Friday, 8 August 2014


  - 22 September 2003

Sir David Attenborough

Sir David Attenbourgh via satellite from London.
Sir David Attenbourgh via satellite from London.
'I dug a horrid beast on TV'; 'doubting earth advisor': these are two anagrams you can make out of my next guest's name, and both are appropriate. For 50 years, he's been broadcasting into our homes and showing us a world we can scarcely believe our own. His face is recognisable to billions of people. Please welcome a man who makes you think that, well, maybe human beings aren't so bad after all —Sir David Attenborough.
Sir David Attenborough, live via satellite: Hello.
Andrew Denton: Sir David, welcome. It's a pleasure. What is the etiquette here? Should I call you Sir David, or may I call you David?
Sir David Attenborough: As long as you don't call me what you called me last time.
Andrew Denton: Oh, look…
Sir David Attenborough: No, Davo will do.
Andrew Denton: Davo! (Laughs) G'day, Davo. Welcome to the show, mate. Beauty. Bonza. When you started going to the wild corners of the earth, that was in the '50s, which was when travel was in black and white. What was international travel like then?
Sir David Attenborough: Oh, it was extraordinary, really, come to think of it. Um, I mean, for example, you couldn't fly from London to West Africa without stopping overnight in North Africa, because they hadn't got any radio navigation systems that ran during the night. Um, so it took me… I remember the first trip to Africa — took me three days to get to Sierra Leone, which is on that bulge on the left-hand side of Africa.
Andrew Denton: So…were the pilots leaning out the window of the plane trying to spot landmarks that they could navigate on?
Sir David Attenborough: More or less. Leaning out and asking…shouting, you know, "Which way to Lagos?"
Andrew Denton: What was the hardest place in the world to get to?
Sir David Attenborough: Well, um, I suppose… I went to Indonesia in — what? — '55, '56. Um, and I had read about this strange giant lizard called the komodo dragon, which lived on a little island in the middle of the Indonesian chain. And I said to people in Jakarta, "I want to go to Komodo." And, uh, they had no idea where it was! They'd never heard of the komodo dragon and they'd certainly never heard of Komodo. Um, so eventually we made our way there by hiring little ships, one of which, I may say, first of all put us on a coral reef, then took us into a whirlpool, and finally, it turned out was actually being skippered by a gun runner, a pirate, who was… When we got finally to the village of Komodo, he said to the local people, "Look, there's only two of those guys on our ship. They've got lots of cameras and money and stuff. If another fellow could join us on this little boat, we could overpower them and take their money." And so I said to the chief of the village who told me this, I said, "Well, are you coming?" He said, "No, you know, the wife, the fishing — I've got lots to do, so I'm not going to bother." But that was the case, and so in the end, it took us, like — what? — about…I suppose about 10 days to get from Jakarta, the capital in Java, to this little island. Well, now, of course, tourist boats go there and call in twice a day.
Andrew Denton: What, for you, is the most magical place you've been to on this planet?
Sir David Attenborough: Well, I suppose, actually, it wouldn't be too far from Komodo because… I'm talking now of 45, 50 years ago. Uh, and we went to Bali. And 45 years ago, we saw one other European…who lived there. He was a painter. And the island, um, didn't have an airport. Um, it didn't have a pub. Well, it had one hotel in Denpasar. And we… Kuta Beach, which you know, and Sunur Beach — both are now lined by huge hotels — were empty. I actually slept on Sunur Beach. Um, and of course, the people are magical people — I mean, just so talented and beautiful and friendly and charming and lovely, and the few weeks we spent there in the '50s remained in my mind. I expect you thought I was going to say the jungle, or something. But, you know, tropical rainforest is…it's full of fascinating things, but I wouldn't want to live there for very long.
Andrew Denton: No, I actually thought you were going to say Glasgow, so I was completely wrong. I lost the office sweep on that one.
Sir David Attenborough: (Laughs)
Andrew Denton: Did you ever have the experience that the original explorers must have had of pulling back a palm frond and looking at a valley and thinking, "I'm about to go where no man has ever stood"?
Sir David Attenborough: Yeah. Yes, yes. In central New Guinea. Again in the '50s. And again the speed of change is just unbelievable. I mean, um, we flew into the Wahgi Valley, which is right in the middle, in a high valley in the mountains. And we went over the mountains to the north of the valley, and went into a valley which is now very well known. I mean, it has members of parliament and everything. I mean, it's the Chimbu Valley. But actually at the time, there was only one other European who had been into those headwaters. And we were going just slightly away from where he had been, so we did walk into places where no European had been before. And the astonishing thing, I mean, really unbelievable thing is that, I suppose — what? — it was in about the '70s or '80s… Yes, it must have been the '70s. And I was at the university in Boroko in Port Moresby, where a friend of mine was professor of anthropology, and he said, "I would like you to meet two of my research students who are studying for PhDs." And I said, "Sure, but I don't know much about anthropology." He said, "No, no. They just particularly want to meet you." And I went and saw these two very nice men — very…scholars, I mean, you know? And the reason they wanted to see me was that I was the first European they'd ever seen. They'd been little children playing in the dust in that village in the Upper Chimbu. It was extraordinary.
Andrew Denton: What was their memory of you at that time? Were you like a ghost to them?
Sir David Attenborough: They didn't say much about how they'd thought of me when they were children. But they… I mean, how they managed to cope with moving from that kind of childhood to that kind of young manhood is unbelievable.
Andrew Denton: Your wife, Jane, didn't travel with you very often. When she would farewell you on your many adventures, was there a look in her eyes of, "Well, I may never see you again, but good luck"?
Sir David Attenborough: (Chuckles) Well, I guess there was. I mean, I think, you know, airline was difficult. Getting to travel was difficult. And again, in these days of mobile phones and so on, it's difficult to believe, but then, the only way you could get a message through from, say, Bali to…well, no, not even Bali — Surabaya or Jakarta to London, was to book it a week in advance, and it went by landline, you know, right the way across through Singapore and up west to London. So, oh, then you would have to turn up. You'd have to arrive up and say, "Yes, I'm here for the phone call." But then there would be something going wrong and the phone call would be cancelled. And then your wife was sitting in London, thinking, "Why isn't he calling? Has he broken his leg? What's the matter?" Something or other. So in the end, it was so unsatisfactory that we just decided that we wouldn't communicate.
Andrew Denton: You're always so enthusiastic about animals and wildlife when we see you on television, but surely there are some animals that even to you are just plain boring.
Sir David Attenborough: It isn't boring, so much, as horrible.
Andrew Denton: (Laughs)
Sir David Attenborough: I mean, I…I don't care for rats, you see. And just recently, I was in India. And I'd been rather boastful in saying that over the years that I didn't get stomach upsets. But this last trip in India, I had a corker. I mean, you know, ooh. And, see, I had to rush for the loo, and I got rid of what my problem was with the force of a fireman's hose, you might say.

Sir David Attenborough: And, um…

Sir David Attenborough: ..and… (Gasps) ..and I looked down, and as I looked down, a rat shot out from between my thighs.
Andrew Denton: Oh!

Sir David Attenborough: It was a bit wet, mind.
Andrew Denton: (Laughs) Oh, dear!

Andrew Denton: I can only assume that in the rat world, there's a rat right now on a rat chat show telling that story from its point of view. And it's no better from its angle. It occurred to me before this interview that I could stick a pin in the encyclopaedia and ask you about any animal and you've probably experienced it in some way or another. So…I haven't done that. I've got the people that work on the show and their children just to write the name of a whole lot of animals. I've stuck them in a hat. I'm going to pull some out. And let's see what you can tell us about them. Starting with… And pass, if you so choose. The electric catfish.
Sir David Attenborough: I…I've collected electric catfish. They grow very big indeed. And if you were silly enough as to put both hands on one while you were out…when it was out on the bank, you'd be thrown flat on your back.
Andrew Denton: Alright. The giant octopus.
Sir David Attenborough: Well, that's like an octopus, except that it's a giant.
Andrew Denton: (Laughs) It's your specialist knowledge that always astounds me.
Sir David Attenborough: (Laughs)
Andrew Denton: Have you…
Sir David Attenborough: What more can I tell you about it?
Andrew Denton: Oh, OK. Here's one. This is the last one. Oh, the earwig.
Sir David Attenborough: Yeah. Now, do you know… I can't remember whether you've got Australian earwigs. But there are certainly European earwigs. They have two pincers at the back of their tail. Um, they're called earwigs because it used to be thought that they crawled into people's ears, which they don't. They live in the ground, and actually, and this is — I'm not joking — they have…they're extraordinarily tender mothers. I mean, they look after their little babies with extraordinary care, mother earwigs do. So that's what earwigs are.
Andrew Denton: How do you know this? Have you spent time with earwig families?
Sir David Attenborough: In a way, yes. We made…we made a special film about earwigs. And I can't imagine how it hasn't got to you down there. The British are potty about earwigs.
Andrew Denton: It's my fault. My subscription to the earwig channel lapsed.
Sir David Attenborough: (Laughs)
Andrew Denton: When you see this sort of stuff, do you ever get a sense of God's pattern?
Sir David Attenborough: Well, if you ask…about that, then you see remarkable things like that earwig and you also see all very beautiful things like hummingbirds, orchids, and so on. But you also ought to think of the other, less attractive things. You ought to think of tapeworms. You ought to think of…well, think of a parasitic worm that lives only in the eyeballs of human beings, boring its way through them, in West Africa, for example, where it's common, turning people blind. So if you say, "I believe that God designed and created and brought into existence every single species that exists," then you've also got to say, "Well, he, at some stage, decided to bring into existence a worm that's going to turn people blind." Now, I find that very difficult to reconcile with notions about a merciful God. And I certainly find it difficult to believe that a God — superhuman, supreme power — would actually do that.
Andrew Denton: You've shown us some images which have really startled people — the memorable one of the killer whales playing with the seals as they were killing them, or the chimpanzees attacking and tearing apart a monkey. Is there worse stuff that's ended up on the cutting room floor that we never saw?
Sir David Attenborough: When it comes to cruelty and violence, we are very careful — at least, I believe we are very careful — about what we show. Um, it's a very difficult judgment to make. I mean, you simply can't put out natural history programs in which there's no violence. I mean, if you're making a program about lions, you can't pretend that wildebeests just give themselves up. You know, that's sentimentalising and absurd. So you don't. On the other hand, the fact of the matter is that lions don't often make clean kills, and animals are sometimes eaten when they are still alive, and there is blood everywhere. And you can't show all that either. So you have to try and make a judgment, and a lot of people… Well, I mean, people are extraordinary, aren't they, sometimes? I mean, I once got a letter from someone who said, "We were appalled by what you showed on those lions hunting wildebeests. And I understand," said this lady who wrote, "that your films cost a lot of money. Well, you'd be very much better off if you used that money to train lions to eat grass."

Andrew Denton: As a…as perhaps the most experienced broadcaster in the world, here's a question for you. Why is it alright for kids to watch zebras having sex on television, but it's pornographic if humans do it?
Sir David Attenborough: Very difficult question, and I don't know the answer. Um…and of course, oddly enough, it's the same with violence. That people will object very much to seeing a predator killing its prey, and yet, in the news, will accept showing shots of people shooting one another. It's just awful.
Andrew Denton: Mammals were around when dinosaurs were around and they succeeded them. Are our successors on the planet today? Which species would you back to replace human beings as dominant on the earth?
Sir David Attenborough: Difficult. Uh, but I would think… I mean, there are two candidates that are popularly quoted, regularly quoted. One is rats or rodents of some kind. And the other is the cockroach. I mean, to be successful, for an animal, you have to be extremely adaptable. You have to be able to eat pretty well anything and tolerate a wide variety of different climatic circumstances and conditions. And cockroaches and rats are two of the creatures that can do that.
Andrew Denton: So who's your money on?
Sir David Attenborough: (Chuckles) I would think rats.
Andrew Denton: Mmm. That's going to be a difficult day for you, I can tell.
Sir David Attenborough: Well, it is… If you're going to want to go to the loo, it will be not too good.
Andrew Denton: As perhaps the most widely travelled man on the planet, what's your best travelling tip for us?
Sir David Attenborough: I think probably an ability, um, to regard food as fuel. Um, so that you get to some place and you just say, "Well, I'm not going to enjoy what I'm going to eat. I'm just going to have to take it on board, like stocking up, like putting petrol in the car, so that I've got the energy to go on." That's a very useful thing to be able to do.
Andrew Denton: Which begs the question, what's the most disgusting thing you've ever had to force yourself to eat as fuel?
Sir David Attenborough: Well, I suppose… (Laughs) There's a drink in South America, you know, which is made by old ladies chewing cassava and spitting it into a large pot and letting it ferment for three or four days, after which it tastes exactly like…smells exactly like vomit. That's not too good.

Andrew Denton: On that note, with that magnificent image in our heads, Sir David Attenborough, it's an absolute pleasure, and thank you so much for being on the show tonight.

Sir David Attenborough: Pleasure.

No comments:

Post a Comment