In the Wilds of Beverly Hills with David Attenborough

Photo courtesy Creative Commons.

Photo courtesy Creative Commons.

While networks airing nature documentaries co-produced by the BBC have employed the narrative talents of many big stars (Oprah and Russell Crowe come to mind), the ultimate authority in the field is still naturalist and broadcaster David Attenborough, 87, whose specials are aired in primetime in Australia on a regular basis.

His latest project will be voicing a 15-minute documentary on Rwandan gorillas on behalf of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International. The video, called "Hope" and produced by the outdoor clothing company Craghoppers, can be seen at the end of this post.

While promoting his 2010 documentary First Life, I got a chance to speak to Attenborough. Why it seemed odd speaking to him by the pool at the Beverly Hilton, I am not quite sure, but I enjoyed spending time with him. Here is a part of our chat:

Q: Now how did you come to do First Life?

A: Thirty years ago, I was approached to do a series, which was about the history of life starting from the earliest that we knew right until present times, called Life On Earth, but the beginning of that story, nobody knew. And in the 30-40 years since then, wonderful discoveries have been made, unbelievable discoveries, things that we thought we may never know about the very earliest of life a thousand million years ago, and suddenly in the past 30-40 years, from the fossil evidence, we've got extraordinary details and fascinating stories and that story needs to be told and coupled with the fact that until 5 years ago, our ideas of how we can bring fossils to life with computer-generated images was very, very simple. I won't say crude, but you knew that what you were looking at was not a real animal. But now, you can tell, and that's wonderful and dangerous both. I can look at an animal in the barrier reef in the coral and it's strange and I look at another one and that, too, is strange, and I cannot tell which one is the real one and which one is the computer and if it wasn't for I being a biologist and knowing that one is a real one for I've seen it myself, I couldn't tell you which was which, and the computer images we have now are for animals that haven't existed for 500 million years, and they are totally convincing. I'm thrilled because it has completed the picture. All my life I've been involved in seeing where the gaps were in images of wildlife and this was a huge gap and now we've been able to fill it.

Q: Do you have any favorite animals or places to revisit?

A: There are, but it would be very difficult to pick out one more than another. It's lovely to go back to Borneo. I love Borneo. I first went to Borneo in 1955, so I've been going to Borneo for 55 years. And I go back every 3 or 4 years. I mean, what is sad, of course, is that in a huge part of Borneo now, the forests have been cut down, but in a curious way, I am the last person to ask about that, because when I go to Borneo, I'm going away from it. I probably get a rosier, a better view of how Borneo naturally is than is true because I go to places that are unspoiled.

Q: How many blue shirts and khaki pants have you gone through in your career?

A: [Laughs] I've only got one. I just wash it in the evenings! It's for quite practical reasons. If you start changing your clothes, there are problems of continuity. But also, people may think, 'Why has he suddenly changed his shirt? Has it gotten colder? Is it a bit warmer? Is he trying to tell me something? What does that signify?' So it's much better that you have the same, and it also makes life easier!

Q: Is traveling any easier now?

A: Airports have gotten worse. I mean, it's a nightmare. Going to an airport and getting on an airplane is a nightmare. It doesn't matter what the trip is, I always say to myself when I finally got through that first journey, okay, that was the worst. That's the worst thing you are going to have to do in the next six weeks or however long. But the ability to get to places now is incomparable. In the last six months, I've been to both the North Pole and the South Pole. I mean, you look back 150 years when human beings had been to neither! And this was the greatest achievement and now I can fly into here and get on a smaller airplane and fly into there, then get on a Snocat and drive into there, and then they say, that's it, put up the flag!

Q: Do you have an essential travel item?

A: The blue shirt!

Q: In narrating Planet Earth and Life, were there things you saw that you were most excited about?

A: The most extraordinary shot, without competition at all, really, was that shot of a snow leopard. That was just amazing. Of course, it took three years to get it and until then I mean, I, in years gone by, in Life On Earth, I remember very well looking down in the program that dealt with big cats and predators and putting down 'snow leopard' as impossible to get, and now it is possible. They live miles and miles away, the winter is very hard, hardly anybody had ever seen it, the last naturalist who went to study it spent two years before he saw one, so you might as well toss that out of the script, and then suddenly, which took two and half years studying and then to get that shot? Well…

Q: After all these years, does doing nature shows get harder or easier?

A: If you lose sight of the joy of the natural world, you lose a very valuable thing, a thing which will give you joy throughout the rest of your life and making television programs about them is really very easy. All you have to do is sort of remember to not get between the camera and the animal too often! If you caught a film of a bird of paradise dancing, you don't need to do anything. It is mind-blowing. Wonderful! And you have to show it as simply and straightforwardly as you can. It doesn’t need art. It is.

Q: Have you enjoyed the improvements in technology? Are there things we can see now you hadn't seen before?

A: I've been doing this a long time and when we started, we had a big advantage, which was that nobody in Britain and I think maybe the United States too, had really seen African wildlife, so if you suddenly put on a film of a rhinoceros, people said, 'How interesting! it's a rhinoceros!' And you didn't have to make it wonderful, you didn't have to film it from a different point of view or wrap it up in a clever way. People just saw the rhinoceros. Wonderful. But if you look at those films now, they're terrible I mean, it's just this little black spot in the distance, which is actually a rhinoceros. But over the years, the television itself has improved and we were black and white and now we are in color, all those things, but the techniques and the sensitivities of the camera, like now we can film in the dark, we can now put cameras down the hole of a burrow of a rabbit, we can put a little camera the size of my finger on the nest of a bird that is 50 feet up in a tree, we can make things look faster, we can slow them down. There's almost nothing we can't do now except the big thing we haven't done is filming in the depths of the ocean, where it is dark anyway. I am sure there are marvelous things to be found there but apart from that, we've been everywhere and what we've found is astonishing. You talk to a taxi driver in London and he knows more about the animals of Madagascar than anybody at all did 100 years ago! People all over the world are suddenly aware of all these extraordinary things.

Q: Do you see more human encroachment in places you've visited in the past?

A: Yes, I mean, there are three times as many people living today than when I first started doing television programs. This earth has three times as many people. They all have to live somewhere.

Q: What shows or movies do you enjoy watching?

A: What I really watch on television, I'm afraid, is natural history programs! Partly because those who make natural history programs know one another, and I want to know what Harry is doing or what Bill is doing but also I'm very interested and I also need to know, how did they get that shot?! And sport and news. I don’t watch drama much and I don't watch reality shows much. 

Q: For nature documentaries, what have you enjoyed watching recently?

A: In the past couple of years, there has been a series of programs about one particular elephant, called Echo, and an American biologist called Cynthia Moss, who has lived with elephants for 30 years, and 30 years ago, I've been involved in it because I had been asked to do the commentary, but what's interesting is we now have such a long time span in making natural history programs that individual animals, not just elephant, but Echo…30 years ago, Cynthia was explaining that Echo was her favorite and easy to identify because her tusks crossed so in a group of elephants, you can see her, and people have been filming her since. So we see her get older, we saw her first calf born, whose was crippled and his legs wouldn't open, so it's poignant film, in which this little baby tries desperately to keep up with the rest of the herd to get water because it could hardly walk, and in that film you saw how he actually came through and managed to stand, you will cry! And the last film was Echo's death, Echo's just died and Cynthia and the people who have watched her sat beside her as she died and it was a very touching film, and it's the thing television has been able to do that nothing else has, which is to identify individual animals in a way that scientists, until television, never did. That was something television invented. Before then, scientists used to say an elephant is an elephant is an elephant. Television has demonstrated that until you understand one, you won't understand all. 

Q: So where do you then go for vacation?

A: I don't have vacation! I mean seriously. When you have children, fine, they need to see the sea and get out, but I have such an unprecedented, unbelievable privilege, you know. I go wherever I want, just like that. So I spend more time away from home than at home. But to be at home and not have anything to do would be just fine, because then I would get to do all those things I thought I was going to do in the garden! 

Hope is a powerful film, which revisits the plight of the critically endangered, mountain gorillas in Rwanda and the team of people who are responsible for their survival. Produced by Craghoppers and voiced by Sir David Attenborough, Hope was filmed in the Volcanoes National Park 47 years after Dian Fossey began her life's work in mountain gorilla conservation.