David Attenborough on Charles Darwin on the BBC





At the age of 82 Sir David Attenborough is still looking for adventure. So later this year he will pack his thermals and head back to Antarctica to see how places he has visited in the past have been affected by global warming.

He is not as mobile as he was but, as he points out: “I'm not walking there, I tell you. In the polar regions it's a doddle if you've got all the gear. Got all the gear, no problem.” Then, with the immaculate timing that he has developed over decades of yarn-spinning, he adds: “Until something goes wrong. If you are walking around on a glacier near the South Pole and you lose a glove...” pause for effect... “you've probably lost your hand. It's a serious business.” But just in case anyone should think that he is taking his endeavours too seriously, he notes: “If you've got an aged presenter you have a back-up of really tough, hairy-chested, string-vest men. If he drops his glove they've got another one.”

Sir David continues to be the most popular, crowd-pleasing wildlife expert and this year will be a good one for sightings. When he is not off filming in Antarctica for a future project, he will be working on his script for an autumn blockbuster series, Life. He has narrated next month's BBC One series Nature's Great Events. And the highlight of the BBC's coverage of the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin's birth and the 150th anniversary of publication of On the Origin of Species (broadcast next week) is an Attenborough one-hour special, Charles Darwin and the Tree of Life.

But if Sir David retains his position as the alpha male of natural history documentary-making, he no longer laps the globe on long filming trips, for one simple reason. “A big series is a three or four-year project,” he explains cheerfully. “If you are a network controller - and I've been one - and someone comes along and says ‘I have a terrific idea for a 13-part series, it will cost you ten million quid and when I'm finished I'll be 86,' what do you say?” So these days he travels less and does shorter programmes.

He has slowly mutated, too, into a more openly opinionated figure. He was once renowned for his diplomacy, carefully sidestepping controversy. It took him until recently to make his first programme about global warming, after finally becoming convinced of mankind's role.

Today, however, sitting in the living room of his fine - but not grand - home on Richmond Hill, southwest London, surrounded by tribal art and piles of books, he is very happy to sound off. The subjects that chiefly exercise him are the way we are treating a planet that he knows better than probably anyone else who inhabits it, and what he sees as the “disgrace” of the rise in belief in creationism.

The Tree of Life is one of Sir David's most personal programmes. It is the “fabuloso” story of how Darwin changed “the way we see the world and our place in it”. Sir David leads the viewer gently through Darwin's journey to the Galápagos Islands and his observations in his garden at Down House in Kent that formed his theory of natural selection; that all life forms originated from a common simple beginning and evolved through mutations that created new species and led to the extinction of others over hundreds of millions of years.

We are taken on Sir David's own journey, too, as he returns to the rocks where he hunted for fossils as a child in Leicestershire, and shows us his own well-thumbed copy of Darwin's work, which he encountered for the first time at 18. “I didn't read it cover to cover. I read chapters. But it is very readable.” He starts quoting the exquisite conclusion to the book, which describes “an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds...”

The book didn't transform his life because he was already aware of evolution. “I rather wish I'd been brought up a creationist who had a Damascene moment: ‘Yes! Now I see it.' But it always seemed clear that we were related to monkeys.”

Darwin wasn't exactly his hero - “hero somehow implies somebody with a sword having a battle” - but “he was the epitome of wisdom. You knew he had the answer to most things.”

Darwin's theory shocked and appalled a Victorian world in which almost everyone believed that God micro-managed the Universe, creating each species. What thrills Attenborough is that Darwin's theory is being bolstered by modern science of which Darwin had no inkling, such as genetics. “DNA happened after I left university!” he exclaims. “I walked past the lab daily but Crick and Watson hadn't done it then. The recent proof of these things is so exciting.” He loves the fact that “there's an awful lot about evolution that we don't understand” and that there are whole university departments churning out new research.

He believes that Darwin changed the world in a way very few others have done. “Copernicus, perhaps. The Sun becoming the centre of the solar system. That's fairly life-changing.” I say that to the layman it is still quite hard to get your head round evolution. “The theory that the first woman was made out of the rib of Adam - now that is quite a difficult one to believe,” he counters...



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