Still working after over sixty years, he first started his career in broadcasting when the medium was so new even he didn’t own a television. Since then he’s produced and written countless shows, been controller of BBC2 and, of course, presented more amazing documentaries than any other man alive. The man is so influential, even James Cameron is a fan.
It’s a bit of a rarity for us to cover TV on the site, but when the opportunity came up to talk to Attenborough about his new show, Kingdom of Plants 3D, it was impossible to turn it down, and I soon found myself sitting in a room at Kew Gardens, where the series was shot, talking to one of the most influential men in the history of British broadcasting.
I’d expected the interview to be interesting, but I’d also expected it to be fairly focused, these things usually are when talking to people in front of the camera – they’ll talk about how the shoot was for them, but can’t really be relied upon for any great insight into anything else. Of course, Attenborough is no ordinary TV presenter, and when our interview veered onto the popularity of his shows, the success of his message of conservation, and the future of 3D, he proved equally as witty, self-deprecating and informed as when he spoke about the difficulties, and pleasures of filming in the palm house at Kew.
In the first episode, it’s about the wet zone, and I understand you shot most of it in the palm house. What was it like filming in there given how humid and wet it is all the time?
When you first go in, of course, the camera steams up, but it’s like filming in the tropics, you wait for the camera to acclimatise itself, wipe down the lenses then you’re OK.
What about you personally? Do you find it difficult, does it overcome you a little bit?
It’s lovely. I took eight years off and became an administrator at the BBC, and I missed the tropics very much. I live just in Richmond, and when things really got bad, I used to come down especially to go to the palm house. It’s true, it’s really fun.
It’s really nice, actually to be able to do it for a couple of hours and move out. The trouble in Borneo, you’re like that all day long, if you’re not careful you live in a pool of perspiration. It’s very nice, I like it. It smells nice, it smells like that, that’s what tropical forests smell like.
Do you remember how old you were when you first visited Kew?
I suppose I came here when I was about eight or nine, and I suppose I was impressed by the standard things, rhododendron thyme, or lilac time, or whatever. At that age one came for these great sights, the magnolia was an amazing sight. But I also remember the hot houses, because they were – when I was a kid, I don’t know how you were, if you thought jungles were exciting, but I thought jungles were very exciting, and to go into the palm house and get the smells we were talking about, but also to see these amazing creepers. It gave me a vision of the tropics I wouldn’t have seen otherwise.
Do you think it might have fed your interest?
I suppose so. I don’t think I was particularly sensitive or perceptive. Like a lot of kids I was fascinated by stories of the jungle, people hacking their way through, and little faces coming out, and snakes, and strange carnivorous plants, and dragon trees, that you walk into and die because of the bite, or the sting of them, all that sort of stuff. But that’s kid’s stuff really.
Was there any hanging around for you during the sequence when the Queen of the Night came into bloom?
They had to wait a long time for it, but it was very easy. Another example, actually, which Anthony [Geffen – the producer of the series] was responsible for, this was shot extraordinarily swiftly, in a short period of time, and although it’s called A Year in the Life of Kew, it was actually shot in 11 months, which is quite a feat. One of the things we missed is a winter sequence. During Winter, you can’t afford to have a 3D crew hanging around when nothing is happening, and suddenly he got up one morning and saw there was nine inches of snow all over everything, and though ‘God, that would look absolutely wonderful’, and so whizzed out, got the crew, went down here, got these shots, which suddenly gives you a whole new time dimension to the whole thing, in spite of the fact that it was only half a morning’s work. But [he was] poised, ready to do it.
Why do you think your programs have such a large audience?
It’s a soft number, my job. If you have the natural world as your subject, you’re three-quarters of the way there. All you have to do is not stand too much between the camera and the natural world. Let them see the natural world, and if you do that, it’s such a huge asset, and such a huge excitement, and such a huge revelation waiting for them – if I was making programs about particle physics, and it got audiences of 12 million, I would be very pleased with myself, but if it’s giant tortoises, or orchids, you ought to get an audience of 12 million. You should be shot if you don’t.
Was there any particular moment that took you by surprise during the filming?
Yes. I think that’s true. I think you may have seen it in the teaser section after the first program. There was a thing called Sundew, and we know that they’re insectivores, and we know how they , and yet, when you see that, you know in a more profound way than you ever could have done. And it raises all kinds of questions in your mind.
There you can see for example, a fly that’s struggling on a hair, and then, to your surprise, there’s a hair over here, which is not connected with that, and it’s not this one or that one, it’s this one that is actually going to hold the trap. Now what is the communication between that hair, and this hair, and not that one or that one or that one? Nobody knows, but you’ve seen it actually happen, and I think it’s one of the most dramatic sequences that happens in the whole series, and it’s a common English plant.
In the episode, and the preview for future episodes that there was an element of ‘insect horror movie’ in the series. Are the insectivorous plants something that particularly interests you?
I think they are particularly interesting, mainly because they go so contrary to what people think of when they think of plants. Most people don’t think of plants as eating flesh, and they don’t think of them as moving so fast as they do. So they are very interesting things.
Is there a moment that you wish had been captured that wasn’t possible?
It sounds strange, but no, actually. One of the advantages of working with plants, and working here, is that if it doesn’t happen with this plant, you can wait to do it with that plant a week later. There were things we were waiting, some of that buzz pollination for example, that didn’t happen when we thought it was going to happen, but OK, you can come back in a week’s time, and maybe it will happen. In the end we got everything we wanted.
What’s next for you?
We’re going to the Galapagos to film in three weeks’ time. The crew’s been out there for some time, and it’s going to be very nice.
We’re going to the Galapagos because, I don’t know if you’ve seen the apparatus, but you can imagine, four people carrying that, you can’t actually creep up on some shy little thing that’s going to do something unspeakable to its neighbour with 14 men and this huge great camera.
So it’s giant tortoises only?
You have it in one. I can give you on personal authority that it doesn’t put giant tortoises off at all.
Do you think the future of all TV is in 3D?
No. Absolutely not. Until there is going to be a change that means that you don’t need glasses… If you’re sitting there, you can’t see the person you’re sitting next to, or your wife or your child, and that’s not how we look at television these days. Television is a social thing, you talk to one another, and you look at it.
This is an event. You have the room with not too strong light on, you put the glasses on and you watch it. That’s why 3D programs for television have to be very special, they aren’t just ordinary programs, they are special programs. It could be the cup final, that’s a special program too, but also documentaries have got to be very good to justify doing it. It may be that will change, but I actually don’t particularly want to see a quiz game in 3D, it wouldn’t make any difference to me at all.
You get used to it, and you get over the era where you think you’re going to move into 3D so you have to do whiz-bang things like things continually shooting out of the screen, you get over that, that’s growing pains, that’s kid’s stuff. But it can present a ore complete image of the world in which we live, the world around us than anything else so far. If you’re interested in the important things in the world around you, and flowers among them, then it’s revelatory.
You mention that 3D is revelatory, but specifically what’s the extra dimension bringing to Kingdom of Plants?
It gives you a comprehension of the reality which is closer than you have achieved before, and is actually beyond what you have seen before. Until this, nobody has seen plants moving, enlarged to this sort of size, in three dimensions. There are things, technical things, scientific things that you really have to imagine in three dimensions, thinking in three dimensions, that this does for you.
One of the subjects I took at university was X-Ray Crystallography, which was three-0dimensional mathematics, in which you had to do this very difficult thing of visualising how things moved in three dimensions, and of some particular radical compound that’s going to be alongside another one. That’s very, very difficult, it certainly defeated me. If I’d had a three-dimensional television, I would have understood a lot more. And you understand a lot more about plants, and about the world in which insects live in order to pollinate things, for example, if you see it in 3D.
I’m diminishing it by saying it like that, because the fact is that comprehension of reality is not easy. You can simplify it, and we do all the time, but to try and take it as it is very difficult, and 3D television allows you to do that.
Over the years you’ve been putting forward a message of conservation with your work. I wonder whether you consider now that people have responded to that, or that there’s much more work to be done.
There’s always more work to be done. It’s a minority of people that still do things about it. It’s easy enough to say, ‘I’m in love with the natural world’, whether you can do anything about it, give money to charity, or change your own personal life. The problem is, we may have made advances in the perception of this whole thing, but the problem has got much bigger. The problem is growing faster than we can keep up. So although the world is more aware of conservation problems than it was 50 years ago, the problems themselves are now, vastly greater than they were.
There are three times as many people living on earth now, as there were when I first started making television programs, and that’s an extraordinary statistic. They all require places to live, and have houses, and drive motor cars, and do all the things that you and I and everyone else does, but where are they going to get that? How can they grow their food? The answer is from the wild world, so the wild world has been more and more repressed, and more eroded, and so the wild world is in greater danger now than it ever was, in spite of what we’re doing.
Kingdom of Plants 3D is showing on Sky 3D at 6pm on Saturday 26th May. It will be broadcast simultaneously on Sky Atlantic.