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Sir David Attenborough

The great man reflects on 60 years in the undergrowth

Sir David Attenborough
08 May 2011

“Can you hear me now?” comes the instantly recognisable voice down the echoey line. Even when he’s grappling with a troublesome speakerphone

Sir David Attenborough brings a reverence and hushed majesty to proceedings.

The latest project to bear his whispery tones is Flying Monsters 3D, a big-screen exploration of prehistoric Earth’s flying reptiles. He may have just turned 85, but the award-winning naturalist is as inspiring, intimidatingly intelligent and enthusiastic as ever. Just don’t call him a national treasure...

Your latest documentary is in 3D. Is it more than just a gimmick?

I’m very excited about the possibility of 3D. It’s up to us as filmmakers not to do that, so you need to select a subject where 3D really adds something to the experience and understanding of what you’re talking about. I don’t think everybody will have it in their homes. It’s not just the fact that you have to wear glasses but the fact that you have to wear dark glasses. You can’t talk to one another or knit or whatever else you might do.

What is it about pterosaurs that intrigued you to make the film?

They move around in three dimensions, which is very dramatic. That fact that they fly [is interesting], but it’s also the scale of them. There was one as big as a small aeroplane, so how they even got off the ground is fascinating.

How have things changed since those first documentaries you made nearly 60 years ago?

When I started, it was just me and a cameraman going away for three months, but now there’ll be 20 cameramen and they take years to make. The films we made in the Fifties were pretty poor. If you said to somebody now, “Here’s this clockwork camera. It doesn’t run for more than 20 seconds on one wind and after it’s run for two minutes 40 seconds you’ll have to take the side off and put in another roll of film. Oh, and you can’t use a longer focus lens than 100mm,” they’d no doubt say you couldn’t make a natural history film with that. And they’d be right as well.

What do you make of your status as a national treasure?

It’s just flummery that doesn’t really mean much.

Have you had any particularly dangerous moments in the wild?

Danger? I’m not one for facing danger. You’re not there to be daring, you’re there to make a film. The BBC wouldn’t thank me if I said, “I was terrifically daring. The elephant smashed the camera.” They wouldn’t say, “Well done, my dear chap.” They would say, “What an ass you’ve been.”

So you’ve never had to take armed guards as a precaution?

Polar bears are very powerful animals and you need to be careful around them so it’s the law in parts of Svalbard that you’re not allowed to go out without somebody with a gun. And the king cobra frightens me. I like snakes, but it’s about 12ft long, is aggressive and rears up as high as a man. One bite is certain death, so it’s certainly something to be frightened of.

What about scary encounters with humans?

I’ve encountered drunken soldiers with guns who don’t speak a word of your language and you don’t speak a word of theirs. That has happened in west Africa and in those situations you just have to do your best.

What are your favourite memories from your films?

Watching birds of paradise display in New Guinea was a great moment and [filming] the Rwandan mountain gorillas was a remarkable experience which I’ve not forgotten.

Do you have any other ambitions away from natural history films?

To play the piano better. I’ve played the piano very badly all my life.

You seem devastatingly clever — are there any intellectual things that you struggle with?

Brian Cox’s programmes are splendid but a lot of what he talks about stumps me. There are lots of puzzles in the natural world and lots of things I don’t know about so it would be absurd to suggest that I know the answer to everything. Very often you don’t need to because there are books that tell you the answers. So if people ask you a question you don’t have to be ashamed to go to a book to get the answer. You just wonder why they haven’t done the same.

Do you think that you will ever retire?

No, I love the work and if I enjoy it and people still want me to do it then I hope to go on doing it.

Finally, what’s the biggest change to life after you were knighted?

You have to leave bigger tips.

Flying Monsters 3D is at the BFI Imax and at selected cinemas now