The uncommon silver-crested warbler is singing with full-throated ease. His plumage may be unexceptional but this is a rare old bird indeed, for the deep, melodious voice belongs to Sir David Attenborough, whose body is sprawled over a sofa in the insalubrious bowels of BBC Television Centre – far from the wild habitats that are his natural feeding ground.
He has a ridiculously unlined, soft-featured face. His clothes – a short-sleeved shirt, trousers and lace-up shoes with thick socks – seem a little carelessly, and therefore reassuringly, assembled. But such is his huge, infectious laugh and ever-present sense of mischief – I’ve never experienced such a giggly interview before – that in my mind’s eye our favourite knight could be a naughty schoolboy, wearing baggy shorts and old fashioned Start-rite sandals.
How can he look this good at his age, I ask. He must have led a disgracefully blameless life. “Yes, oh, you are so right! You have at last grasped my quiddity – you have found the essence of my well-brought-up self.” This joshing was apropos of me asking Attenborough about the layered meanings behind the opening lines of his latest awe-inspiring, seven-part series, Frozen Planet, which takes him to the North Pole for the first time, followed by the South Pole, for only the second time in his career.
He talks to camera about coming to the last true wilderness “to witness its wonders, perhaps for the last time”. When I say that we assume he is partly referring to the unlikelihood of returning to the Poles at his age, he is genuinely astonished. “Oh! That wasn’t supposed to be about me…no, it wasn’t anything to do with me. It was about humanity and, in a much more practical sense, this is a huge effort for the BBC. Four years, big sums of money. And are they ever going to do that again? And then, of course, there is the future of the poles themselves.”
Watching a preview of the first and last programmes, in preparation for meeting the great man, means you analyse the way they’re put together more carefully than if you were just experiencing the joy of letting them wash over you. The synchronised moves of killer whales rounding on a solitary seal, are as though choreographed by a murderous Busby Berkeley. “The stuff we cut out is awful”, Attenborough says. “We’re not in the business of making fairy stories but, equally, we’re not in the business of pornographic gore.”
Attenborough insists that it’s the pictures that will underline the gravity of the situation, that his words are merely complementary. Words, he says, can ruin a programme: “If I go back and look at stuff I did 15 or 20 years ago, almost invariably I think to myself that there are too many words. As a film-maker, I would regard the ideal programme as pictures without any commentary at all…in which you can explain everything with pictures. You can’t do it, of course. But as a director and producer – which is how I’ve spent most of my life – I have never, ever had a commentary and then said, ‘I will fit pictures to it.’ So you make the pictures first and then you carpenter the words. You fashion it in to make sure the verb hits the action.”
Now, if he’s lucky – as he is with Alastair Fothergill, executive producer of Frozen Planet – the director puts the film together and Attenborough may see a rough cut, before it’s edited down to a one-hour version. Only then will a script be written for him and he’ll spend several days working on it, “Shaving this, removing that…you know, ‘It’s a touch on the cliché, darling’.”
Is he hopeful or despairing about the future of the planet? “I’m on the pessimistic side. I don’t think there’s any question that things are going to get worse. I’m not suggesting that Homo sapiens will be exterminated by its own hand within the next 100 years, but I am suggesting that the conditions for the burgeoning human population on this planet will mean that conditions for individual human beings will get worse.”