What would your superpower be?
To fly. It would be wonderful, wouldn’t it? Not gliding, mind, I want powered flight, please. I don’t just want to float around when the wind is right. I want to be able to just stretch my wings and take off.
The nearest you can get to flying is underwater swimming. Scuba diving. The ability to move in three dimensions is what you experience when you are scuba diving. But to do that up in the sky… to be able to take off and fly and have a quick look at the Cotswolds, would be fantastic.
Have you had any mishaps or shoots that went awry?
Well, they don’t happen so often now, in the electronic age. But they did. Though never with BBC cameramen. All of the cameramen I have worked with have got a sixth sense. You might say that one of the great attractions of electronic filming is that you can see whether you’ve got it and what you haven’t. But with these cameramen, whenever something happens, like a bird has pounced or something has dived, and you ask them “Did you get it? Did you get it?”, if they say “Yes”, they always have. They are never wrong. They have something strange about their abilities to see.
What did happen, it was in Paraguay I think, was that in those old days of film not only you couldn’t see it but you couldn’t see it for maybe six weeks or eight weeks. You’d be out in the bush and you would send the stuff home and hope that you might get a lab report, but there wasn’t anywhere that you could get a lab report for maybe a month.
I remember after filming for at least half of our trip, so that would be for maybe six or seven weeks or so, we sent some stuff home and a week afterwards got a telegram to say “Regret to say that your 250mm lens has got a hot spot. The middle of every shot on that lens was unusable, was blank. And so it was unusable. And that was the lens that we used for close-ups. So it meant we had all the stories but no close-ups.
Is there something you keep in your overnight bag?
I don’t go away without my front door key.
What’s your worst experience of the natural world?
I can remember being stranded… on Roraima in Venezuela. We were filming on the top and we did the sensible thing which was to go up by helicopter instead of carrying all this stuff. It was for The Private Life of Plants. It sounds sensible to go up by helicopter, but actually this [place] attracts weather, it attracts clouds. You have to wait for quite a bit before you get up, and then when you do go, you think, “Hang on! We haven’t thought about coming down yet!”
And we had a very flamboyant helicopter pilot who spoke Spanish and we didn’t speak much Spanish. He was very excited and shouting and waving his arms around. He just grabbed stuff and [started loading the helicopter, without much discussion]. He dumped the first load [on the plateau] and then [dropped off] the second in a different part of the plateau. It was separated by chasms and took us a hell of a long time to get all of the kit together in one place.
And then when we got together we found we only had one tent, and there were about eight of us. And it starred to rain quite heavily. There was bare rock with water sluicing across it, and we all just sat in the tent on top of one another. At least we got the sequence. But the question is: Did they use it? And the answer is no!
There was a particular endemic plant up there, and the programme was about how isolation produced new species.
But I remember that night very well – the torrential rain and that tiny two-men tent with all of us in it.
What extinct creature would you most like to meet?
Quetzalcoatlus. It was a pterosaur, a contemporary of the dinosaurs but with wings the size of an aeroplane. We make programmes about it, but the truth is we still don’t really know how it took off.
I personally think it was a scavenger. It had a very curious neck where the vertebrae locked and became like a long rigid pole, with its long jaws at the end of it. And I think that was in order to get inside a Brontosaurus.
If you look at vultures now, with their long, bare-headed necks, which they push into carcasses to pull out the guts… well if you are going to pull the guts out of a titanosaur you have to be pretty damn big. So that’s what I think the long neck was for.
What book would you most like to have?
Printed? I’d pick Hortus Sanitatis from the 15th century. I wouldn’t mind one of those. It was the first natural history. At that time, people’s interest in the natural world was mostly what use it was to keep you healthy. So Hortus Sanitatis means ‘The healthy garden’ or ‘health garden’.
What keeps you up at night?
Sitting up and reading, that’s what keeps me up.
What would you most like that you’ve not got?
I wish I had hedgehogs living in my garden… They’re lovely things, hedgehogs.
I used to keep one… a three-legged creature from a rescue centre. We were filming hedgehogs, and this one, the poor old thing, was given me to me and I kept it in the back garden and fed it.
What is your favourite object?
It sits on my desk, a tiny little thing. It’s a crustacean and comes from one of these deep-sea vents… would you like me to get it? [Goes upstairs in lift to his office. Encased in glass, like a miniature paperweight; labelled Kira tyleri]
There you are. From a hydrothermal vent off South Georgia, from the bottom of the very deep ocean. It’s wonderful, see? It’s immature. Nobody could have survived alongside this creature, no human being, except in a deep-sea capsule. An extremophile.
Do you watch your own programmes when they go out?
Not really. By the time they go out, if you’ve not already watched them 50 times then you’ve not done your job properly. I watch other people’s natural history programmes. You’ve got to watch them… What the other people are doing is the interesting thing.