David Attenborough tells us about the troubles of '50s tech & how his grandchildren inspire him every day.
Saying you’re a big David Attenborough fan is a bit like being in Spartacus – once you announce your fervour, everyone around you is quick to echo the sentiment.
But this is one of Attenborough’s greatest talents; across his decades of work, he continues to connect with people of all kinds, of all ages.
Amidst the weekend’s TV accolades – and our announcement of a new David Attenborough app The Story of Life – you won’t have missed that it was recently a certain someone’s 90th birthday.
Now David Attenborough is a busy man: he’s still releasing hit TV series, despite – understandably – trying to cut back on work engagements.
So when I heard it was his birthday I decided to send him a letter to express my gratitude, and wish him well.
Like many fans of Attenborough would, I told David Attenborough how watching Life of Birds in 1998 brought me closer with my grandfather. I told him how my school friends used to watch Blue Planet in between lessons when I was at sixth form college, and how affirming it was, to hear that he’d cordially accepted a dinner invite from my friends studying at Cambridge University, just because.
I told him how fantastic it was to hear about his foray into virtual reality with The Natural History Museum, and that this particularly moved me as a technology journalist at The Memo.
Finally I asked if he had time at all, if he could answer three questions for us.
You can imagine my delight when a handwritten letter came through my letterbox.
Attenborough’s reply was both concise and thoughtful, and after thanking me for the ‘kind things’ he’s probably heard 100 times before, he got straight to answering the questions I’d asked.
These started with a practical question about how it felt to be at the cutting edge of technology throughout the years.
“I started filming with a clockwork camera that could only run 40 seconds on in wind and only held 2 minutes 40 seconds worth of film before the reel had to be replaced,” Attenborough wrote.
“Nor could I see what we had shot until the film was processed – which might take weeks to get a reel to a laboratory.”
The idea that one man managed to rivet audiences while working under such limitations is poignant. Especially when you considering the wildlife expert now works with everything from drones to VR.
I then asked him why technology he thought was important.
“Technology continues to promise new opportunities to tell stories,” he replied, calling out this week’s documentary on bioluminescence, Life That Glows.
For my final question, I asked what drives him forward, and how he continues to celebrate the natural world, even in the face of hardship.
“I couldn’t look my grandchildren in the eye and say I knew what mankind was doing to the planet, but didn’t bother to do anything about it,” he replied.
An honest and moving end to the letter – which I will probably now frame.
You can read the full text of David Attenborough’s letter to The Memo below…
Dear Kitty Knowles,
Thank you for your letter and the kind things you say.
Here are answers to your questions:
1. I started filming with a clockwork camera that could only run 40 seconds on in wind and only held 2 minutes 40 seconds worth of film before the reel had to be replaced.
Nor could I see what we had shot until the/our film was processed – which might take weeks to get a reel to a laboratory.
You will be able to compare this with today’s equipment
2. Technology continues to promise new opportunities to tell stories – eg. next week’s programme on bioluminescence.
3. I couldn’t look my grandchildren in the eye and say I knew what mankind was doing to the planet but didn’t bother to do anything about it.