Who would have predicted that a book about the evolution of the natural world would in two years run into three editions and never be out of the bestseller lists?
Life on Earth – the book that did just that – owes its success largely to David Attenborough’s remarkable ability to communicate ideas and information.
He has put that talent to work again on a fourth edition – this time for children. Pat Triggs went to see if she could find how he does it.
You don’t have to be with David Attenborough for long to discover that part of the answer lies in the sort of person he is. After twenty-five years at the BBC, including eight years as a top executive (Controller of BBC 2 and Director of TV Programmes), he is clearly still absorbed and excited by television. He talks with an enthusiasm that compels your interest. As if, far from having said it all before (as inevitably he must) this is the first chance he’s had to articulate his ideas.
He’s sharp and incisive and he knows what he thinks, which must have made him a formidable figure at the Beeb. Of the decision to make Civilisation, Kenneth Clark’s mammoth series, he said, ‘The general feeling was that no-one would sustain attention during that period of time. I thought otherwise.’
After Civilisation came Bronowski’s Ascent of Man and suddenly taking a major segment of man’s experience and treating it cumulatively and consecutively in long episodes over many weeks had become an established BBC 2 tradition.
‘Anyone in the TV business with half an eye could see that the natural world was an obvious candidate. The Mona Lisa doesn’t jump out of the frame and dance – birds do. So you have a huge advantage.’ The problem was how to treat it.
‘As a programme-maker I have always believed that narrative, the story, is the most powerful way of communicating – always has been. Right from the beginning of time. from Homer, from Genesis, you translate things into stories which have identifiable characters who have problems and who get resolutions, but the resolutions only lead to new problems and so… The biological development of life can be seen very much in those terms. It seemed gratuitous to throw that away. A 55-minute television programme needs more than colour and movement to hold the attention. It has to have narrative thrust. (They tease me about that phrase in the business. It’s my cliche.) If you are doing a good programme, you want people to say. “All right, so what happens next? Tell me, tell me.’
As the storyteller, how does he see his audience? ‘Well. I always say I don’t. And that’s true in the sense that I don’t think of, say, a one-legged coalminer in Northallerton. But really it’s me. Supposing I didn’t happen to know the facts, how would I like this explained? How would I find it interesting`?
Is the answer to that different for film and book? ‘Well obviously the two are not the same. With film you can spend time with a whole galaxy of visually exciting illustrations to make your point. It’s less good at painting in the precise logic behind it. In a book twenty examples in words becomes a tedious catalogue of description. It is good at taking argument. So in the book the ideas are more thoroughly put down and there are fewer examples.
But the basic idea was conceived in film terms. Each programme became a chapter of the book and was written more or less as the series went along. And they have fundamental things in common. ‘I don’t think in a 50-minute television programme any more than in a chapter of a book you can get over more than two or three fundamental concepts. Therefore you have to distil, be very clear what it is you are telling them.’
And yet the first six pages of the book cover Darwin, fossilization, radioactive dating, DNA. ‘The first programme – and the first chapter of the book – was an appalling problem. Some people used it as an argument for not doing the series historically. “It’s about green slime,” they said. “How are you going to get green slime to grab ten million people by the throat?” I knew in my bones that I had to get over a major number of concepts fairly quickly to get into things people were going to find comprehensible visually. The first half of the first programme was a fearful gallop. I sweated blood over it. I still sweat blood.
‘The first script I wrote didn’t go into genetics. I didn’t want to put Darwinism in. I did so against my better judgement. I still slightly regret it. Darwinism and evolution are two quite separate propositions. Lots of people think the book is about Darwinism. It isn’t at all. It’s a chronicle of life as it develops. The mechanisms which actually drove that – to which Darwin provided an explanation – is something else altogether. I was rather sorry anyone wanted me to go into mechanisms. I’m a Darwinist in the sense that I don’t have any doubts that natural selection works: but I certainly don’t think we know everything to be known about the way in which it works and there may be principles about which we are so far ignorant.’
That tone of proper academic tentativeness can be found in the book. And it’s deliberate. To popularise you don’t need to over-simplify. ‘You have to strike a difficult line between the pat arrogance – very off-putting to adults and children – of we know everything, we know exactly the way it works, and the baffling vagueness of the due modesty in the face of the facts. So you can say, “We’ve got a pretty good idea of the way it works: but we don’t know the precise connections everywhere.”
What are the rules for communicating ideas? ‘One. Don’t use long words for the sake of effect. Two. Be absolutely clear as to why you introduce an unfamiliar term whether it’s a scientific name of an animal or a technical name for a process. There’s no reason at all if you’re only going to use it once. The only reason to use it is that it becomes a tool in your vocabulary and you can use it again and again. All over the place people just throw in these words to give an aura of scholarship which is bogus: it’s a misunderstanding of the function of technical terms.
‘Three. Don’t try to cram too many concepts into too short a space. Stick to your brief. There’s a million things you could say about birds, for example. No group in the animal kingdom has a bigger literature. For the programme the question was, “What can we say in 55 minutes about birds that is worth saying?” Funnily enough the answer is quite a lot. Not a lot of people have said, let’s have the essence, the distillation of birdiness in 55 minutes, or fourteen pages. If you are forced to do that, as I was, what are you going to do? I thought for a bit. The answer was perfectly clear. The thing about birds is a feather. Once you’ve grasped that then you see about insulation, then you see the light aerofoil. But because of that you have to say I won’t go into how birds change when they get on islands: I won’t go into how birds navigate. I will stick to what this is about.’
The book lacks the physical presence of the author but it does, significantly, capture the tone of his voice. Did he try consciously for this effect?
‘No. It must just be the way I put words together. I write very painfully – books and scripts. But scripts are less final than books. You can always tell yourself you’ll change it in front of the camera. If you start a chapter in a certain way, that’s the way it has to be. I write everything at least three or four times, by hand. The fundamental thing is whether it’s clear.’
Apparently for young readers it wasn’t all that clear. How did he react when Collins suggested a simplified version?. ‘My first reaction was let it be. We’d had three editions. I think I was superstitiously afraid of milking it. And also I wasn’t sure I could do it. But Collins produced evidence from teachers that children were enthusiastic but the book was too long, too formidable, the language was too adult.’
To convince him it was possible Ingrid Selberg, children’s editor, did a chapter. ‘I was impressed by what she did. From then on we worked together. She didn’t know the subject and that helped enormously. We cut it by about half, reduced the examples, reduced the sub-clauses in the argument, distilled it a bit further. There are also 550 pictures. ‘It’s a new set. We had as an aim not to duplicate pictures from the other editions. And we’ve chosen ones children will find it easy to read.’
Has he tried to make animal behaviour easier to understand by describing it in human terms, like Walt Disney for instance? ‘No. I’m not convinced children do find it easier to understand. I think perhaps parents impose that on their children. “Here’s mummy spider coming to look for her little ones.” A child might well see it differently, might respond just as well simply to looking.’
But there are touches of anthropomorphism in the book. Marmosets described as patient, for instance. ‘If you watch a marmoset with two kids of his own and four of some others, clambering all over him, putting their feet on his eyes, I don’t know what he’s being if he isn’t being patient. It seems a perfectly appropriate use of the word. If you said he’s got a good sense of humour that would be improper. But it’s distorting to remove totally the idea that an animal has subjective feelings of any kind. At the other end of the scale it would be absurd and improper to suggest that a frog who lays a million eggs and abandons them all was an affectionate mother.’
Some people claim that animals are described in this way to encourage a degree of respect in children for animal life. ‘I think children have a deep respect for animal life built into them. There are teachers no doubt who could prove me wrong, especially those in urban schools. But I’m not sure that sort of child is going to be affected by “mummy frog looking after her baby tadpoles”.’
By this stage you’ve discovered the rest of the secret. Not only is David Attenborough a natural enthusiast; he’s also a professional. But more than that he’s an individual.
When the idea of the Life on Earth book was raised, he knew he didn’t want just another encyclopaedia with ten illustrations per page. He told Collins, ‘What I would like to produce is a book which looks like a book, is supposed to be read as a book, has a continuous narrative. So instead of putting in twenty illustrations we’ll very deliberately only have six or eight per chapter. Each will be an emblem, will summarise an aspect of what we are talking about. It will be the very best picture we can get, we’ll reproduce it full page and that will be it.’ And so it was.
He wasn’t sure it would sell. Even now he can’t really account for its phenomenal success. I think it’s got something to do with the appeal of one man’s distinctive voice in an area dominated by glossy packaged information. Earlier in our conversation he said this about television programmes: but it’s equally true for books:
‘In the end worthwhile things don’t come out of committees: they come out of the marrow of your bones and what you believe is the right way to do it.’
Discovering Life on Earth, Collins 0 00 195147 5, £6.95 (hardback) 0 00 195148 3, £4.95 (paperback) Both to be published in November
Also by David Attenborough
The Zoo Quest Expeditions, Lutterworth 0 7 188 2465 2, £8.95
More Zoo Quest Expeditions to be published later this year.