On Monday a select audience was lucky enough attend a screening of the first episode of the new series of David Attenborough’s Natural Curiosities and afterwards enjoy a Q&A with the great man in London Zoo’s Komodo Dragon House.
The new show looks at some of the most fascinating and extraordinary feats in the natural world – a cheetah’s awesome speed, a salamander’s ability to regrow missing limbs and the amazing intelligence of an orang-utan. Each episode links two animals and shows the ways that vastly different species have evolved similar strategies for success.
In the first episode, Sir David explores two oft-quoted facts – that a flea can jump the equivalent of a human leaping over St Paul’s cathedral, and that a cheetah can run at 70mph.
It’s quite a low-budget affair, but that’s not necessarily a negative. Much of the episode is given over simply to Sir David talking straight to camera in various British institutions. At first one expects it to switch to some exciting footage of wild cheetahs in action or more exotic locales, but quickly the feeling fades. It’s a reminder of why Attenborough has passed into living legend status: he’s such an engaging and invested presenter that little else is needed. There’s a rather charmingly naff animation of a flea jumping over St Paul’s Cathedral – which we’re treated to twice – which presumably means that they blew most of the budget on getting the knight of the realm’s services.
In the Q&A afterwards hosted by Alice Levine, Sir David explained some of the thinking behind the show. It came from a desire to look at things in a new way, and explore the subtle links between seemingly completely different animals.
He fielded questions from the audience on a number of interesting topics, one of which was the difference in style between himself and more ‘daredevil’ presenters such as the late Steve Irwin:
Steve was a country boy and if you live in the outback you have a less precious view of wildlife than townies like me. So Steve, from an early age, was jumping on the backs of crocodiles and wrestling them to the ground. I didn’t really enjoy watching him jumping on animals, but though I never met him I know that he cared deeply about conservation.
He was also asked about the attention lavished on the giant panda at the expense of other equally important conservation issues – many naturalists believe the Giant Panda is in an evolutionary bottleneck and should be allowed to go extinct. But not Attenborough:
Evolutionary biologists might well argue that the giant panda is on the way out. If that’s the case then the fundamental reason is that it has evolved to eat only bamboo and the human population in China has increased so much that its food source is disappearing. So if the panda goes now, that will be because we have caused it.
He even had an interesting answer to the dreaded ‘what’s your favourite animal?’ question which elicited groans from the audience, and ‘I think that’s code isn’t it, for terminate the interview – hit the ejector seat button!’ from Alice Levine. Just earlier that day he had witnessed the courtship dance of the ‘weedy sea dragon’, and assured us all that if we had never seen it, ‘life still has great treats in store for you!’
We also found out the one animal that he really cannot abide: rats. A recent visit to the bathroom in India, where a rat got a little intimate, was only the latest in a litany of murine crimes against him.
It was a great evening, and for an 88 year old to be still working so hard and be actively involved in his chosen field is impressive by anyone’s standards. The series is sure to be another fascinating trip through the wonders of the natural world, in probably the most experienced pair of hands on the planet. It’s an enjoyably low-key half hour spent in the warm and reassuring company of a true broadcasting legend.
David Attenborough’s Natural Curiosities starts on Watch on Monday 2 February at 9pm