Sir David Attenborough in a scene from the TV special The Death of the Oceans.
Sir David Attenborough in a scene from the TV special The Death of the Oceans. Contributed

David Attenborough on facing his mortality

LIFE without the man who has made a career out of showing us all its kaleidoscopic virtues and possibilities, is impossible to countenance.

So it is with some relief that I see the sprightly form of Sir David Attenborough, now into his 91st year, bounding in for our interview, five minutes late and apologising profusely.

His hair has been whipped into the crest of a silver wave by the winds howling about London's West End; his crumpled linen shirt appears to have resisted the valiant attempts of an iron.

He paces about the room, asking questions of his own in between griping about the traffic and refusing my offer to pour him a coffee, which he prefers to do himself. When he notices a KitKat (his favourite treat) left for him on the table in the room we have been allotted at the BBC, he lights up in boyish enthusiasm.

"Ah, wonderful," he beams, bolting it down with such speed that I feel compelled to give him mine as well, in the manner of a pupil proffering an apple to a favourite teacher.

Much has changed in the decade since what was perhaps the greatest nature documentary of them all, Planet Earth, was first broadcast. Much except seemingly the protagonist himself. His movements are still free and his eyes as bright as pack ice. Emotion plays easily across his broad, instantly familiar face. Despite his cheery demeanour and joshing opening gambits, there remains a perceptible brusqueness to Attenborough.

The march of time may have affected him far less than most, but he is increasingly conscious of the ticking clock and the urgency to get things done.

I realise the introductions are over when he sits down and fixes me with a steely gaze. "So... what do you want to ask me?" I do not plan to begin with the end, but that is where our conversation inexorably leads. The lot of the nonagenarian, he ruefully admits, is to live in close proximity to death, with far more funerals than weddings to attend. A few days prior to our meeting, he says, his "closest and longest-standing friend" (a conductor whom Attenborough prefers not to name) had passed away, at the age of 92.

The pair would sometimes discuss how they wished to depart this Earth. "He always told me he was damned if he was just going to sit down and decay," Attenborough recalls.

"He said he wanted to die on stage, but that he would fall backwards into the audience instead of the orchestra pit, because he did not want to ruin a perfectly good violin. That was his attitude and that's my kind of attitude." He does not fear death.

Rather, ever the field biologist, he is attempting to rationalise it. "I think about my own mortality every day," he says.

"And not in a morbid kind of way, but I suppose in an observational kind of way. You suddenly realise you aren't remembering proper names anymore and, whereas three years ago you could tread water in the conversation long enough for the name to come up and move on, you now know there is no point.

"You know you're slowing down, but equally dear friends of mine and relatives who are contemporaries can't remember anything, or can't even walk, poor people. I can't believe I'm as lucky as I am."

When it first aired in 2006, Planet Earth seemed the culmination of a lifetime's work. Five years in the making, it was the most expensive nature documentary ever commissioned by the BBC.

At the time I was a student and I remember how the entire campus clustered together to watch. The DVD went on to become the highestselling non-fiction series of all time worldwide.

How to attempt to replicate this success, with Planet Earth II, which is now screening in Britain and will, hopefully, be coming to New Zealand shortly?

Firstly, he says, the changing technology provides far more opportunity than it previously did. Then there is the fact that the natural world has continued to transform so rapidly under humanity's rule - and largely to its detriment.

As Attenborough tells us in one of the episodes in the new series, themed around cities, "Every 10 years, an area the size of Britain disappears under a jungle of concrete." But mostly, he remains motivated by uncovering fresh stories and telling them to the world.

"Nature doesn't sit still. Things and individuals are changing, dying and new things are coming. They're all stories."

Set against a score arranged by the legendary Hollywood composer Hans Zimmer, Planet Earth II is rich in the sort of dramas that, when told in Attenborough's soft, rolling soliloquy, become parables for our own age.

There are the Galapagos lizards who, the moment they hatch, have evolved to make a mad dash for survival to escape the racer snakes hunting them in packs.

The nightmarish form the snakes assume in their attacks appears as if from some Gothic fairy tale and makes the loss of innocence all the more difficult to watch.

There are the flamingos that still find love in the scalding heat of the most inhospitable volcanic peaks in the Andes, and the Komodo dragons that have managed to thrive for millions of years because they need to eat only once a month. Attenborough's own favourite segment features a snow leopard and her cub prowling the scree slopes of the Himalayas.

Until now, filming an intimate portrait of the snow leopards has been impossible as their distribution is so sparse (as few as four animals per 100sq km) and their ability to escape human attention so refined.

By rigging up movement-activated camera traps on rocks where the leopards leave their scent, the programme-makers managed to film a female being stalked by two rival males intent on copulation.

She finds herself torn between her instinctive need to procreate and a desire to protect her cub from the male leopards. "When they do meet," Attenborough says, "it's extraordinarily exciting. Filmed in this wonderful mountain landscape, the whole thing is very moving and poetic."

When his series are running, Attenborough says he receives dozens of letters a day. The majority of correspondence is from newly bereaved people who tell him that the only things they can face in their darkest moments are his natural history programmes.

"It brings solace you can't describe in words," he says. "It's because we're part of it fundamentally and we recognise that fundamentally. In moments of great grief, that's where you look and immerse yourself. You realise you are not immortal, you are not a god, you are part of the natural world and you come to accept that."

Where, I wonder, does he turn in moments of grief? His beloved wife, Jane, had a brain haemorrhage in 1997 while he was filming in New Zealand. Attenborough flew home immediately and found her alive, but in a coma. He wrote in his memoirs, Life On Air, that the doctor at her bedside suggested he might take her hand in his.

"She gave my hand a squeeze," he said. "The focus of my life, the anchor had gone ... now my life was lost." He is also the only surviving brother of three.

It has been two years since his older brother, actor and director Lord Richard Attenborough, died at the age of 90. His younger sibling, John, a businessman, died in 2012. Sir David, too, relies upon the natural world to distract him from human tragedy - to an extent. "One shouldn't anthropomorphise the situation around you, but what does make a difference is the awareness that you are part of the deal."

Then there is his profound love for classical music, in particular Schubert and Bach. "After time, you accept it more," he says of his wife's death. "After the initial bereavement, you recover your equilibrium to some degree. It helps that I have a lot of family around."

The couple had a daughter, Susan, and a son, Robert, a lecturer in bioanthropology who has two children of his own. Susan has taken over running Attenborough's accounts. "She was the head of a primary school but when my wife died she was getting frustrated with work," he says. "I was getting myself into a mess without my wife. She came and helped and eventually became a partner in my little company.

"She has her own house in Surrey but at the moment spends most of her time with me looking after things."

In spite of the cruel suddenness of his wife's death, Attenborough admits he is hoping for a similar end for himself.

"It's wretched, as I well know, on the dependents when someone dies in the night, but that's the best way. To go to bed and not wake up - you're going to go some time and in your 90s it's sooner rather than later."

Since the original Planet Earth there have been - to name the more major collaborations - Life (2009), Frozen Planet (2011), Africa (2013), Life Story (2014), and last year The Hunt and Great Barrier Reef.

The latter he filmed on location in Australia, returning to one of the great wonders of the world he first visited for his BBC Zoo Quest series in 1957.

Attenborough describes the 1979 Life on Earth as the "great-granddaddy" of the modern nature documentary and the moment when he first decided to embark on a programme that took a global view.

"There were people in the BBC saying, 'It won't work, old boy. You can't just hop around the world sticking in things from Australia and South America and Europe together - people won't know where they are.' I told them they were wrong - the important thing isn't geography."

Even back then, Attenborough decided to ration his appearances. "I said we mustn't get the narrator in between the animal and the viewer too often. You must have a very good reason why you are looking at him and not at the animal."

In Planet Earth II he makes just two cameos: soaring over the Swiss Alps in a hot-air balloon and in a later episode standing on top of the Shard in London.

He underwent a double knee transplant a few years ago, which, he enthuses, has given him "another 20 years of life". All the same, he is keen to restrict the extent of his travels.

Mike Gunton, creative director at the BBC's Natural History Unit and a colleague of 30 years, recalls that, "We took him to Madagascar a few years ago and had a sequence with a rhino when he got down on his knees - and that was the end of them.

"His daughter gave me quite a hard time but I said, 'Look, we couldn't stop him.' Anyway, he had the operation done and it has just transformed him.

"To have him in [the series] is good for the audience and good for us. It was also bloody good fun. When we were preparing to do the scene with the hot-air balloon we were chatting, getting ready to go, then turned around and he had already hopped in the basket up a step-ladder. He is pretty remarkable."

In person, as on air, Attenborough is still the master storyteller. His voice may be huskier nowadays, but remains taut with drama. The words themselves are perfectly chosen. When it comes to writing scripts he says he still prefers old VHS tapes to DVDs in order to better rewind and fast-forward the footage. Sometimes he will spend an entire week perfecting one particular script - Attenborough calls it "verbal carpentry".

"That's what my speciality is, really, and always has been," he says. "If you can use four words instead of five that's good, and cut out every adjective you want to put in. People can see if it's beautiful. You mustn't be scared of silence."

He works so hard because he still feels the job offers might dry up. "I've been a producer and they can get rid of you at any time," he says.

I protest that he can't possibly be worried that they'll put him out to pasture. "Of course I can," he retorts. "When you've reached my age you don't know you're failing. You don't know you're not as sharp as you once were. You don't realise that you're not actually picking the right verb and instead just resort to cliche."

Tom Hugh-Jones, the series producer of Planet Earth II, tells it slightly differently.
"He's formidable, incredibly clever and nine times out of 10 he changes a script for the better. Sometimes we disagree but there is a jokiness between us."

For all Attenborough's fear of fading talents, Hugh-Jones admits there is no "succession plan". Indeed, Attenborough is currently shooting a project due for delivery in 2018.

"It was something they worried about more 10 years ago," Hugh-Jones says. "I think everyone now realises as long as David is doing it, nobody is going to touch him. How it happened with David was very organic. People grew to love him. It has to be something that happens again in that way."

As the years advance, the politics of climate change grow ever more dominant in Attenborough's narrative - both on and off screen. He is a prominent voice around major environmental conferences, such as last year's summit in Paris. A few months prior to that he was summoned to the White House to share a stage with President Obama.

He admits the thought of Obama being replaced by Donald Trump - a climate-change denier who has described global warming as a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese Government - struck him with terror.

"One doesn't want to interfere with other nation's affairs, but the trouble is nations of that size are globally important and what they do has a huge impact on us. For him to say the sort of extreme things he says, not only about climate change but also building a wall and keeping out Mexicans, is just horrifying."

The original Planet Earth was the first of his series openly to highlight the reality of rising global temperatures. One particularly troubling sequence followed starving polar bears forced to extend their walrus-hunting range across melting ice floes. Attenborough says he was reluctant to make too much of climate change in earlier series, wanting to be absolutely sure of the facts before deciding to speak out.

"In my position you can't go out and just say, 'I think,' because it's a very serious thing," he says. "So if you get up and say climate is changing because of CO2 emissions, you'd better bloody well be right."

The new series carries similar warnings of human impact, sometimes woven subtly into the narrative and on occasion rather more explicit. From his perch atop London's Shard, Attenborough warns of how urgent the need for action is to stop our destruction of the planet.

"Looking down on this great metropolis, the ingenuity with which we continue to reshape our planet is very striking," he says. "It's also sobering. It reminds me of just how easy it is for us to lose our connection with the natural world. Yet it is on this connection that the future of both humanity and the natural world will depend."

Attenborough remains a key supporter of the Global Apollo Programme, which is working to develop new clean energy.

Does the man who has studied life and death in so many species feel confident that our own can save itself? "In my heart, I think, what are those stupid bastards going to do with the energy once they've got it?" he says.

"Will they be wise enough to use it sparingly and not screw up the ocean and knock down any more forests just because we've got the energy? I can't see any historical precedence that gives me hope that we will."

But still he finds crumbs of comfort, not just in the distant plains he has travelled but far closer to home, in the green spaces around his home in Richmond-upon-Thames.

On the river, which just half a century ago was foul and devoid of life, he now finds kingfishers flashing down the banks, and eels in the water. In a nearby wetlands reserve in Barnes he has discovered booming bitterns, one of Britain's rarest birds, slowly returning from the brink of extinction.

"Astounding," he says with a grin. Of course in the great scheme of things, they represent mere bright threads in a fraying tapestry. These small stories of survival, though, are the ones that will define our future. And until his voice fades to a whisper, Sir David Attenborough will keep on telling them.

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