David Attenborough tells Andrew Marr why he supports the licence fee, but urges BBC Television to explore new things. Steve Clarke reports
It’s a rare that two thoroughgoing BBC men are seen smiling, let alone laughing, inside the precincts of the House of Commons. When senior BBC people visit Parliament, they are invariably greeted by sceptical MPs, keen to give them a rough time.
The atmosphere could not have been more different when, last month, the RTS invited Andrew Marr and Sir David Attenborough to hold a conversation at the Commons.
The two broadcasters were introduced by Damian Collins MP, recently elected chair of the Culture Media and Sport Committee. He is also the new Chair of the RTS All Party Parliamentary Group, which hosted the event.
The occasion was full of good humour. This was despite some trenchant criticism from each one about what they perceived to be some of the BBC’s present shortcomings.
Marr’s deceptively conversational style elicited some moments of surprising candour from the much interviewed broadcasting knight.
An animated Attenborough spoke passionately on the subjects he cares about: conservation, broadcasting and, inevitably, the BBC, for which he first worked a lifetime ago, in 1952.
They began their discussion by visiting the vexed topic of Brexit. What might Brexit mean for those involved in conservation, asked Marr.
Sir David suggested that there were pluses and minuses stemming from the UK’s planned departure from the EU.
The loss of EU farming subsidies “will affect our countryside very much”. However, enabling Britain to act independently on matters such as fishing policy was a positive.
“By and large, I would say there are a substantial number of people in the conservation movement who think, maybe, there is a chance to tailor-make our own legislation to fit our circumstances,” suggested Attenborough. He added: “If we are going to go out [of the EU], we must make the best of it.”
On the other hand, co-operation on a global scale had led to the ban on CFCs. As a result, the size of the hole in the ozone layer was getting smaller.
Similarly, the impact of global warming on climate change would only be ameliorated by collective action. “If we could harness the sun’s energy, we could solve all the problems of CO2 and global warming,” maintained Sir David. “We know the basic science to solve it. What is needed is a concerted attempt by all the research scientists of all the developed nations to work out a route map to show where the difficult points are.”
"Today, there is a tendency to do shorter series, until you get the ultimate absurdity when they announce: ‘Today, we present a new, two-part series."
Marr asked if Attenborough regarded the UK as being one of the leading voices for radical change in energy policy. “There is no party politics in this,” he replied. “There are no favoured nations. We are all in this together. Brexit is beside the point.”
Turning to TV, Marr took Attenborough back to 1965 and his appointment as the second controller of the fledgling channel BBC Two. What would he do if had the job in today’s digital world?
To audience laughter, the naturalist said: “I would resign immediately.”
While running BBC Two, he green-lit Monty Python’s Flying Circus, introduced snooker and commissioned the landmark documentary Civilisation.
His success was such that he was regarded as a director-general in waiting. But Attenborough, to our benefit, turned his back on corporate ambition and returned to making programmes.
But did we still need the BBC in today’s content-rich world, where all tastes are apparently catered for at the click of a mouse? “Oh, yes, there is no doubt about that,” insisted Attenborough. “As colleagues say, the BBC keeps us honest.… The BBC can set standards, of veracity, of responsibility.
“Taste is a very difficult thing… but the BBC has to be there and do things that others don’t tackle because they don’t think it’s worth it commercially for them.
“If you look back at popular programmes, you’ll see that the BBC pioneered them, again and again and again.”
Attenborough regretted that long-running documentaries dealing with serious subjects were absent from contemporary British broadcasting. He said: “Today, there is a tendency to do shorter series, until you get the ultimate absurdity when they announce: ‘Today, we present a new, two-part series.’”
Once the audience had stopped laughing, Marr noted that Attenborough had been responsible for several big series, such as Life on Earth and the previously mentioned Civilisation. Which one was closest to his heart?
“Civilisation has a very great place in my heart because it was the first of those 13-parters.”
Was it hard to persuade the then Director-General to spend all that time and money on the series? “He didn’t know,” replied the erstwhile BBC Two controller to more laughter. “How could he know? In those days, I had a programme allowance. If I chose to spend the funds in that way, it was entirely up to me.
“The 13-parter was something I decided to do because, as a child, I subscribed to something called The Outline of History by HG Wells. I used to wait at the letterbox for this thing to come through.… That market was not being dealt with at all by television and colour had recently been introduced.… It was a great relief that Civilisation worked.”
Marr agreed that the BBC needed to raise the bar and back more programmes of genuine ambition, such as the behemoth that was Civilisation. Both broadcasters said that they wanted to see more TV coverage of classical music on the BBC. “I fear that, if I am watching an obscure concert, it’ll be on Sky Arts,” Marr complained. “Because of the pressure [for the BBC] to outsource, there are no in-house arts or history documentary-making facilities left in England. This seems to me to be a terrible moment.”
Attenborough concurred: “Yes, and I would also say that there is nowhere within the BBC where what you might call house style is actually cherished, where house standards are cherished.
“You [gesturing to Marr] are in the BBC more than I am now, but where is somebody in authority who says, ‘Did you not realise that, when you did that, you actually cut in a question that was repeated by the person already in shot?’…
“Production standards are missing. I miss other standards, too.”
"We are also doing a lot of drama. Personally, as an ex-BBC Two channel controller, I think we are doing too much."
Marr said there were large numbers of people who thought the BBC licence fee was unsustainable. What did Sir David think?
“A lot of the people I talk to, and I hope I’m not too cliquish, but a lot of the people are delighted to pay for what they get from [the] radio networks and three or four television networks.
“They recognise that it’s the biggest possible bargain in Britain.”
So, finally, some good news for Tony Hall and his lieutenants, but Marr had not yet finished playing devil’s advocate.
Surely, the great success of BBC iPlayer had almost demolished the case for the BBC? The idea of channels was vanishing. People expected to watch shows on-demand. Channels were an anachronism.
Attenborough disagreed. He said: “That may be so in the long term, but one of the extraordinary things, when you look at the statistics, is that channel loyalty is extraordinarily deeply ingrained. You put a show on BBC Four, nobody watches it, but you put it on BBC Two or BBC One and it gets a big audience.”
Coincidentally, later that day more than 14 million viewers would watch the final of The Great British Bake Off broadcast by BBC One.
It was unclear if Attenborough was hoping to tune in but, as the dialogue continued between these two BBC heavyweights, he made it clear that he wanted to see fewer lifestyle shows and less drama on BBC TV (see box, left).
Returning to the subject of documentaries, Marr said that, in the more elitist days of the mid-1960s, it was possible to make solid value judgements in programmes such as Civilisation. Today, anyone proffering judgements of this nature was met by hostility.
“Yes, and, in my book, that is to be regretted,” said Attenborough. “A member of this House actually said: ‘I don’t wish experts to tell me what to do.’” This rebuke of Michael Gove was greeted by guffaws from the RTS audience.
Did Attenborough have any advice to offer the new BBC Chair? Reluctantly, he replied: “I don’t know a sentence or a paragraph to answer that.
“I am absolutely persuaded that the BBC is a place where sanity and good judgement and civilisation can be protected and exercised.”
Finally, out of the current crop of presenters, which of these did he think would eventually emerge as the next David Attenborough? “I am not sure there is a need for one, actually.”
Others might disagree.
BBC TV needs a new menu
David Attenborough: ‘I think, personally, that we are doing too many actuality shows. And, important though they are, there are other things – such as cooking and so on, and gardening, which are very good and certainly should be on the network – that we are doing rather too much of.
‘We are also doing a lot of drama. Personally, as an ex-BBC Two channel controller, I think we are doing too much. Not because there’s anything wrong with them in themselves – they are all absolutely excellent in their own way – but we are nudging out and we are not exploring enough new things and new subjects.’
Q Has the BBC’s coverage of climate change failed to reflect the balance of public opinion because it was so concerned about impartiality?
A Whatever it did, there would be somebody who thought it was either too early or too late. Myself, I thought they had it about right.… I had to decide how far I would go in saying climate change was responsible for this, that and the other.
I remember the moment when I could say positively that the world was warming due to humanity. It was when a US climate professor showed a whole series of graphs, demonstrating what there was in the upper atmosphere. He plotted that against population and the industrial revolution.…
The BBC has quite a good record on these sorts of things.… When you get these big things, it’s very difficult to get it right. I would say, by and large, the BBC gets it right.
Q What was the most mesmerising experience of your professional life?
A It was the first time I put on sub-aqua gear and dived on a coral reef. We all know that diving is itself an extraordinary experience. Simply being able to move in three dimensions is wonderfully liberating.
But to see 150 animals I’d never seen before, of the most amazing shapes and colours, all entirely unafraid of me, was the most transforming experience of my life.
Q Does it bother you that some politicians seem to have it in for the BBC? With your years of wisdom, do you have an explanation for this?
A In my experience, the opposition is always in favour of the BBC because the government has a big majority in the House and a lot of control over the media. The BBC was the one place where the opposition did have a say-so.
I was also there when there was a change in government. Suddenly, the opposition was now in power. Within six months, you could give them the same speeches [as the previous government].
Q Do you think it would ever be possible to return to having more BBC in-house productions? Several councils have discovered recently that it is better to have the services in-house, rather than outsourced.
A The first time I had to work on a BBC programme in a studio that wasn’t the BBC’s, I was rather childish about it. I thought, ‘Well, in my day, we didn’t allow this.’ But I’ve grown out of that. It was silly.
There is room in the marketplace for independent operators to provide specialist services that the BBC and other broadcasters can make use of.
Q What advice would you give to someone who wanted to be a natural history presenter?
A My advice would be not to stand between the camera and the animal too frequently (laughter and applause from the audience).… In the programmes I do, the animals tend to be the stars.
Q Can you name a favourite programme?
A Porridge. It is absolutely top of almost anything. It seems to me a drama, a comedy, a deep insight into human personalities, causes you to think, magnificently played, perfectly cast. I don’t know a better series on television.
Sir David Attenborough was in conversation with Andrew Marr at an RTS All-Party Parliamentary Group event held on 26 October at the House of Commons. The producer was Sue Robertson. At the event, Sir David was presented with a trophy in recognition of his role as a Vice-President of the RTS.