Monday, 30 November -0001

Lord Of The Plants

Ever since he was a boy, Sir David Attenborough has been bewitched by Kew Gardens. The smells, the heat, the botanical glories, the mice-eating greenery and the world's biggest seed bank. He reveals all...

Written by Alison Jane Reid

There is an extraordinarily dark and intoxicating scene in Sir David Attenborough’s bewitching new television trilogy, Kingdom of Plants 3D. It is filmed amid the eternal, Alice-In-Wonderland splendours of The Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew – a love letter to Victorian power, romanticism and sheer, soaring feats of grandeur in glass – and utilises the magic of time-lapse photography.

In it, Sir David enters the Grimm’s fairytale of the plant world, and watches as a hapless fly visits the ravishingly beautiful pitcher plant, drawn by its showy outward display of colour, painterly markings and sheer voluptuousness.

Then, oh dear, the fly just can’t resist straying a little too close to the pretty abyss, in search of delicious nectar… and bang! We watch transfixed as the fly becomes trapped, then slowly and shockingly falls into a shimmering, bright pool of quicksand and drowns – to become lunch. What riveting, spellbinding television.

Some species of these plants are so big, David goes on to reveal, rather mischievously, and so ‘voracious’, they can even eat mice – but not rats, as was first thought. Well, thank heavens for that. When I display my girlish horror at this revelation, amid a banquet of such sensual beauty, Sir David fixes me with a wickedly boyish grin and bursts into peels of laughter.

David-Attenborough-02-590Magnolia kobus: there are over 250 magnolias across Kew Gardens

‘We could have just shown pretty flowers. They are beautiful and ravishing to look at. But in the long run you need more than that. You have to achieve a balance between the hypnotism of what you see, and some form of narrative drive.’

No one does this better than Attenborough – the prince of storytellers. Although he playfully rejects this tag. This is the man who, as controller of BBC Two, presided over the birth of modern television and commissioned Porridge, The Old Grey Whistle Test and live snooker. Education is terribly important, but it comes second to entertainment. Somehow, he has that rare, peerless ability to achieve both.

David Attenborough once told me that he had absolutely no intention of slowing down or retiring, ‘because I wouldn’t know what to do with myself, and it’s nice that people still want me to get out of bed in the morning’. And he has been as good as his word.

Fresh from the enthralling, magic-carpet ride of Frozen Planet, and his upbeat return to Madagascar, he has spent a year closer to home making a trilogy of enthralling adventures – like a latter-day Indiana Jones, in a place for which he holds a deep, lifelong affection – Kew Gardens.

‘If you have any sense of history, you know that the Temperate House and The Palm House are just great, marvellous, wonderful buildings,’ he says.

‘Of course,’ he continues, ‘It would be sentimentality to say that either is better than the roof of the Great Court at the British Museum. The point about Kew is that in science and botany, it is the pre-eminent place in the world. Kew is where plant collecting turned into botany. The great pioneer botanists were directors of Kew.

‘It coincided with the flowering of the British Empire, so from all over Africa, British Empirebuilders sent back specimens. This is what Paxman should have looked at in his programme, about Empire. We did some good! We didn’t just build railways.

David-Attenborough-04-382Sir David mirrors a curious cockatoo at London Zoo in 1980

‘Kew took on the job of cataloguing the plants of Africa and South East Asia and, to this day, if you want to look at specimens from these countries, you come to Kew. And the papers it publishes on their findings are recognised worldwide as monuments of scholarship.’ But beyond his professional relationship with the Botanic Gardens, there is also a personal and fascinating story, too.

From 1954 until 1965, David had begun his making, with an annual expedition to the Tropics. Then, in 1965 he was given the task of launching BBC Two and found himself suddenly transformed into a desk-bound bureaucrat. David makes no secret of the fact that he missed programme-making terribly.

‘It sounds pathetic. At weekends I used to go down to Kew, into one of the Tropical houses, and inhale that smell of moisture and heat.’ He inhales deeply, remembering the moment.

‘Mmmmm… it was the smell of the Tropics. That’s when I knew I should be back making programmes, not sitting behind a desk.’

Long before that, he used to visit Kew as a child, before the outbreak of war. ‘You would go to look at something specific – blossom, the magnolia or lilac. Then, when I moved to Richmond, I used to walk there, down the hill, hit the river, and just follow it around to Kew. It was a lovely walk.

‘In those days, you could get in from the river gate, which you can’t do now. There are plans to reopen the gate. I was there last night,’ he adds. ‘I’m involved in the Thames Landscape Strategy, and part of that plan is how we are going to open up the north side by Kew, which at the moment rather looks like the back end of a bus; it’s awful. But we have great plans to transform it, and make it look very attractive indeed; however, I am digressing, let’s talk about plants.’

David has examined the plant world with mesmerising effect in an earlier series, The Private Life Of Plants. Now, in Kingdom Of Plants, he turns the spotlight on the trailblazing work of Kew – from the early endeavours of the great Victorian collectors, who brought back such specimens as Encephalartos altensteinii, the Eastern Cape giant cycad, the world’s oldest pot plant in 1775, to exploring the biggest seed bank on the planet. It holds 90 per cent of all known plant species, and makes Kew as exciting and important as it was in the heyday of empire.

‘Kew established the world’s first seed bank and I am thrilled that in the final part of this series, we literally go inside it. What is exciting is that you can take a very rare plant, and you only need one, with a thousand seed heads, and you can put it into storage in very cold temperatures, and it will last not for decades, but for centuries; this is important work.’

Using the whiz-bang special intimacy of time-lapse photography, Attenborough conveys this achievement in sharp, magical focus, and makes you want to rush off to Kew and to play, explore and breathe the same air. Just like Sir David, who appears full of twinkling, scholarly gravitas, and has a hushed magnetism that never dims – as if he might walk through the screen at any moment and into our living rooms for a chat and a cup of proper tea, thanks to the rather surreal intimacy of 3D.

Some of the most magical scenes in the series eavesdrop on the riveting private lives of plants – from the flower that reveals a secret landing strip so that insects can zoom right in on the honey, to the remarkable rainforest palm which, in various forms, provides everything needed for survival: food, rattan – the raw material for furniture – oil, medicine and hidden chambers to store precious water. It’s a love letter to nature’s abundance and her endless, clever ability to adapt. Especially in the harsh, competitive environment of the rainforest, so brilliantly recreated in Decimus Burton’s fetid, cathedral-like Palm House.

David-Attenborough-03-590Kew’s Victorian glass Temperate House

Yet, when I ask David if he hopes people watching the programme will be spurred into a greater understanding of the forest, its treasures, and thus a desire to protect and conserve what is left, he very carefully rejects the mantle of eco warrior.

‘I might think that, in the way you might hope something you wrote made a difference. But that wasn’t the primary reason for making the series. We made it because plants are fabulously beautiful, fascinating and important.

‘What Anthony, my producer, and I know is that if we do it well enough, audiences will sit in an IMAX theatre, or at home, with their jaws dropping, looking at things the human eye has never seen before, ever, and say: ‘Wow – that is fascinating!’

Kingdom Of Plants 3D airs this month on Sky 3D and will be simulcast in 2D on Sky Atlantic HD.


Books Paradisi In Sole, published 1629, by John Parkinson. And the most ravishingly beautiful book on flowering plants is Hortus Eystettensis, 1613, with drawings by Basilius Besler.

Destination The Highveld in South Africa, where you can see the desert blooming. The climate is invigorating, with sparkling air.

Hobby He has just bought a plot of land, adjacent to his home in Richmond, where he will plant native orchids.

Alternative job David was going to be a palaeontologist before being offered a job in TV.

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