Read the New Statesman's most recent interview with David Attenborough, by Brian Cox and Robin Ince, here .
For almost 60 years, New Statesman critics have attempted to put into words the effect of seeing David Attenborough in his native habitat: the wild. “Attenborough is a lively, floor-pacing, arm-swinging magic lantern man, deftly imitating by turns a harassed traffic policeman, a Nonconformist minister searching for the clinching analogy and a district nurse on a bicycle,” wrote his fellow BBC grandee Dennis Potter in 1974.
It was Tom Driberg, in 1954, who first introduced NS readers to the “highly successful TV ‘personality’, whose casual, conversational manner conceals a deliberately studied technique”. When Jack Lester, curator of London Zoo’s reptile house, fell ill, Attenborough, then a producer, stood in to present the BBC2 series Zoo Quest. “In comparison with [him],” Driberg wrote, “many of the old troupers from the regular entertainment world seem intolerably brassy and two-dimensional.”
Following the groundbreaking Life on Earth (1979), Julian Barnes seemed somewhat perplexed to see the presenter squatting low behind a wall, observing the religious rituals of Indonesians in Spirit of Asia (1980). “This may be a productive style for creeping up on things we think we know too well and over-despise, like animals; indeed, part of the deserved success of Life on Earth derived directly from Attenborough’s guileless mixture of reverence and zeal. But the last episode of Life – which presented humans as if they were merely an advanced breed of problem-solving beast – was the least satisfactory, and in retrospect it’s easier to see why. People – unless they’re fossilised or preserved in peat, and enlivened with some label like protocrotojurassic – aren’t really Attenborough’s thing.”
After a blissfully quiet, though unfulfilling, stint as controller of BBC2 – “I asked what the policy should be, and they said: ‘That’s up to you, dear boy. You tell us’” – Attenborough became an outspoken critic of reforms to the licence-fee model. “The changes at the BBC are all market forces and marketing,” he told Mary Riddell in 1998. “Gets up my nose a bit, [and] I do have a frisson of despair at the standards.”
He still voices concern for the corporation. “It is crucially important for our society and [represents] the highest aspirations of our society. I’m appalled anybody thinks otherwise. If you remove the licence fee, it would be gone in a decade,” he told Sophie Elmhirst in 2011. But Attenborough, now 86, has recently taken to speaking out about a far more serious problem, that of overpopulation. Writing in the NS in April, Attenborough spoke with uncharacteristic force about ecosystems ruined by the arrival of man. “Anyone who believes in indefinite growth in anything physical, on a physically finite planet, is either mad – or an economist.”