In this series of regular articles, our Melbourne-based correspondent meets the Positively Scottish Humans of Oz
It’s sometime in the mid-2000s and a young Adam Nicol is in the final, heroic throes of a PhD in 19th century popular science. Currently nesting in the leafy terrain of Perth, Western Australia, the Aberdeen native is about to embark on an epic journey across the seas in search of academic nourishment. With his sights set on Great Britain, this inquisitive buck is lured by the possibility of interviewing his childhood hero, the elusive Sir David Attenborough, as part of his research. Convinced now is the time to strike, Adam makes contact and, to his surprise, he’s summoned to Sir David’s sanctuary in Surrey. The juvenile scholar is suddenly on high alert. Completely unprepared, his only instinct is survival. What will he say when he comes face-to-face with this national treasure. And, more importantly, what will he wear?
Going to Sir David Attenborough’s house was very intimidating. I got there much too early, because I didn’t want to be late, and did a dummy walk to know exactly where he was so it probably looked a bit weird, me wandering around.
I was expecting it to be this enormous country manor, but it’s this unassuming semi-detached house, and when I knocked on the door, I was expecting a PA or butler or something, but David Attenborough himself answered. He took my coat and I think he could tell I was slightly nervous because he spent the first quarter of an hour chatting to me about what I was doing and about Perth. He was really good at setting me at ease.
I was only supposed to be there an hour and ended up there a bit over two hours. The formal part of the interview was only about 45 minutes or so and the rest of the time we were just chatting about ‘stuff’. I’d ended up wearing the worst jumper ever. I’d bought it especially from the Edinburgh Woollen Mill. I thought I needed to have a sensible adult jumper but, looking back, it was the kind your mum would pick out. It was camel coloured with this big brown Argyle pattern. It was disgraceful. At the time, I thought, “Sir David will like this”, but he didn’t comment on it.
When he went to make coffee—and he makes a good cup of coffee, by the way, the full French press thing—he left me in the living room and I was looking around and there were all these African sculptures and paintings and so on, then I saw his little DVD case and all he had was BBC comedies, like The Office and Little Britain. He used to be the controller of BBC2 and was the one who commissioned Monty Python, so I guess he’s never lost interest in comedy.
I’d bought a digital camera—this was back before everyone had iPhones—specifically to try and get a photo with him, but I’d neglected to figure out how to get the timer thing to work as I’d assumed there would be a PA there. So Sir David and I had to sit down and try and figure out how to get it to work and then he helped me set it up, resting it between two pieces of African art.
You have this fear about meeting people you admired when you were a child. You’re worried that they’ll turn out to not be the people you were hoping they’d be, but with Sir David he’s just everything you want him to be. He’s so funny, and wise and helpful. And really giving of his knowledge—he was actually genuinely interested in what I was doing.
He’s also much wittier than you think. At one point we were chatting about the first series of Planet Earth, which had not long come out. He was saying that when it was released in America on DVD they released it twice. BBC America released it with Sir David’s narration and Discovery Channel released it with Sigourney Weaver—I guess because she played Diane Fossey in that film.
Sir David said: ‘There’s an interesting thing about that though—when the DVD was released with Sigourney’s narration it sold 25,000 copies. When they released it with mine, it sold 750,000.’
Then he paused and added, ‘Just check those figures before you include that.’