Emily Maitlis: The extraordinary hour with David Attenborough that changed my life

Newsnight anchor Emily Maitlis has interviewed some of the most powerful and charismatic individuals of our age. Here, she recounts the time she met ninety-year-old David Attenborough, and the profound effect it had on her. 

Emily Maitlis
Emily Maitlis

Some interviews wind you up. Some test your mettle. Some reduce you to a gibbering wreck.

But some calm your soul. The hour or so I spent with the ninety-year-old David Attenborough was one of the most beatific of my life. An oddly religious term, I know, for a man who doesn’t have much truck with religion, but it was the serenity of that time that will stay with me most. He had just brought out Planet Earth II, a natural history series that would go on to win BAFTAs, and the first episode was airing in the very week that America would elect Donald Trump as president.

Looking back, it is not surprising that, against that background of agitation and divide, of white noise and dark undercurrents, I would find the company of a man who offered wisdom and quiet thoughtfulness so nourishing. We meet at the BBC’s Wogan House. I am chatting to his producers about the piece I am writing for the Radio Times. And I do not hear him come in.

Perhaps I should have guessed that a man who has spent a lifetime hiding stealthily in undergrowth should be able to enter a room without anyone seeing. But the first time I am aware that David Attenborough is behind me is when he observes: ‘It’s the small eyes – too close together – and the length of the nose. The rat is never going to make it.'

He has found me in the middle of a conversation about what makes some animals loveable to humans and some repellent. It is, of course, his home turf. Not just the understanding of the animals themselves, but of how we, the humans, respond to them.

He leads me off to a more private room to continue our chat, making his own coffee on the way. I confess to him I am still having dreams about a particularly vivid scene from his recent series Planet Earth II, where a newly hatched marine iguana has to escape a Medusa-like string of snakes as he runs to the sea to find food. It is my first reminder – spoiler alert – that not every animal in the series makes it out of there alive. And from Mr Attenborough it elicits a gentle rebuke to my way of thinking.

‘We are very, very strange,’ he tells me, ‘that we think every child has got to survive. There are very few creatures in the world like that.’ It will be a theme he develops later: passionate about population control and realistic in the part we should play in it.

He looks sixty, perhaps, not ninety. A head full of silver hair, a playful face that crinkles easily into laughter and his signature left wink. Maybe it’s the youthfulness of a man who can say he has spent a lifetime doing what he adores. Or maybe – my eyes wander to the stash of KitKats on the table before him – he is fuelling his old age with the right stuff. Either way, it appears to be working. He’s taken to the skies in a hot-air balloon for this series and seems shocked when I admit I have never done so.

‘One of the nice things about it is that suddenly you will hear much nicer things. You hear church bells, you hear clocks strike, you hear distant conversations . . . there’s nothing between you and a hundred and fifty feet of silence.’

There is poetry even in this thrown-away prose. If I shut my eyes, I can imagine his voice narrating the lift- off. I’m curious to know if he experiences what astronauts call the blue-spot effect: looking back on the planet with a whole different understanding of our place in it.

Not from there, he corrects, but he understands the phenomenon well from his travels. ‘You’ve got no business thinking Africa has got nothing to do with you. I mean, you could just see the whole thing and you realize that you’re finite, that you’re cheek by jowl with one another, all in the same boat.’

I wonder if this intrepid explorer ever thinks about another planet. Does all the talk of water on Jupiter or life on Mars rouse his curiosity even further?

His answer is refreshingly direct. ‘No . . . I know it’s not the right thing to say in many ways but, really, I think it’s irrelevant. We’re light years away – it would probably take a hundred and fifty years to get anywhere. I’m not going to spend the next hundred and fifty years hoping I’m going to land somewhere and living in a space suit.’

They are the words of a man who clearly hasn’t nearly finished with this planet yet.


He looks sixty, perhaps, not ninety. A head full of silver hair, a playful face that crinkles easily into laughter and his signature left wink. Maybe it’s the youthfulness of a man who can say he has spent a lifetime doing what he adores.

Planet Earth II revisits a series first made ten years earlier, but the camerawork is more breathtaking, the landscapes more extreme. They are films he makes with obvious joy but also a sense of ecological concern; the series ends with him reminding the viewer, ‘We can destroy or we can cherish – the choice is ours.’

He muses on this verbal ticking-off. ‘I would love not to say it at all. I would love to say, “Just look at that, this is your heritage, this is where you belong, isn’t it wonderful?” instead of saying, “You do realize that because of CFCs we are all doomed?” No, it’s horrid to say it, but it’s also an obligation.’

Does he worry, then, that the beauty is somehow too seductive? That it makes everything seem fine? Why, I ask, in this day and age, doesn’t he show the reality of fish eating plastic bags?

‘Er, I do,’ he jumps in. ‘I’ve just finished a film on them. An albatross chick waiting five weeks for its parents to come back with food, and when the baby opens up its mouth and the mother regurgitates the contents every single thing that comes out is plastic. Everything. Everything.’

This time round, the series includes an episode on cities and the wildlife that inhabits them. Should it worry us that we are building on places we don’t belong?

‘No, well, it shouldn’t, because we are going to be on their turf and there’s nothing you or I or anybody else can do about it. Population growth is terrifying. It’s no good saying you shouldn’t be there. What are all these people going to do? It wasn’t their fault they were born.’ I remind him China has just ended its one-child policy and want to know what he advocates. He is against ‘interfering with the basic human right which is having children’ but says population growth is the most fundamental of the world’s problems.

‘Why is there urban violence? Why are there these problems with immigration? Why are we running short of food and polluting? Every single one of those comes down to . . . because there are more people.’

We now, I suggest, have a man in charge of America who believes climate change is a Chinese hoax. I am reminding him of a quote by Donald Trump. Attenborough’s head is in his hands but the response is curiously phlegmatic. Or perhaps pragmatic.

‘Well, we lived through that with earlier presidents – they’ve been equally guilty. Lyndon B. Johnson didn’t take an enlightened view on the environment.’

That was quite a long time ago, I point out.

‘It was, yes, and the world wasn’t as badly overpopulated as it is now. No, I would avoid living through it . . . but do we have any control or influence over the American elections? Of course we don’t. Or’ – sotto voce – ‘we could shoot him . . . ? It’s not a bad idea . . .’ He catches my eye and giggles.

It is clearly a joke. Nevertheless, the line will elicit the wrath of Trump fans when it comes out. Some will even make death threats against Attenborough. Of all the unintended consequences of my work, this one would be the hardest to explain to an adoring nation. 



Talk of Trump takes him on to populism. ‘There’s confusion, isn’t there,’ he tells me, ‘between populism and parliamentary democracy? I mean, that’s why we’re in the mess we are with Brexit, is it not?’

Talk of Trump takes him on to populism. ‘There’s confusion, isn’t there,’ he tells me, ‘between populism and parliamentary democracy? I mean, that’s why we’re in the mess we are with Brexit, is it not?’ He cites ex‑​Chancellor of the Exchequer Ken Clarke, who poses the thought that if people had to ask the state to fund a national gallery or a funfair, they’d say a funfair. ‘Do we really want to live by this kind of referendum? What we mean by parliamentary democracy is surely that we find someone we respect who we think is probably wiser than we are, who is prepared to take the responsibility of pondering difficult things on our behalf.’

That depends, I suggest, on us believing our politicians are wiser. 

He agrees. ‘That’s why people getting up and saying, “We’ve had enough of experts,” is so catastrophic.’ He’s quoting Michael Gove from the Brexit campaign, but he moves seamlessly from politics to anthropology: ‘I can see the arguments. I mean, I’ve said for years I don’t think any human society is prepared to make decisions which they may not like if they’re made by people who don’t speak the same language.’ It’s funny to hear Brexit portrayed as a sort of survival call from an endangered species. I should have guessed. 

Attenborough is not scared to call it  xenophobia. But he recognizes it as truly primordial fear.

‘It’s very easy, as we all know, to be very tolerant of minorities until they become majorities and you find yourself a minority. It’s easy to say’ – he dips into an imitation of middle-class liberalism – ‘ “Oh yes, these lovely people – I love the way they wear such interesting costumes.” You know’ – giggle – ‘that’s fine until some day you find that they’re actually telling you what to do and that they’ve actually taken over the town council and what you thought was your home was not. I’m not supporting it; I’m saying it’s what it is.’ 

He is passionate about using scientific evidence to explain climate change, and says he refuses to be drawn by people who ask him to ‘prove it’ using things he’s seen first hand. ‘I know if I say I’ve seen a glacier in South Georgia – I was there ten years ago – and it’s shrunk, they will say, “Well, I know a place in Greenland where in fact the glacier is bigger . . .” You don’t want to be lured into the question of specifics because you will lose. You have to go to science.’

I have heard somewhere an argument that if the Industrial Revolution – economic development – had started in Africa rather than Europe, then sun and wave technology would now be at the forefront, not the old fossil fuels. Does he agree? His answer knocks me sideways. 

‘Yes, yes, absolutely. But a little voice inside says to me, “Why are you going on about this?” Because it could actually happen. And then will humanity have the sense to deal with unlimited cheap power? What are they going to do? Are they going to say, “WHOOPEEEE, WE CAN NOW LEVEL MOUNTAINS! WE CAN EXTERMINATE FORESTS!” I mean, it’s Prometheus stuff. Once you get infinite power, there are consequences. How are you going to use it?’ 

I am open-mouthed at the way he’s taken a tangible commodity (electric power) and made it the stuff of Greek hubris so I actually have to think about it properly for the first time.

He sees my confusion and continues to explain, mimicking the voice of a greedy estate agent: ‘Yes, why don’t we melt the Antarctic, you know there must be stuff under there, under the glacier where you could build houses.’

‘So,’ I attempt, ‘running out of power may not be such a bad thing?’ 

‘No,’ he says. It falls quietly between us. Silence.

I suddenly realize why David Attenborough is the giant he is. It is not just his geographic curiosity, not just his anthropological understanding, not just his gift for narration that simultaneously calms the soul and inspires the mind. It is that behind it all there is such a deep thinker. A man who, in his own words, doesn’t aspire to ‘the philosophy of Buddhist nirvana’ but who recognizes the finite nature of the individual and the remarkably small part we play in something much, much larger. 

It is hard, though, to reconcile this adventurer with a man who spent eight years behind a desk, as it were, in BBC management, as Controller of BBC Two. I’m surprised it didn’t kill him. But he insists for a programme-maker it was ‘the most fantastic job you can imagine.

When I joined there was this absurd mystique that somehow there’s magic about making programmes and only the BBC knew how . . . as if we gave it to the nation.’ He laughs at the pomposity. 

Well, I say, perhaps that isn’t completely over. Look at Bake Off. That was ‘gifted to the nation’. Was the BBC right not to renew the deal? ‘Oh, absolutely right! To say, if you want another million – go ahead. We’ve got plenty more ideas where that came from.’

What about that other figure we ‘gifted to the nation’. Was the BBC wrong to fire Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson? I ponder. 

‘Well, yes, I regret letting Clarkson go because it’s very good to have a voice that’s anti-establishment or so profoundly anti-establishment.’

Even though he doesn’t mind running over mice? 

He shrugs. And I’m reminded of how we started: the rat with the too-close-together eyes and the pointy nose that no one really likes . . . I have to explain I’m not talking about Clarkson.

There is a knock on the door, and his salvation comes in the form of someone offering to shoo me away. So I throw out one last thought. What, in his ninety-first year, are the things that bring him joy? 

‘People,’ he says simply. And his eye flashes down to the one stick of KitKat that remains uneaten on the desk in front of him. ‘Oh, and chocolate. It goes without question.’ 

And I leave feeling, somehow, as though I have been up in that hot-air balloon. Uplifted, and calmer. Life feels a bit richer, a bit bigger, a bit more exotic for having had one extraordinary hour to myself with David Attenborough.


This is an extract from Airhead by Emily Maitlis.


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