David Attenborough: He Is a "Boring Left-Wing Liiberal" Who Despairs of Standards at the BBC and Dares Tease Peter Mandelson

By Riddell, Mary | New Statesman (1996), December 18, 1998 | Go to article overview

David Attenborough: He Is a "Boring Left-Wing Liiberal" Who Despairs of Standards at the BBC and Dares Tease Peter Mandelson


Riddell, Mary, New Statesman (1996)


Obliging soul that he is, David Attenborough suggested that he come to the NS office for this interview. He arrives brandishing his pensioner's rail pass and extolling the virtues of Ken Livingstone, first architect of subsidised travel for the capital's elderly. "Does Ken get my vote for mayor? Oh yes, absolutely. These cards are the only thing it's worthwhile being over 65 for. They cost a lot of money, you know." The curious aspect of Attenborough's bargain odyssey from the Surrey fringes to London Victoria is its contrast with the itinerary for the making of his most recent television series, The Life of Birds.

His journey was 256,000 miles, the equivalent of a trip to the moon or ten laps of the world. Its starting point was the office of the then head of the BBC's Natural History Unit, where Attenborough initially, and modestly, tried to scotch the top man's enthusiasm for an ornithological marathon. "I told him: 'I don't know anything about birds. I do know the difference between a thrush and a blackbird, but I'm not one of your Bill Oddie fanatics.' "Such quibbles overruled, Attenborough embarked on his ten-part series. Naturally it was a great success. Inevitably the accompanying tome - winner of the 1998 Natural History Book Award will stuff thousands of Christmas stockings.

"Award?" says Attenborough, vaguely. "Oh, that book." A great self-deprecator, he is loath to flaunt the merits of his own work, beyond acknowledging its value to a ravaged BBC. Several years ago, as president of the British Society for the Advancement of Science, he warned that the government's proposed broadcasting reforms would mean doom for the corporation. Does he now believe that John Birt has presided over a disaster? "It's easy and sort of fashionable for someone like me to say that. There is no question but that Birtism... has had some terrible results. On the other hand, the BBC had to change. Now it has to produce programmes no one else can do. Otherwise, forget the licence fee."

Attenborough, now 72, became controller of BBG2 (and later director of programming for the corporation) in the mid-1960s. Driven by Reithian high-mindedness laced with populist guile, he was offered a tabula rasa. "I asked what the policy should be, and they said: 'That's up to you, dear boy. You tell us.' "Attenborough introduced classic serials-Stendhal, Henry James-along with one-day cricket, Pot Black, floodlit rugby league and Match of the Day - a package designed as sport for the masses and now reinvented as fodder for Murdoch.

"Well, of course, that is misery really - the market economy. I think commercialisation has mined rugby football, but who am I to tell Will Carling that he shouldn't be paid and that it was better in the old days, when the game was played by people with beer bellies and no teeth? It's just the way of the world."

Surely, in Murdoch's case, it is the way of Thatcher and now Blair, who have not been eager to rein him in? "That's right. And the changes at the BBC are all market forces and marketing. Gets up my nose a bit," he grumbles. "I do have a frisson of despair at the standards, except I know I was there at a golden time." Now, at the start of the digital era, he foresees a post-television age in which anything of interest will find another medium. "Maybe it'll be the Internet or CD-Rom. Technologically, we are in a state of flux that has corroded and dissolved the old things. But they will crystallise somewhere else."

Attenborough got out of management long ago, relinquishing the painful process of natural selection within broadcasting for a more conventional study of Darwinism. His first natural history series, Life on Earth - made more than two decades ago - is about to be reshown on a cable station. As he suggests, lions are not faddish. "They do what they do. If you film it well, it will last."

By contrast, Attenborough, once a director-general-in-waiting, is deemed to have changed enormously. …

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