“The most moving times, as far as I am concerned, are when the natural world is unaware of your presence. A swamp in northern Australia, for example. I can remember very well sitting in a hide in the darkness, waiting for the sun to come up. You can hear that there’s a big community of water birds — and the sun comes up and you see egrets and there are crocodiles and you see a whole complex ecosystem just throbbing with life and beauty. You watch it for a bit, and you do something silly and alarm them, then the whole lot disappears. But you have that moment of revelation.”
He is still making documentaries, writing books and presenting BBC Radio 4’s Tweet of the Day (about birdsong, not Twitter). He still wears his trademark blue shirt and khaki chinos on screen, though he has shifted to satellite and streaming, making films for Sky and Netflix as well as the BBC — and drawing in bigger audiences than ever.
These days he’s less often in a hide or behind the camera; more often in a recording studio providing the voiceover. He stresses that it’s film crews who spend months capturing footage — and they, not he, should take the credit. “People think I’ve shot the film and I get the credit. People say, what was it like when you got really close up with those narwhals, you know, underwater? I say, I wasn’t there, and they say, what? I say, no [raising his voice for emphasis], I wasn’t there!”
Money has never been his motivator, though he earned more than £1m in 2017-18 from David Attenborough Productions, his private company. He still lives in the same Victorian townhouse he shared with his wife. He was renowned for travelling economy class and never taking upgrades unless the whole crew was upgraded, until he reached 75, when the BBC insisted he travelled business class.
Despite his fame, he remains engagingly modest. For years the joke in the Attenborough family was that he only got a knighthood because a palace official confused him with his older brother, Richard, the actor and director. And he’s a paragon of honesty. He has never done an advert, he says, because “my job is telling the truth, and if I say margarine is butter, people will think, ‘He’ll say anything.’”