David Attenborough on Life in Cold Blood: Exclusive interview

Sir David Attenborough talks to Fergus Collins about Life in Cold Blood, wildlife film-making and the joys of slow worms. 

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David Attenborough on Life in Cold Blood spread

Sir David Attenborough talks to Fergus Collins about Life in Cold Blood, wildlife film-making and the joys of slow worms. 

I’d been preparing for this interview for days – honing my questions. Then, for some reason, the first thing I tell Sir David is that I used to keep slow worms. “Did you?” he replies, eyes wide. “Aren’t they wonderful? Those burnished scales…” 

And suddenly we’re discussing the finer points of Britain’s only legless lizard. What comes across most is his passion for wildlife – a genuine delight in both the magic and the science. 

But would reptiles and amphibians be a challenge to make a series about? Are they not too characterless, too scaly, too – well – cold-blooded for most people?

“For the past 30 years, I’ve been filming all the great animal groups, and amphibians and reptiles were the big gap. Once I’ve done them, I’ll have the complete story. Of course, it’s no good pretending that they’re the most popular animals. But they’re attractive precisely because they’ve been badly neglected. We can show new things. That makes them appealing to a film-maker – and to the audience.”

Negative publicity

Sir David uses snakes as an example. “They’ve had a bad press since the Book of Genesis. There is something about snakes. They are so different from almost everything else. That, coupled with the fact that some of them are lethal, puts odd things into people’s minds.”

He goes on to explain how snakes evolved. It’s a story I havn’t heard before and I’m riveted. This is his talent – getting his audience to understand and then cherish animals. Even the unpopular ones.

“Successful natural history tv depends on a number of things, one of which is spectacle. And, OK, let’s exploit that – Planet Earth was a great spectacle – but let’s also exploit understanding. It’s more difficult, but actually more long-lasting. More profoundly interesting.”

Welcoming climates

Sir David has made many “profoundly interesting” series, and I wondered what he found new about this one.

“Well, the great thing about reptiles and amphibians is that they live in warm places. None of this flogging across the Arctic,” he laughs. “And a big difference with this series was that we could get very close to these creatures.”

In the opening programme, Sir David handles a number of the animal stars. He also tells me about his close encounters with male tortoises, who battle to topple each other. For the loser, it’s a race against time to get back on its feet in the heat. “You think, poor thing. If it doesn’t right itself soon, it’ll cook.”

So is he ever tempted to interfere?

“You’d have to be totally lacking in feeling not to want to. But you nearly always make a mess of it. I remember filming spawning horseshoe crabs [for Life in the Undergrowth]. We were waiting for them to come up onto the beach. As they emerged from the sea, one was turned on its back by a wave. It lay there waggling its legs like a clockwork toy, and a gull flew down and started pecking its underside.

Our PA, who was a sweet girl, said, ‘Oh, poor thing,’ and turned it back over. As she did, another was flipped over and she righted it. Within five minutes there were 10,000 crabs on the beach, of which 1,000 were upside down. So you can’t do anything!”

Stock still

Sir David also tells me the story of the bungarra monitor lizard, which, in one sequence, stands rigidly beside him like a sentry. The problem here was that he did want to interfere.

“I did the whole piece to camera without it moving at all. I’m sure the viewers are going to say, ‘Oh come on. It’s stuffed.’ So I asked the producer, ‘Can’t you use a take where it sticks its tongue out or blinks – just to show it’s alive?’ But it is a live, wild animal!”

It seems a good opportunity to ask how he feels about the use of set-up shots or captive animals in natural history films. “I gave a lecture about this 10 or 15 years ago called Unnatural History. I said that if you want to tell the truth about the natural world, you have to arrange things.

If you’re filming behaviour underground, for example, you’ve got to get a camera down there, which may mean building a set. So are you supposed to stop and say to the audience, ‘Well, we dug a hole here and put the camera there’? No. It’s nonsense. And, as every film-maker knows, you don’t necessarily put things in the same order you filmed them because you need to tell the story properly. The important thing is the spirit in which you are making the film. Am I telling the truth or am I trying to deceive?”

Looking ahead

Life in Cold Blood is certainly impressive and includes lots of behaviour never witnessed before, let alone caught on camera. But will such series be made in the future?

Sir David looks grave. “I don’t think we can take that for granted. These things take money and dedication. In the past, the BBC has been one of the few organisations prepared to invest those things. It’s one of its defining characteristics. It will weaken the case for the continuation of the licence fee if the BBC abandons that.”

Let’s hope it doesn’t. Fortunately, Sir David has plenty of future plans. “Darwin is next. 2009 is the bicentennial of his birth and 150 years since the publication of On the Origin of Species. Everyone will go Darwin-mad, I trust. I’m still thinking about what I might do to mark it.”

I point out that he’s yet to make Life in Fresh Water and we have a diverting chat about breeding sticklebacks as kids. Again, his warmth and passion for the subject shine through.

“Keeping sticklebacks or frogs – it’s how we all get interested in the first place. When people ask me, ‘How did you get interested in animals?’ I reply, ‘How on Earth did you lose your interest in them?’ Every child is interested in animals.”

Children miss out

Are modern children losing this connection because they’re not allowed to go out by themselves and collect things from the wild?

“Absolutely. I’m really troubled by it. Of course you need some controls, but I collected butterflies – how else was I to know the differences between them? Collecting things is the very basis of taxonomy, and taxonomy is the very basis of zoology. You don’t know what you’re talking about unless you can identify things.

“And cities have expanded. I grew up in Leicester, but – at the age of 14-15 say – I would cycle out of the city and go off by myself for a few weeks collecting fossils. But now the wild world is so remote to so many children that they miss out – an interest in the natural world doesn’t develop as it should. Nobody is going to protect the natural world unless they understand it. I do think tv can help people to keep in touch with it.”

Sir David is keen to talk about the giant slow worms of central Europe – and soon I’m equally keen to run a feature on them. But alas, my hour is up. We say goodbye, he shakes my hand warmly and I leave feeling nine feet tall.

 

LIFE IN COLD BLOOD: ATTENBOROUGH’S FAVOURITE MOMENTS

Sir David picks some of his most memorable species and stories from the new series.

 

© BBC Wildlife Magazine/Ben Dilley/Adam White/Gavin Thurston/Justin Maguire & Cluny South/Andy Shillabeer/Justin Maguire & Cluny South

 

Angular tortoises, Southern Africa Males have long spurs on their shells, used as weapons. When two rivals engage in battle, each tries to lodge his spur under the other’s shell and flip him over. When a tortoise is toppled, the victor nibbles his legs to prevent him from righting himself. The action was captured using tiny cameras stuck to the tortoises’ shells.

 

Pectacled caimans, Venezuela When certain swamps dry out in summer, local female caimans deposit their young in the last remaining pool and head for the rivers, leaving a single female behind to guard up to 100 growing babies. When this last pool disappears, she calls and the youngsters follow her on a great trek across land to find new water.

 

Saltwater crocodiles, Australia The crocodiles assemble beneath a weir to catch migrating mullet heading downstream. They arrive at high tide from up to 50km away, demonstrating their extraordinary memory, sense of timing and ability to navigate. Most impressively, they are able to catch the fish in complete darkness. 

 

Cape dwarf chameleons, South Africa Chameleons give birth to live young, which is a bit of a problem if you live in trees – without help, the newborns would simply crash to the ground. Happily, the youngsters emerge with adhesives attached to their bodies – as if wrapped in sticky scarves. Instead of falling to the ground, they catch on the twigs.

 

MT Lyell salamander, California We can only guess that amphibians emerged on land because there was so much food there. But when you look at newts and salamanders, their muscles aren’t geared to be agile. This species – atypically for a salamander – uses its bizarrely long tongue to catch prey. It’s something few herpetologists have seen before. 

 

Armadillo lizard, South Africa It resembles a medieval wyvern – a beast eating its own tail. This reptile curls up as a form of defence, making itself appear highly unappetising to raptors. It’s covered in spines, so there’s no place a bird can get a grip without stabbing itself. The lizard can stay in this position for a minute or two until the coast is clear.

 

See Life in Cold Blood clips and find out more about the programme. 

 

Go back to the Attenborough home page.

 

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