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TV

Sir David Attenborough the legend: how he's still producing groundbreaking TV series at age 92

'Sir David continues to not only chart the wonders of nature, but also cast a critical eye on what humankind is doing to it.'

By Des Sampson
At the age of 92, you might think that Sir David Attenborough would be looking forward to slowing down, putting his feet up, having a cuppa and watching some telly, rather than making another landmark show.
But of course, the naturalist and nonagenarian has nothing of the sort in mind. Instead, far from resting on his laurels, he's busier than ever, with two new series out this year, including his most ambitious yet, Dynasties, with each episode taking up to two and a half years to film.
"It was a huge undertaking and a huge investment," he acknowledges. "I can't think of any programme that I've done in which it's just one particular family of animals that have been observed, continuously, for two and a half years.
"Quite frankly, I can't imagine how the idea was ever sold to the BBC, because you might film for all that time and have nothing to show for it! If you tried to pitch it to me, I'd think you were crazy," he laughs.
"We filmed families of lions, chimpanzees and tigers, but my favourite has to be the Emperor penguins of Antarctica," he reveals, with boyish enthusiasm. "It's a beautiful part of the world − perhaps the one part of the world which is still largely untouched by humans.
"I would have loved to have been there and experienced it first-hand, like our film crews did, but I'm afraid nine months in freezing temperatures is just a bit too extreme for me now."
Sir David meets the locals at the Taronga Zoo in 2003
Part of the reason for Sir David's continued and unbridled passion and indomitable drive is, he reveals, the fact that a few years back he had both his knees operated on as they were beginning to make walking and moving painfully difficult.
"Yes, I had knee replacement [surgery] and it's given me a whole new lease of life," he says, smiling. "Now they work very well, thank you. It's certainly kept me [more] mobile."
However, despite the new-found spring in his step, Sir David admits that because Dynasties was such a long and arduous shoot, he couldn't stay out in the field as much as he would have liked to.
"Yes, sadly, I'm more in the studio these days rather than filming on location. I do miss it," he admits. "I did go to Zimbabwe, though, to the Mana Pools National Park, for the episode where we filmed [the Painted Dogs] and that was wonderful. I'm just sorry I wasn't there even more."
Now that field work is largely out of the picture, Sir David's full focus is on narrating tales of the unexpected that are encountered while filming some of the world's most magnificent animals.
"When they give me a script, I'll work on it and if I think I can amplify something or put in words that make it easier to read and convey the message, then that's what I'll do," he says.
In fact, Sir David confesses to being a "bit of a perfectionist" when scripting a documentary, because he wants the message that accompanies the ground-breaking footage to enhance, not detract, what's been captured on camera.
"Yes, that's true. I can be like that," he nods. "I'm working on something else right now and I've just spent eight days trying to get it right. It's because I'm very interested in the process of putting words with pictures. I think it's not a very celebrated skill, but it should be because it takes time to learn and perfect."
He doesn't do much field work anymore, but Sir David did visit Zimbabwe to film a Dynasties episode about Painted Dogs.
It's that dedication, expertise and enthusiasm that has made Sir David such a respected icon, this status proven even more by the fact he was recently a guest of honour at Davos, the World Economic Forum, where world leaders meet to discuss trade, business and – in Sir David's case – climate change.
He was interviewed by Prince William while there, to explain the perilous state of the planet because of climate change.
"The enormity of the problem has only just dawned on quite a lot of people. Unless we sort ourselves out in the next decade or so, we are dooming our children and our grandchildren to an appalling future," he said.
Similarly, Sir David's equally passionate about tackling the ever-growing mountain of plastics polluting the world's oceans, which he touched on in Blue Planet 2.
"We're not doing nearly enough to tackle the problem of plastic because the problem is gigantic," he asserts. "There are millions of tonnes of it floating around the ocean and how we're going to get rid of it I don't know. Everybody can do their bit, but to solve the problem the entire world is going to have to do something collectively.
"I actually think we're going to have to think of a major technical breakthrough in how we're going to destroy it, without producing toxic fuels," he adds earnestly.
Sir David introducing Prince Charles and Princess Anne to Cocky the cockatoo, in 1958
Additionally, with his latest series Dynasties, Sir David is at pains to point out just how much an impact humans are having on once pristine natural habitats, through deforestation, cultivation and urbanisation. It has, he insists, pushed animals to the brink of extinction.
"This series covers every habitat, from the South Pole to West Africa, and the common factor − the common worry − is space, or the lack of it for these animals because of the encroachment of human populations," he explains.
"But how do you solve this?" he asks, rhetorically. "Hopefully by raising people's passion, people's belief and people's desire to recognise that animals also have the right to some sort of space. This programme, I hope, captures that feeling and conveys that message."
It does, and it's just another example of how Sir David continues to not only chart the wonders of nature, but also cast a critical eye on what humankind is doing to it. It's why, he says, he'll continue to make thought-provoking documentaries and not retire while there's "still breath in my body".
"I'm definitely not finished yet," he concludes, smiling. "There are still an infinite number of stories I want to tell and species I want to highlight, all with their own triumphs, their own problems and their own excitements. So much to see, so much to do, but I'd happily do it all over again."
You know that if Sir David could, he would...

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