David Attenborough: I dare say people thought we were cranks or something
Sir David Attenborough has long encouraged others to care for the natural world – but only now does he feel his plea has been heard. He tells Gemma Dunn he is overjoyed the message is finally getting through
WHEN Sir David Attenborough took to the stage at Glastonbury earlier this year, the crowd erupted. Appearing on the famous Pyramid stage shortly before Kylie Minogue's headline set, the 93-year-old naturalist, who had to restart his speech twice after he was drowned out by applause, surprised festival-goers in a bid to thank them for cutting their plastic use.
"That is more than a million bottles of water that have not been drunk by you at Glastonbury. Thank you. Thank you," he said, addressing the event's decision to go plastic-free.
The veteran broadcaster also announced the upcoming release of his latest BBC One programme, Seven Worlds, One Planet, by treating his fans to a first-look trailer – which featured a new song, Out There, from Sia and film composer, Hans Zimmer.
It was a moment that secured Sir David's 'rock star' status – a title that still brings him much amusement.
"I mean, I've been at it 60 years, so you can say nobody under the age of 75 can have been without my voice coming from the corner of the room at various times," he muses. "And that must have an effect!"
"It's a huge advantage for me because you go there [Glastonbury] with some sort of reputation; people have been aware of you, so in a sense you've been part of their 'family' for quite a long time. Which is an extraordinary obligation, really, an extraordinary privilege."
Four years in the making, the documentary series is billed to celebrate the diversity of life on each of the Earth's continents and in doing so, explore how each has shaped the distinct animal life found there.
From the baking plains of Africa and the frozen waters off Antarctica, to Europe, where surprising wildlife dramas are hidden right alongside us, the seven-part series will showcase life at its most extreme, while also highlighting the challenges faced by animals in a modern world dominated by humanity.
Billed as the BBC's most ambitious project to date, the surefire hit undertook a total of 80 expeditions in 41 countries; 1,794 filming days, amassing more than 2,000 hours of footage; and requiring 1,500 people in production.
But it had to be bigger and better than ever, Attenborough realises.
"It was a very great challenge, I have to say," begins the star, who is famed for his work on the groundbreaking Planet Earth and Blue Planet franchise. "The thing was – how do you make this different? And one of the reasons that we chose [to do this] was each of these continents had a different geological history. It had a different way in which life has arrived there, and how it has developed in isolation.
"But the other thing is, of course, we have filmed there before, so how do you find things that are new?" he asks. "Every one of those programmes has one or two sequences in them which take my breath away, and have never been seen before."
He recalls his first glimpse of the "golden-haired blue-faced snub-nosed snow monkey," for example.
"I've never seen film of it before," says Attenborough. "I actually once read a scientific paper about it and I thought, 'We must go and film that.' And that was back in the 60s, and I tried to, and we couldn't get to China, and in the end I dropped it."
"But I always had it in the back of my mind..." he adds, "and then, blow me, if this lot didn't pop up and say, 'We've got it, we've got it!' So in the Asia programme, it's one of the stars. And do you know why it's snub-nosed? To stop [it] getting frost-bitten!"
And there's plenty more to admire, too.
"Fundamentally, of course, [the audience will see] how astonishing and wonderful and beautiful these things are, but also how they integrate one with another."
"Each continent has its own system, but the planet as a whole, we are now universal, our influence is everywhere, and we have it in our hands," Attenborough warns, "and we've made a tragic, desperate mess of it so far."
"But at least nations are [now] coming together and recognising that we all live on the same planet," he says. "So all these seven worlds are actually one."
What is his take on Extinction Rebellion and Greta Thunberg?
"They have a right to make their voices heard," he argues. "Greta Thunberg is there because of her passion, her insight and her concern about the future; she's a political person, she's not a broadcasting person.
"Making programmes like this, I've been doing it for a long time, and I'm sure a hell of a lot of young people are saying, 'For God's sake, why doesn't he move over? Give another person a chance', but anyway, there I am."
As for taking action ourselves, he advises: "You can do more and more and more the longer you live, but the best motto to think about is not waste things."
"Don't waste electricity, don't waste paper, don't waste food – live the way you want to live, but just don't waste," he pleads.
"Look after the natural world and the animals in it and the plants in it too. This is their planet as well as ours."
As Attenborough stood to attention at Glastonbury, against a backdrop of ocean scenes from Blue Planet II (the series has been heralded as a key moment in sparking the war on plastics), he can't help but be proud of the impact it's had.
Finally, he says with a smile, the message is getting through.
"I don't think I've made a series in the last 40 years that I haven't made, at the end, an appeal about caring for the natural world," he says. "At the time I dare say people thought we were sort of cranks or something, but as it's gone on and on and we've repeated it on and on – 'not wasting things, not polluting things' and so on – then suddenly, for no reason that I can understand, because the message has been the same, suddenly you hit the right note.
"So quite what it is that makes the messages that we all care for ring the bell, as you might say, is very difficult to say," he concludes, adding: "I daresay, if we knew exactly how to do it, we would be doing it more frequently, but we don't."
:: Seven Worlds, One Planet premieres on BBC One tomorrow.