The world's favourite frontman talks to Matt Suddain.

In some ways, chatting with Sir David Attenborough feels like chatting with any 90-year-old man. He tells brilliantly rambling stories ("... and when I looked down into the toilet, there was a pair of eyes looking up between my knees"), decries modern technology ("... I mean, if you landed on the moon and you were going to see new flowers, or a strange little worm. But it's dust! And anyway, I can barely work a mobile phone") and loses himself down long conversational tangents ("... I'm sorry, you asked a very sensible question and I went off"). But in most ways he's exceptional. He's Attenborough.

Whether you spend five minutes or an hour with him you're likely to learn some things.

Here are a few things you probably don't know about Attenborough. He never exercises. "I haven't done exercise in my life! Never." He's always wanted to see a giant squid, "... but sadly, no, I never have." He has a dinosaur named after him "Attenborosaurus. It's a pliosaurid from Dorset." He got into natural history aged 11 by sourcing newts from a local pond and selling them to a university zoology department. "Thruppence a newt."


Lately, Attenborough has been busy putting all his 90 years of wildlife experience into creating a sequel to his epic series, Planet Earth (which was first broadcast back in 2006). For 60-plus years he's tromped through jungles and spooned with mountain gorillas and attended salmon buffets with grizzly bears, while we've gasped in disbelief from our sofas and easy chairs. He admits his role in recent years has been scaled back. He doesn't attend many mountain gorilla love-ins these days.

"Whereas 20, 30 years ago I wrote the entire programme, edited it; now my responsibility is only to be a voice. Because I've been doing it so long my voice has become associated with a certain style of programme, and so they invite me back, and I am very grateful to them."

Sir David Attenborough in a hot air balloon over the Alps from the new TV series Planet Earth II.
Sir David Attenborough in a hot air balloon over the Alps from the new TV series Planet Earth II.

The new series has had critics raving about its eye-exploding visuals and emotional set-pieces. One segment in which foraging penguins attempt to return to their rocky island in stormy seas, backed by a musical score from legendary composer Hans Zimmer, manages to evoke the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan. Is there a danger these cinematic tools can end up anthropomorphising their animal subjects?

"Anthropomorphism is a word people like to play with," he says. "When anthropomorphism becomes unacceptable is when you attribute to animals emotions or passions which you cannot be sure they have. It's justified to say that if an elephant charges at you at 30 miles an hour with its ears out, it's angry. What isn't acceptable is to say that an elephant is in love."

Things like high-definition filming and drone photography have given natural history programme makers new scope. Looking back, though, Attenborough puts the success of shows like Planet Earth down to one technological development. "The big breakthrough came with the proliferation of big passenger aircraft. At that point it became possible to say, 'I want to do a series that starts in Australia, then goes to the middle of Africa, and ends up in Europe.' You couldn't do it before then."

Golden eagles are one of the few birds tough enough to survive the mountain winter. From the new TV series Planet Earth II.
Golden eagles are one of the few birds tough enough to survive the mountain winter. From the new TV series Planet Earth II.

Ironically, it's that same world-shrinking technology that has put the natural world at greater risk. Some critics have dared to commit the ultimate heresy by pointing out this irony, and the way shows like Planet Earth create a fantasy world for viewers: one in which the natural kingdom seems flourishing and vibrant. Not - as is sadly the case - spiralling into oblivion. Attenborough hopes that by shining a light on the natural world he can encourage viewers to become involved in its preservation.

"Thirty years ago I filmed mountain gorillas in Rwanda. They were on the verge of extinction, and the woman who looked after them made me promise to start raising money for them. And the way they did it was to bring tourists to see them. And in spite of the awful wars that have gone through Rwanda, there are now more mountain gorillas than there were."

But the global picture is far bleaker than that anecdote, and some fear shows like Planet Earth and its sequel might paradoxically be contributing to the problem by giving us ordinary viewers the impression that everything is fine. On the other hand, a show called Mass Earth Extinction II might not draw the same number of viewers. It's a tough balancing act, and you can tell Attenborough struggles with the futility of trying to make a genuine difference in a rapidly expanding human world.

The rare snow leopard features in the latest series.
The rare snow leopard features in the latest series.

"Any responsible citizen would do anything in their power to help the environment, and so I do what I can. But these issues are only going to get bigger as the population of our planet grows. So we might as well get used to it, and learn to live alongside animals, and allow them to flourish, just as they allow us to flourish."

What can't be argued with is that Attenborough and his team produce spectacular work and he has proved, time and again, that you don't necessarily need great white sharks or marauding polar bears to keep viewers hooked. You can create drama from the smallest of things: an albatross on a clifftop waiting for his mate; a penguin on a hellish commute home.

"Recently I met a tiny puffer fish who lives in a bay in Japan, and makes a pattern in the mud as big as this table, in the shape of a chrysanthemum. And it takes him four days of hard labour to make it perfect. A storm can come and destroy it. But eventually he completes it, and it's entirely to attract a female to lay her eggs there."

I have two new knees. But they're great, they gave me 20 more years.

When he relates something like this to you, you suddenly understand why he's been so wildly successful. Attenborough makes it feel like he's speaking directly to you, and the amazing thing he's about to show you is meant only for your eyes and ears. "You're constantly learning new things in this job, and learning new things about the animals you thought you knew."

Of course, every now and again it helps to throw in a great white, or a polar bear. "People always ask, 'Do you think you could outrun a polar bear if you had to?' I say, 'I don't have to outrun the polar bear; I just have to outrun the cameraman. He's got all the heavy gear.'"

You get the feeling, despite nine decades that he could still run if he needed to.

"I just have such a happy time doing this. I'm so unbelievably lucky. And of course a big part of it is I have my health. Plenty of people my age can't walk about. I have two new knees ... But they're great, they gave me 20 more years."

Planet Earth II, Prime, Sundays at 7.30pm