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An interview with Sir David Attenborough

1 Aug, 2012

There are two things I clearly remember from my youth. The first is a book about animals I received as a gift from a wonderful, arty aunt. The second is being agog at The Living Planet. It’s almost impossible to find a single British person who hasn’t spent hours cooing over the velvet voice and miraculous imagery associated with Sir David Attenborough‘s television programmes. I, like many, have grown up learning about the natural world through his peerless combination of effortless, impassioned delivery and increasingly stunning images of the planet and life within.

So when Sir David kindly agreed to discuss one of the Wellcome Trust’s major research challenges, connecting environment, nutrition and health, on camera, in his own home, I could hardly believe my luck.

One does not simply walk into Sir David’s house. When I first thought of interviewing him, I didn’t tell many people for fear of being labeled delusional. And contacting a knight of the realm is no simple task – there is no email or phone number, simply a postal address to which you must write. And so I did, short, succinct: would he mind giving a short interview to the Wellcome Trust, just four questions, a one man crew. Into the Royal Mail it went, along with any real hope there would be a response.

Six weeks later a handwritten letter arrived. Even as I read his own words, the neural pathways required for processing language teetered towards overloading with each new word: “I’d be delighted to be interviewed. Call this number and we can arrange a time”. No. Way. Like a giggling child I found a quiet spot to telephone, still finding the reality utterly surreal, until I heard that voice, “Hello?”.

Over the following weeks I worked with my colleagues around the Trust to carefully devise those precious questions. The words were like diamonds, I didn’t want to waste a syllable.

On 10 January 2012 at precisely 9:55 am, I knocked on Sir David’s front door. It was answered by his daughter Susan, alive with smiles. We walked through the house into a relatively new feature of their home, a library, the result of having acquired an old, neighbouring pub and intelligently reengineering it to their needs.

As Susan was offering to make coffee, I heard a cough and noticed her look behind me – not directly behind but diagonally up, towards the ceiling. I doubt it was his intention but Sir David could not have made a more impressive entrance had it been directed for the stage: There he was, slowly descending to the ground in a glass elevator. I was a ten year old again, holding a Golden Ticket.

Was Sir David as warm and friendly as he seems on television? Even more so, as you’ll see from the video. The great man was charming to a fault, gently guiding the conversation as we indulged in a little pre-interview chat about safaris in Africa, the pointlessness of driving in cities or the simple fulfillment one feels watching one’s family succeed.

After answering all of the official questions, I chanced a rogue diamond, an unplanned opportunity to ask what he thought about the Wellcome Trust. Suffice to say, if Sir David could have met Sir Henry Wellcome, I’m certain they’d have had a long, productive chat.

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