I’ve just handed Sir David Attenborough a photograph that has left him so shocked he’s had to put his glasses on. ‘Good gracious!’ He holds it up to the light, squinting.
The two of us are sitting at a very long table, beneath a very old clock, behind the scenes at London’s Royal Albert Hall. The picture, which he’s now shaking his head at in disbelief, isn’t of a melting ice cap, a ravaged rainforest or a near-extinct species. It’s of a mural in Bethnal Green. Painted on the side of a tropical fish store on St Matthew’s Row is Attenborough’s face – huge – next to a brightly coloured bird. This is the first time he’s seen it. He seems both appalled and delighted. ‘Do you know what the bird is?’ he asks me. I do not. ‘It’s a bird of paradise.’
He peers at it more closely. ‘Of course, it’s not accurate. There’s a bit at the rear that’s not quite right...’
Witness for the prosecution
As a general rule, David Attenborough doesn’t like this kind of attention. His shoulders meet his chin whenever the subject comes up. The fact that students are taking lifesize cut-outs of him to climate protests? 'Embarrassing.' The way kids, like my five-year-old cousin, think of him as a planet-saving hero? 'Very strange.' But it’s too late now: everyone loves him.
The 93-year-old nature presenter has been on television since the '50s. He got his first job in the industry after replying to an advert in The Times. 'I got this letter on BBC notepaper,' he tells me, 'saying: "We've got this funny thing going on in north London. It involves pictures."' Since then he has written and presented something like 200 series. In fact, he calculates that if you’re younger than 75, he has been on TV for the whole of your life. Or at least, his voice has.
Over the course of thousands of hours of softly talking to us about savannahs and jungles and oceans and mountains, Attenborough has almost literally become the voice of our planet. ‘We know a lot about the psychology of people,’ he says, playing with the sleeve of his boxy suit jacket. 'If you keep hearing a particular voice, it's bound to mean something in your subconscious.'
Sitting across from me now – with sky-blue eyes and a cloud fluff of hair – Attenborough has a pressing moral cause to voice. This year he's releasing a frankly terrifying film on Netflix. Originally due to premiere here at the Royal Albert Hall in April, its release has been pushed back while we tackle coronavirus, but that doesn’t make its message any less pressing. A Life on Our Planet is a self-professed 'witness statement' recounting all the ways he has seen humans ruin the earth. Its message? We've fucked it: that humans will soon be extinct unless we change the way we live dramatically. 'Our planet is headed for disaster,' he says in the show. Hearing this spelled out in his hangover-soothing tones is like getting a big telling-off from God.
Image: courtesy BBC (Blue Planet II)
Big, bad changes
In real life, Attenborough's voice is surprisingly quiet. I find myself pushing my dictaphone closer and closer to him as he speaks. That is, until he starts to talk about climate change. Then he gets furious. So mad, that at one point he squishes his face between his hands until it goes red.
In the last few years he’s felt compelled to talk about the health of the earth. He’s spoken out about the Australian bush fires – that they can’t be ignored – and has had audiences with Obama, the British parliament and the UN Climate Summit. Nothing, though, has had as powerful a message as his new documentary. In it,
he draws lines between the examples of habitat-destruction he's seen over the years, showing that they aren't isolated incidents: this is a cumulative disaster.
'One of the most magical moments of a naturalist's life is the first time you dive on a coral reef,' he says at one point, sweeping his hand like he's running it through the water. 'We were filming Blue Planet and we got there expecting to see the most beautiful spectacle imaginable. We dived down and it was gone. Dead. Because of humans. I just felt... horror.'
When Attenborough started out, no one thought much of conservationists. As he says, 'I think the world at large thought: Well, they're harmless – if they want to save a Hawaiian goose, good luck to them.'
Even when he started getting as involved with protecting nature as documenting it, he didn’t consider it a 'world-shaking' cause. 'I didn’t think that we were witnessing the beginning of the process that was going
to end in devastation,' he says. But now, he knows that the rainforests he visited in Borneo in the '50s have become palm oil farms and that a glacier he filmed in South Georgia ten years ago has vanished into the sea. 'That was a shocking thing,' he says.
Yes, we should feel guilty for the way we’'e treated the planet. Yes, things are going to get worse. 'The question is,' he says, 'are they going to be just a little worse or catastrophically worse?' And yes, hearing Donald Trump deny humans' impact on the planet enrages him. 'We've reached a point where [there's so much data] you can’t deny climate change,' he says. 'But you can deny responsibility for climate change. Which, of course, is what President Trump does. He says, "Yeah, it’s happening, but it will happen anyway."'
Since Attenborough is – however unwillingly – the voice of the planet, he feels pressure to make sure this message is being heard. His hope for the future lies in Generation Z, even if they do insist on embarrassing him by carrying around cardboard cut-outs of him. He thinks they're a very responsible generation: 'When I was their age it never occurred to me that the world could be changed by human beings in the way that we have changed it, but they realise it.'
Sometimes, when Attenborough is explaining something, he'll forget a word and I'm reminded of just how old he is. (A month younger than the Queen and six years older than BBC Broadcasting House.) But that’s not the Attenborough you want to hear about. You want to hear that when he gets really into telling a story, he leans forward, locks eyes with you and you're suddenly there with him.
Maybe he's imagining a long-extinct animal he'd bring back. 'I would love to see a pterosaur,' he tells me at one point. 'They were the size of small aeroplanes.' He opens his arms like a child pretending to fly and then says giddily: 'How did they flap their wings? How did it get into the air?' Or maybe he takes you with him to the rainforest as he talks about the dangers of losing your place: 'The first time you go, it's quite a daunting business. You can't see the sun. You've got no way of orienting yourself. You will easily get lost and I have been lost, and it is terrifying.'
Even a cab driver taking a wrong turn in the New Forest becomes an extraordinary story: 'There were the most marvellous ancient yews and wonderful agarics. There were toadstools – which look good on Christmas cards – the scarlet ones with white spots on. When you see those in reality, it's just magical.'
Attenborough travels less than he used to. These days, he spends most of his time at home in London, or talking at eco conferences and the openings of environmental projects. Though, he can still pack a hot-weather suitcase at breakneck speed if necessary, thanks to his eternal uniform of a light blue short-sleeved shirt and khaki trousers. 'I’ve always got to remember that I’ll forget something,' he laughs. 'Once it was even the blue shirt. I was making a film about ants in Switzerland, and it was important that I wore the same gear for the whole thing. The poor director was distraught.' And he fondly recalls his all-time favourite cold-weather coat, although he’d rather not talk about it in too much detail. 'That’s going to get me into trouble,' he says. 'It was a down coat. So you say: "Oh yes, and what was the source of the feathers?" And I say: "I don’t know."'
It’s good to lose yourself
Before leaving, I ask him if there is something he experienced as a child that he wishes teenagers could today? 'Getting lost,' he says. And off Attenborough goes, sucking me into one final story about how, when he went to Indonesia in 1955, he just got in a little boat and sailed east among the islands. 'Nobody knew where we were,' he says. 'There were no mobile phones.' He's sad that young people will never experience that kind of freedom again. 'There's no way in which you can be out of contact.'
But we can’t go back now. Not least because it's that very ability to be in contact, wherever you are, that's allowed activists to unify over the past few years (and all of us to stay connected during this weird time). 'Everybody should be aware of what’s happening to the whole world, because it is a whole world now,' Attenborough says. And while he's speaking about fighting climate change, the very same could be said for all other threats to humanity: we're in this together whether we’ve realised it or not.
I stand up to leave. Then: 'Can I keep this?' He takes one last look at the picture of the mural, folds it neatly in four and pockets it. Sir David Attenborough’s given us 75 years of wonder and awe, but I’ve given him a slightly crumpled printout of an inaccurate bird painting. I think we all know who the real hero is.
David Attenborough: A Life On Our Planet will screen in cinemas around the world and on Netflix later this year. Find updates at www.attenborough.film.