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David Attenborough — not over, not out

At 84, Britain’s favourite naturalist says that, with BBC2’s First Life, he has made his last major TV series. Yet he shows no sign of losing his love for fossils . . . and life.

Picture the scene: it is the late 1950s, and in an English field a young David Attenborough and 16-year-old Richard Dawkins are hunting for tadpoles. "We had wellington boots on, and we had little fishing nets," says Dawkins, "and we spent the whole day tramping around through ponds and ditches." He had met Attenborough through his uncle and aunt, who encountered the presenter when he was making a programme in Sierra Leone.

It is easy to imagine the pair of them trawling through the mud, because that is how we have seen Attenborough on our screens for nearly 60 years: exploring and explaining the behaviour of animals in their natural habitat. He has become part of our collective imagination, his voice a soundtrack to British television. Yet Attenborough, when we meet, is wary of his public image. "If you appear on the box, people think you know what you are talking about, and it's patently not so," he says.

This is modesty; he reads all the latest zoological literature, and his documentaries, according to Dawkins, don't just show "things the world hasn't seen but that scientists haven't seen either. You can think of it as a very fertile part of scientific work, of scientific research." Attenborough, 84, won't have it, describing himself as simply "a chap from the television".

When I ask him if he ever regrets not becoming a scientist, he shrugs. "I am not a specialist, and I can't pretend to be a specialist." He is keen not to be cast as a figurehead, or a champion of a cause. Environmentalists often try to recruit him, and in films such as State of the Planet he has spoken out on the subject, yet he "fights against being put in that situation when people say, 'So, what's happening to the climate?' I say, 'I don't know. I'm just looking at the scientific world, and this is what the majority of scientists say. It's no use attacking me. I'm a reporter.'"

Perhaps it is understandable that a figure so widely celebrated should wish to underplay his achievements. He does this to an almost comical degree, improbably describing himself as someone who is "by nature rather idle, sitting in a bath chair watching it all going on around me". He avoids aligning with any political party (he votes, but "secretly"), saying carefully that he appreciates the progress all the parties have made in taking the environment seriously.

If he has a "cause", it is overpopulation, which he believes is "at the root of almost every affliction that the world faces today". He advocates female emancipation - where there is good education and free medical care for women, they choose to have fewer children. The Catholic Church, and its opposition to contraception, must anger him, I suggest. "You're telling me!" he says. "Yes, absolutely."

Religion carries no weight in Attenborough's life. Many believers write to him, criticising his failure in his films to acknowledge the role of a divine creator. "You're never going to silence them because the fundamental problem is accepting what evidence exists," he says. "They say, 'It's written down on this page and what is there is beyond argument and it was put there by God.' If you believe that, well, I'm awfully sorry, but there's no point in us discussing it."

This is the pragmatic and tough-minded side of Attenborough. He makes programmes because he thinks "the way a spider weaves its web is breathtaking" - but he has no desire to preach. As he says, "I have a certain compulsion to tell people stories, but I don't have a compulsion to persuade them. I'm not one of them."

Fossil fuelled

Attenborough's first love was the fossil. He was born in 1926 and brought up, together with his brothers Richard (the film director) and John on campus at the then University College, Leicester, where his father was principal. As a boy, he would spend hours searching Charnwood Forest for specimens. "They are just gorgeous, and so you become intoxicated by them," he says now. "You have to be pretty stolid and phlegmatic not to be thrilled by the perfection of the fossil."

That intoxication led him to Cambridge, where he studied natural sciences, specialising in zoology and geology. When he left, he joined the navy for his national service, hoping for adventure but ending up on a Reserve Fleet aircraft carrier in the Firth of Forth. The disappointment continued as he joined a London publishing house that produced science textbooks, a job he found so dull that he thought the clock on St Paul's Cathedral had stopped, because he checked it so often.

Attenborough wanted to be out in the world, bringing the facts to life, not limiting them to paper. So, in 1952, he applied for a training course at the BBC and joined the talks department, where he made his first natural history series, The Pattern of Animals. He was eager to show the animals - trapped and frozen in the bright studio lights used on the show - in their natural environment. That brought about Zoo Quest (1954), a colonial-style adventure with Attenborough, dressed in a safari suit, accompanying the curator Jack Lester on a mission to capture wild animals for London Zoo's collection.

Their first quest, in Sierra Leone, was for Picathartes gymnocephalus, the white-necked rockfowl. The programme was supposed to be presented by Lester, but he fell ill after the first transmission and Attenborough was drafted in to replace him. Zoo Quest was exceptional for the time: filming in the wild, the team travelled to seldom-visited parts of the world. Attenborough later led missions to South America searching for anteaters and anacondas, remote Indonesian islands for the Komodo dragon, New Guinea and Paraguay for birds of paradise and armadillos. Some were never caught. Others - parrots, monkeys, pythons and bushbabies - he brought back to live in his house in Richmond, Surrey (where he still lives), cared for by his wife, Jane, and studied in wonder by their two children, Robert and Susan.

To boldly go

Attenborough's success pushed him through the ranks of the BBC. In 1965, he became the first controller of BBC2 and in 1969 director of programmes across BBC TV. But he was trapped behind a desk again. As he says: "It was very nice for me running a network for a few years, in the sense that it was very flattering for one's ego. But it's not much fun." So he resigned in 1973 and took up programme-making again, starting with a series in south-east Asia and research for Life on Earth, the first of nine Life series for the BBC that would shape the next 30 years of his career.

Alastair Fothergill, the former head of the BBC's natural history unit, was a teenager when Life on Earth was broadcast in 1979. "It was like the most gripping drama; I just had to watch next week's episode. I absolutely remember deciding that was what I wanted to do." Fothergill went on to make Trials of Life and Life in the Freezer with Attenborough, as well as The Blue Planet and Planet Earth (both of which Attenborough narrated).

After nearly six decades inside and outside the BBC, Attenborough has a better sense of the organisation's trajectory than most. "I think the BBC has strayed from the straight and narrow on a number of courses at the moment," he says. "The sails need to be trimmed and [it] needs to be refocused." And, in a rare flash of indignation about the politics: "But it is crucially important in our society and [represents] the highest aspirations of our society. I'm appalled anybody thinks otherwise." His warning to the government is clear. "If you remove the licence fee, it would be gone in a decade, finished," he says. Still, when I ask what he would be doing if he were back behind a desk at the BBC today, he replies, half joking: "Resigning, I think."

As it is, he has never stopped working. In 1997, he was filming a series in New Zealand when he received a phone call telling him that Jane had suffered a brain haemorrhage. He returned to Britain and was with her in hospital when she died. As he reflected later in his memoir Life on Air, he felt the focus of his life was gone. Jane had looked after the children and the animals, had met every flight he took home. She had made his career possible: "Now, I was lost." Work steered him through grief, and he has immersed himself in new projects ever since.

A hallmark of his career has been his desire to push back the boundaries (he introduced colour television to Britain on BBC2 in 1967). Now he is experimenting with 3D. On Christmas Day he appeared in Sky's Flying Monsters, squashed into a hang-glider as an animated pterosaur - a giant winged lizard, 65 million years extinct - whirled around him. "I was thinking, 'Gosh, a national treasure's going up in a glider,'" says Anthony Geffen, the show's producer. "And the helicopter with the rig was flying literally within feet of the glider to get him to speak to camera. It was hair-raising." But Attenborough, says Geffen, is always game. "He just goes in and likes to think the best will happen, and that nothing bad will happen." That adventurous spirit has never been quelled, nor has his work ethic. "David is rigorous," Geffen says. "He wants to get it right and he will get it right . . . He doesn't suffer fools gladly. If you get it wrong, you'll certainly know about it."

Yet he is also fun. The pair recently worked together again on First Life, a series on fossils. At the end of a day's shooting the crew would return to the hotel assuming that the presenter would be tired and retreat to his room. Far from it, Geffen says. "When we get back he's fired up and wants to go out and talk and drink red wine - and we're up till pretty late and off again very early." Attenborough will talk about anything, Geffen says; he reads extensively. "He's a very good partner in Trivial Pursuit, because he answers everything."

Not long after I met Attenborough, I went to hear him speak at the Institute of Education in London. The hall was packed, and even though it was a cold Monday evening in November, in the middle of term, the rows were full of children shuffling in excitement. At the end of the talk, their hands shot up to ask questions. He has always had this effect on children, has never lost what Dawkins describes as his "boyish enthusiasm". Perhaps that is why people can be overcome with affection for him. He is a voice and a face from our earliest years, when we sat too close to the television as a grey-haired man crouched behind a bush and explained something extraordinary about nature.

Stars in his eyes

Dawkins says that Attenborough's longevity and undimmed energy have made him arguably the most respected person in Britain. He quite seriously imagines what would happen if we had to elect a monarch: "David Attenborough would be the one person the whole country would unite behind. Attenborough for king!" Not that the man would relish the adulation. Geffen had to persuade him, when they made First Life, that the public would enjoy an additional film about Attenborough's life ("He didn't really want to make it because he likes to concentrate on what he's filming").

Eventually he agreed, and they took an extra crew on location for First Life to shoot Attenborough's Journey, tracing his lifelong passion for fossils. At the end, the presenter sits on a beach in Australia and muses on the circularity of choosing the very earliest creatures as the subject of what he says will be his final big series. "In that curious way, the end - of making my last series like this - is my beginning."

As Geffen says, this was unusually introspective. "He doesn't sit there, reflecting like that in a sentimental way, very often. He's not fundamentally sentimental about himself. He is very, very modest . . . but it's a rare chink we got out of him and quite a big moment: the final element of the whole strand of programming he's made for years and years." That this was as difficult to capture on film as a snow leopard in the wild reflects Attenborough's lack of self-interest. (Fothergill notes that, in Attenborough's films, he never says "I" - "he is clear that the stars are the animals".)

His boundless curiosity is instinctive. "That's what being alive is about," Attenborough says. "I mean, it's the fun of it all, making sense of it, understanding it. There's a great pleasure in knowing why trees shed their leaves in winter. Everybody knows they do, but why? If you lose that, then you've lost pleasure."

He seems uncharacteristically sombre for a moment. Then he says: "I feel regret that there are some people who've never even savoured it. It never occurs to people to wonder why a hummingbird and a hummingbird hawkmoth do the same things. It's a delight. So I suppose there are some people who don't do these things and are very happy and have perfectly happy lives. Who's to patronise them? But all I can say is that the pleasure of it all is not virtue, or high morality. It's just fun."

Sophie Elmhirst is an assistant editor of the NS.

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 10 January 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Here comes the squeeze

Photo: Getty
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Does the working class need to ask for its Labour Party back?

The more working class voters there were in a constituency in 2017, the more it tended to swing to the Tories.

When Theresa May called the general election nearly two months ago, all the evidence – opinion polls and local election results especially – pointed to the expectation that the Labour Party would be crushed, with many of its MPs losing their seats.

The assumption was that Labour under Jeremy Corbyn would be unable to win over Conservative voters, because he was too left-wing to appeal to those close to the political centre ground.

Some commentators, myself included, took this a little further, arguing that Corbyn was left-wing in a way that would alienate the very people he claimed to speak for, ie working class people, while appealing primarily to virtue-signalling middle class romantics like Corbyn himself, who have no more interest than he does in the business of parliament but love a good rally or social media spat.

The local elections that took place in May appeared to confirm the above expectation and analysis, with hundreds of Labour councillors losing their seats. However, opinion polls began to shift, and while different polling companies’ methodologies led to different estimates of support for the two main parties, all showed Labour on the rise – with YouGov predicting two days before the election that the Conservatives would win a mere 305 out of 650 seats, while Labour would win 266.

Despite a miserable campaign in support of a depressing manifesto, enlivened only by the promised revival of an anachronistic bloodsport beloved of the rural elite – indeed, a campaign so bad that political historian Glen O’Hara joked about having ‘watched and wondered whether Mrs May was a Corbynite sleeper agent’ – the Conservatives actually did slightly better than this prediction, winning their highest share of the vote since 1983 and coming to hold 317 seats to the Labour Party’s 262.

This left them only 55 seats ahead of their historic rival: a gap only very slightly wider than the 48-seat lead that they had after the 2010 general election, when David Cameron defeated the supposedly very unpopular Gordon Brown. The 2017 result would have been impossible without the activists who have stuck with the Labour Party regardless of their feelings about the leader, some of whom are now publicly expressing shame at the part they played in what is widely seen as Corbyn’s triumph.

Does the Labour Party’s unexpectedly narrow defeat refute the diagnosis of Corbynism as a middle class politics that alienates the party’s traditionally working class base, but doesn’t really care? Constituency-by-constituency analysis of the 2017 results by Paula Surridge, of the University of Bristol, suggests that it does not.

The Leave vote

We should perhaps begin with a pattern that was already apparent on election night. Parts of the country that voted strongly to quit the European Union appeared to show a swing away from Labour towards the Conservative Party, while areas that voted strongly for Remain appeared to show a swing in the opposite direction.* 

Surridge’s analysis confirms that this was indeed a trend: the higher the estimated Leave vote, the more the Labour vote share fell between 2010 and 2017, and the more the Conservative vote share rose during the same period. Blue dots represent actual constituencies; the red line represents the trend.

On the face of it, this is baffling. Both the Labour Party and the Conservative Party are officially committed to leaving the EU, and Jeremy Corbyn famously used a three-line whip to force his MPs to support the Tory Brexit bill in February.

The anti-Brexit parties were the Liberal Democrats, the Scottish National Party, and the Greens. There was therefore no sense in which a vote for Labour could have been a vote against leaving the EU. Why, then, should a constituency’s support or opposition to Brexit have made any difference?

This brings us to the paradox that the Labour MP John Mann has called the ‘Bolsover question’: why the second-largest Labour-to-Conservative swing in the country should have occurred in the constituency of Dennis Skinner.

Skinner is not only – as Mann observed – one of Jeremy Corbyn’s staunchest supporters in the Commons, but also  – although Mann did not draw attention to this fact  – one of the Labour Party’s staunchest advocates of Brexit. Why should a constituency that voted for Brexit by 29,730 votes to 12,242 have swung so heavily against a strongly pro-Brexit candidate for a pro-Brexit party?

Here’s a thought: maybe constituencies swung away from Corbyn’s Labour Party for the same sorts of reasons that they voted Leave, and swung towards it for the same sorts of reasons that they voted Remain? Or to put it another way: what if Corbynism appeals to the kinds of people to whom EU membership seems advantageous, and repels the kinds of people to whom it seems an encumbrance, regardless of the fact that Corbyn – as a disciple of Tony Benn  – is resolutely anti-EU?

Let’s take a look at some of the other things that Surridge found.

Educational level

Exit polling after last year’s EU referendum found that the more educated a person was, the more likely they were to have voted Remain. While some Remainers might like to dismiss this as ignorance on the part of Leavers, it can also be interpreted as an expression of anger at being left behind in Britain’s ever-more highly globalised economy.

So we should take note of Surridge’s finding that the higher the percentage of university degree holders in a constituency, the more it would tend to swing towards Labour from 2010 to 2017, and the lower the percentage of degree holders, the more it would tend to swing towards the Conservatives.

Ethnicity

While a bare majority of white voters opted for Leave last year, large majorities of black and Asian voters chose Remain. The reasons for this are complex – but it is notable that Surridge finds that the lower the percentage of white British voters in a constituency, the more it would tend to swing towards Labour, and the higher the percentage of white British voters, the more it would tend to swing towards the Conservatives.

While it is certainly good news for Labour that it is winning votes in more diverse communities, it should think carefully about why this is not happening in less ethnically diverse parts of the country – particularly as these are often economically struggling areas unattractive to immigrants.

Class

Now the biggest question of all. The Labour Party was set up to provide parliamentary representation for working class people, and the far left trumpeted Corbyn’s leadership as a triumph for "working class politics". But opinion polls showed something very different: under Corbyn, working class support for Labour rapidly fell to its lowest point ever.

Moreover, by-election results in the strongly working class constituencies of Stoke-on-Trent Central and Copeland showed swings from Labour to the Conservatives, as indeed they had during the Labour Party’s last flirtation with Bennism in 1983. Did the general election see working class voters change their minds and flock back to Corbyn’s "socialist" party?

My goodness. Surridge’s analysis shows that the more working class voters there are in a constituency, the more it tended to swing Conservative, and the fewer there are, the more it tended to swing Labour. To put some figures on that, she found that for every 10 per cent more working class voters in a constituency, there tended to have been a fall of about 3 per cent in the Labour vote and a rise of about 5 per cent in the Tory vote between 2010 and 2017.

Think about that for a moment. This is Corbyn bringing the party back to its "working class, socialist roots"?

Correlations, 2010-2017 and 2015-2017

I sense an objection: these figures show the swing from 2010 to 2017, and Corbyn’s only been in charge since 2015. Maybe it’s all Ed Miliband’s fault?

Apparently not. Surridge calculated the correlations between all the above variables and the change in the Conservative and Labour vote, both for the period of 2010-2017, and for the period of 2015-2017. And here they are:

While it is true that many correlations are weaker for the period 2015-2017 than for 2010-2017, the positive correlations remain positive and the negative correlations remain negative.

In other words, working class voters, voters not educated to college level, and voters in ethnically homogeneous areas love Corbyn’s Labour Party even less than they loved Miliband’s. Meanwhile middle class voters, those educated to college level or higher, and voters in ethnically diverse areas love it even more.

It should also be noted that the positive correlation between the percentage of working class voters and the change in the Conservative vote, and the negative correlation between the percentage of voters with degrees and the change in the Conservative vote, are both stronger for the period 2015-2017 than they are for 2010-2017, indicating a rapid growth of support for the Conservative Party among the very social groups that Labour traditionally represented.

This should worry Labour politicians with ambitions to be in government, because there is simply no way that a Labour leader can become prime minister without persuading Conservative voters in Tory seats to switch to Labour. Corbyn may have put together an unexpectedly large anti-Tory coalition of voters, but it’s largely concentrated in areas that already vote Labour – and traditional Labour voters are being driven faster than ever into the Tories’ arms.

The triumph of the "socialism fan"

In recent decades, Labour has become the party of anti-racism. It can be proud of the fact that its vote share has risen in ethnically diverse constituencies – although it seems to me that the racism many Labour supporters (and in some cases, activists and even politicians) have shown towards the Jewish community ought to be treated with rather more alarm than it apparently is.

But whatever the positives in this mixed achievement, it should be hard indeed for the party to find cause for celebration in the fact that the Conservatives are so rapidly becoming the party of the "left behind".

In the post-New Labour era – and even more so under Corbyn than under Miliband – Labour has become a party of highly educated middle class people, "socialism fans" especially. I said it before the election, and it remains the case today.

Indeed, the Labour leadership’s understanding of this point seems the most likely explanation for their manifesto pledge to end student fees (a policy that would benefit only higher-earning graduates, since people who do not go to university do not incur student fees, and people who do but end up in lower-paying jobs don’t have to repay their loans) while maintaining the Conservative "benefit cap", which negatively affects low earners, disabled people and the unemployed.

To what extent Labour’s new middle class voters will continue to back the party in the future seems unclear. After all, Corbyn can’t really do anything about their student fees, since he is not prime minister, and while he could do something about Brexit (since Labour, the anti-Brexit parties, and pro-EU Tories such as Ken Clarke now collectively hold a majority of seats in the Commons), he’s promised not to (good Bennite that he is).

Then again, he might publicly change his lifelong position on Europe just as he has publicly changed his lifelong positions on terrorism, nuclear weapons and Nato. He wouldn’t be the first leader to decide that Paris was worth a mass.

Fair play to him, though. In losing the election by only slightly more seats than Gordon Brown, he won the anticipated leadership contest in advance. So if the working class asks for its Labour Party back, he can confidently tell it to get lost.


* Canterbury is a notable exception here, having narrowly voted Leave in 2016 but swung to Labour in 2017. A very small city with two well-known universities, it hosts a very big student population during term time (when the general election took place), a large proportion of whom would typically have been expected to be resident elsewhere during the holidays when the EU referendum took place.

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