Yes, I think one of the things I’ve been doing recently is I’ve been doing quite a lot of stuff about fossils, and we’re using computer-generated imaging, CGI, and the CGI now is so competent that you can’t tell whether it’s an animal, this motion as whether it’s true or whether it’s not, and that, I think, is going to present a major problem. It’s OK when you’re doing … people know that dinosaurs aren’t wandering around now or sabre-toothed tigers, though they may not be too sure about sabre-tooths, so I don’t have to explain that, but I began to realise this when I first started writing scripts in which we were using CGIs, and I was bringing fossils to life with skeletons coming off, and that sequence made it perfectly clear that there was something funny going on technically that enabled you to allow a skeleton, bones to come off a slab of rock and hop about, but you didn’t have to do that every time, and so eventually you got a situation where if you weren’t careful, when you were dealing with some less well-known specimens, people wouldn’t know whether they were real things or whether they were not. And I attempted to deal with that by, in many instances, actually having the skeleton there and articulated and having it moving around, walking around as a skeleton, so that people knew the sort language we were talking, what sort of things we were talking about. But it can go beyond that and recently there was a sequence of a Japanese puffer fish which created huge designs on the bottom of the Japanese sea – 30 or 40 feet deep, of a vast thing like a sunflower, and there was this tiny little fish going away, puffing away. I knew perfectly well I could have created that with CGI, and I looked at it and I said, ‘Come on, that is CGI. I don’t believe that!’ And fortunately the crew recognised this, the film makers, and they had actually shot stuff where you could see the fish and human beings and all the rest of it, to make it absolutely clear that it was true, but if they hadn’t done I would have been very hard put to know whether it was or not. Now that’s an extreme example, but when you get a real, living animal and you believe that it did certain things and you weren’t lucky enough to get it, because it’s rather difficult and didn’t often happen, ‘Well, we’ll just use CGI to make it look as though it’ll happen.’ Now that’s very … dangerous really. We have to know what we’re doing and at what stage do we start having to think that we have to tell the audience what the nature of the image is we’re using? And one of the ways it seems to me you might have to do this is that you actually end programmes, as we used to and I think we probably still do every now and again, with a disclaimer to say that animals were not injured during this process, but you might come to the situation where you actually had to have a disclaimer, or a claimer, one or the other, either saying this film did not contain any computer-generated images, or the other way around, so ‘The flying sequence included CGIs.’ But the audience ought to know what there is of what they’re looking at.

There could certainly be plenty of instances in which you wished to show that, I don’t know, an animal was more vicious than it was, or that an animal was spreading a disease or something, and you couldn’t get the shot but you believed the statistics, and so you made it look that way.

Are you an optimist or a pessimist about the future of the planet?

Human beings are a very, very ingenious species, and I’ve not doubt that we will be discovering all sorts of things that will solve some of the problems that we see facing us and which seem insoluble. I expect we’ll solve a lot of them, but I still think, and I have always said for a very long time, though I don’t know the answer, that the problem that we face, if we wish to maintain any degree of happiness in our circumstances, is to control population in some way. Perhaps that’s the wrong word, control, because alarm bells ring immediately, but to make sure that population doesn’t continue to increase and increase and increase beyond any limit. And there is no question that Homo sapiens has taken the major share of the Earth’s resources and denied it to all the rest, and that as the population increases, the new people coming after me and you, they too want houses, they too want children, they too want food, they want schools, and where’s all that to come from? It can only come from the natural world … or what we call the natural world, which is the non-human world, and so I think that the non-human world of this planet is going to diminish in size and probably in variety.

Are conditions improving for people throughout the planet?

I think the quality of life for great numbers of people is deteriorating. Well it has done. One sees it all the time. The quality of life of people living in the near desert parts of Africa used to be wonderful. It used to be that they lived happy lives and now they’re famine-ridden, so the quality of life for a lot of people has certainly gone down already, and we’re living high on the hog. I mean we in the West have had an unfair share of the Earth’s resources for a long time, and I dare say we’re a selfish lot and we’ll cling on to it, but we may be the last to really feel the pinch, but that the pinch is being felt all over the world right now is beyond any question. Of course a lot of people are, a lot of people are starving. The quality of life has deteriorated appallingly.

What positive measures can we take to reduce global population?

The only sliver of hope that I can see, or consolation or solution, is the incontrovertible fact that where women are empowered with their own futures, where they have control and medical control of their biological processes, where they have education and facilities, that the birth rate falls, and that doesn’t just apply to necessarily the wealthy West. It applies in Kerala in India for example. There’s nowhere where that circumstance applies where the birth rate has not either diminished or remained comparatively low. So that’s one way in which we can do that. And once you allow people to control their lives in that way, that particular problem diminishes very substantially, and so that should be a reason why people in the West should be thinking about helping other parts of the world to that ideal.

We live in a new era, the Anthropocene – The Age of Humans? What are your thoughts?

Oh, I’m sure the Anthropocene will be a useful thing to geologists in another few centuries <chuckles> I suppose, but it represents a reality and so I think from that point of view it’s very good and important. But it depends how Homo sapiens behaves. I mean in the end it could be that the only deposits, the only fossils in those sediments will be overwhelmingly human beings, which would be a great pity. You see I’m already missing the trilobites myself! <Chuckles>

<End of Interview>


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