Sir David Attenborough’s new 3D TV spectacular reanimates the Natural History Museum’s extinct species – and proves there’s life in another old dinosaur, too
In David Attenborough’s New Year’s Day extravaganza, Natural History Museum Alive, there’s a scene in which he’s stalked down the silent corridors of the Kensington depository by the skeleton of a long-extinct sabre-toothed cat called the smiladon, while in another he watches the biggest snake you’ve never seen slither around. The new film is a clever mash-up of Night at the Museum and Jurassic Park, using special effects to bring to life some of the ancient creatures that once roamed our planet.
It feels like Attenborough has been around forever. The truth is, the 87-year-old has been teaching us about the natural world in his reassuringly celestial voice for some 60 years. As the only person to have a won a Bafta for work in black and white, colour, HD and 3D, he has plenty to show off about, but Attenborough isn’t keen on being referred to as a national treasure nor does he make a fuss about his knighthood. His TV shows are by plain old David Attenborough and he introduces himself by his first name.
I’ve wanted to meet our most adored naturalist since 1979, when Life on Earth was first broadcast. Happily, he doesn’t disappoint. What we love about him on TV — his love of our planet; the way he shares knowledge; the sense of humour — is immediately apparent in person.
Later, at a Q&A following the first preview screening of Alive, one or two members of the audience try catching him out, but Attenborough remains patient and gracious. His lack of cynicism seems to set him apart. There is very little, one suspects, that he doesn’t take in his stride — even taking into account his wonky knee and the fact he is heading for the grand age of 90.
Was Alive, the new Sky show, your idea?
Yes. Sky wanted a spectacular Christmas family programme — in 3D. That was the key thing. The idea occurred to me overnight and from then on I did the research with the team and we found more and more things in the museum that would go in. The idea was all these animals coming to life. We had to work out how to vary it: how to bring out new stories and new aspects, the forgeries, the mistakes, the things not being as we thought they were — like the dodo or indeed the big mastodon. That was actually a fake because it had wooden bones in it, meaning it was bigger than it actually was.
Which of the creatures in the museum would you most like to have observed in their natural habitat?
Any of them, really. I’d love to have seen some of the dinosaurs. There are pterosaurs at the Natural History Museum, but they haven’t got one of the biggest flying reptiles. I’d love to have seen it. It was the size of a small aeroplane, with a 30ft wingspan, a terrific thing. Nobody really knows how it flew, or even got into the air, never mind flapped its wings. There’s also a thing called a glyptodon, an animal like a huge armadillo, big enough actually for you to get into and sleep in, like a shelter, in its shell. I’d like to have seen them lumbering about.
You embraced 3D quite early on. Would you describe yourself as an early adopter of technology?
One of the pleasures of living over the past 50 or 60 years has been that every couple of years or so there’s something new. There have been new developments in 3D. Nonetheless, you want to take advantage of that. 3D really works for smallish things that are quite close to the camera — flowers, insects and so on. But also you can get very, very convincing big 3D almost throughout the entire time I’ve been making natural history programmes. We can now film in the dark and at the bottom of the sea and we can go down burrows — there’s really nothing we can’t film. The last refinement is the ability to show three dimensions. That doesn’t suit everything and nor should it. You’d be very foolish to try and make programmes only because they are transmitting things, particularly if you put them in, as it were, a box. The thing about the Natural History Museum is that the main hall is a great box, so you can see the three dimensions and you can see the things moving through it. And it works rather well, even though I say so myself.
Can you describe your first visit to the Natural History Museum?
I lived in Leicester so a visit to the Natural History Museum was a red-letter day in the diary. I came down to London and stayed with my auntie, my mum’s sister Margaret, and she took me. I saw the diplodocus — or “Dippy” as it is fondly known — and I was a bit put out when I discovered that it wasn’t real. It was a plaster cast! What really impressed me, though, was the number of animals and different species in the world was beyond imagination. You’d go into the insect gallery and see butterflies, thousands of different types of butterflies.
And your eyes would come out on stalks. Wherever you looked, there were things you’d never seen before. I was particularly interested in the fossils at the age of eight. Eight- year-olds come up to me all the time and tell me, “I’ve collected this and I’ve collected that.” I was the same. I went in and I was able to find the same sorts of things I was collecting in Leicestershire.
What’s your favourite place on Earth?
The real answer is home. Always. The Barrier Reef is a great place to go, the jungles of Borneo are nice, but you don’t want to go to the jungle for more than about a month, that’s about top. At that point, there’s fungus growing on your boots and you’re sick of sopping with sweat. Jungles are fascinating places, but they can’t compare with your own bed.
Is there one place on Earth you’d still like to visit?
I’d like to go to the central Gobi Desert. There’s not much there. I’ve never been but there are fossils there I’d love to have a go at with a hammer. Nobody would pay me to go. I make films about animals. People would be out of their minds to send me to the Gobi Desert because there’s nothing there.
What can be done to stop the world’s most endangered species from becoming extinct?
It depends on the species we’re talking about. One great, huge step would be to persuade the people of China that it wasn’t decent to own things made out of recent ivory and that ivory is not a magical cure to all kinds of supposed medical conditions. If you could stop the ivory market, you’d then make sure that elephants and rhinoceroses would survive. At the moment you can’t be sure. The harder you make it to get to them, the better you preserve it, the higher the price becomes, the greater risks people will take — to the extent of murder. There are ivory wars going on. People are shooting one another.
If you had the power to make one global edict in 2014, what would it be?
Within the realms of possibility? That we could invent a machine to enable us to get the power that streams down to the Earth from the Sun and just harness let’s say five per cent of it, or even two per cent of it, and put it directly into usable form. So we could stop poisoning the atmosphere and stop warming the planet. The hesitation in suggesting that is the fear that people would then actually have no regard at all for using power and would use it for the wrong purposes, for knocking down what remains of the rainforest and whatever. It is difficult.
The only way you can really see global warming is when you look at the statistics, when you look at the graphs, which we can take back into pre-history now. And you can see the way things are going, you can see the way the graph suddenly climbs and what is more, you can see that it’s echoed precisely by the growth in the size of the population.
Presumably, that explains why you think it’s necessary to limit population growth…
There is no disaster, no problem, no catastrophe facing humanity that wouldn’t be easier to deal with if we had fewer people. No such catastrophe that isn’t made very much worse if the population gets bigger. And anyone who supposes that you have a finite environment of a limited size, which is the planet, and you can have growth going on infinitely, must be mad. There are people now saying, “Oh it’s alright, the number will level out”. It will level out at a number they themselves produce which means what survives now of the natural world will be minimalised.
What’s the single most important thing you’ve learned from an animal?
When people ask what my favourite animal is, I set a trap for them: do you mean the one that really takes your breath away, that moistens your eye and that fills you with pleasure just to look at? They say yes, and I say: a human baby, 18 months to two years old, does all those things and does it to a greater extent. It’s not the answer they want, but it’s the actual truth.
A baby is the most astonishing little organism you can think of. It’s developing every day, drinking in the world every day. Every day you realise it’s learned another word and can do something else. Babies are such a joy. And that’s why it’s so hard to say to people, “Limit your population.” Because having a child is one of the great joys and delights. One of the great privileges a human being has. And who I am to tell them they shouldn’t have it?