The other side of David Attenborough

david attenborough

From my Times interview with a broadcasting legend.  Among other things, we talked about his early years at the BBC, his passion for the piano and his unlikely role as a pioneer of world music:

There is a strange whistling in the air in the sleek, modernist library in David Attenborough’s  home in southwest London. Could it be some exotic bird that he has brought back from a trip to the rainforest? No, nothing as exciting as that. It is simply his hearing aid malfunctioning. He chuckles and gives it a quick tweak. Apart from his slightly stooped posture the hearing aid is the only clue that Britain’s most beloved naturalist celebrated his 92nd birthday this year.

Otherwise he seems as brisk and alert as ever, answering questions with grace and humility, even when the conversation turns to the recent attack on his work by the radical environmentalist George Monbiot (more of that later). Attenborough’s daughter, Susan, a retired primary school head teacher who keeps him company, supplies us with unusually spicy ginger biscuits. Some interviewers have found him to be distant and evasive. Today he is genial, avuncular and thoroughly engaging.

He is, understandably, slightly more cautious when I ring him a few days later to ask him a follow-up question: what makes him cry? It is a day or two after the broadcast of the latest episode of his BBC One series Dynasties and half of the country — or so Twitter would lead you to believe — have been sobbing over the scenes of baby penguins facing an icy death in the Antarctic. I immediately sense that he would prefer not to go down this particular path, but he answers anyway. “I’ve never cried while filming, but I suppose I cry more easily nowadays.” He pauses and corrects himself. “Well, tears don’t pour down my cheeks, but I blinked hard on November 11.”

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