By Jane Fryer
David Bellamy still has the most wonderful face. He is pink-cheeked and beaming, his nose is impossibly broken and squashed, his eyes are kind, his hair and beard are now white but still lustrous and his vast fleshy ears are bobbing with hearing aids.
‘Come in! Come in! Sit wherever you like, that’s a comfy seat there,’ he booms, waving his hands and pointing with enormous sausage fingers. ‘Rosemary! Can we have some tea, please?
ROOOOSEMARY!’ he roars in the general direction of the kitchen and his wife of 56 years.
‘She’s the love of my life, you know. I adoooore her. We met in Love Lane in Cheam when she was just 17 and I just knew. We used to canoodle on the train together. Ooh, I’m the luckiest man in the world. I married a wonderful woman, I’ve toured the world, I’ve stood on the top of the world, I’ve made more than 400 television programmes and I’ve had one of the most woooonderful lives . . .’
Everything about him exudes joy and enthusiasm. He hops from subject to subject like a vast hairy bunny.
So in our first 40 minutes chatting in his cluttered home in the middle of nowhere in County Durham, we cover everything from God (‘It’s important to have something to hang things on’), to his five children, four of whom are adopted (‘Goodness knows how old they all are — you’ll have to ask Rosemary, but we’ve got nine grandchildren and they’re all different colours’).
We take in the Royal Family (‘I worship them — particularly Prince Philip’), his lifelong love of ballet (‘Do you know, I actually wrote a ballet that’s been performed six times?’), his beard (‘I’ve never shaved in my life, never ever’) and his passion for very brief Speedo swimming trunks (‘My children hate them, but I can’t bear anything flapping around my legs’)
He rambles on in that brilliantly distinctive voice, great paws waving, eyes rolling. He turned 80 last week but he is just as he always was — a joy and a treat.
Until, that is, we touch on climate change and the vicious backlash he suffered when, in 2004, and in the face of scientific convention and public opinion, he dismissed man-made global warming as ‘poppycock!’
‘From that moment, I really wasn’t welcome at the BBC. They froze me out, because I don’t believe in global warming. My career dried up. I was thrown out of my own conservation groups and I got spat at in London.
‘And the worst thing that ever happened — I got a letter that said, “David Bellamy is the worst . . .”
Oh, what was it? Damn, I’m always forgetting things. Rosemary?!’
‘Are you on about the paedophile thing?’ she says, emerging with tea. ‘Yes! It said: “David Bellamy is a paedophile because he doesn’t believe in global warming and is killing our children.”
‘And it’s just nonsense. For the last 16 years, temperatures have been going down and the carbon dioxide has been going up and the crops have got greener and grow quicker. We’ve done plenty to smash up the planet, but there’s been no global warming caused by man.’
During his heyday as a conservationist and TV personality in the Eighties and Nineties, David was everywhere — peering through palm trees, wading through marshlands and delivering wonderful rambling monologues illustrated with madly windmilling hands.
‘I never used a script. I didn’t have people sitting in branches for six months to get a shot. I just talked and talked. It was wonderful.’
He made all those TV programmes, wrote more than 45 books, inspired comedian Lenny Henry’s ‘grapple me grapenuts’ catchphrase and starred in a Ribena commercial.
He also had a Top 40 hit with Brontosaurus, Will You Wait For Me? and appeared on Jim’ll Fix It. ‘I didn’t like Savile. He was always telling me I should become a DJ because I’d make a lot more money. And why did he pick his nose like that? He was for ever fiddling with it. Not nice.’
Bellamy also set up endless charities and campaigning groups (he was patron of more than 400 at one time — ‘I helped to start conservation’) and was never afraid to get stuck in (‘I used to play rugby and I’ve always liked a punch-up’), speak his mind or live with the consequences.
He spent his 50th birthday in prison in Tasmania after blockading the Franklin River in protest against a proposed dam — ‘I had so many letters from all around the world, it was amaaazing!’
And in 1996 he let rip against wind farms (‘because they don’t work’) during one of his regular appearances on Blue Peter: ‘That was the beginning really. From that moment, I was not welcome at the BBC.’
But it was his global warming comments in 2004 that really cut him adrift. The killer blow came when he was dropped by The Royal Society of Wildlife Trusts, of which he was president. ‘I worked with the Wildlife Trusts for 52 years. And when they dropped me, they didn’t even tell me.
They didn’t have the guts. I read about it in the newspapers. Can you believe it? Now they don’t want to be anywhere near me. But what are they doing? The WWF might have saved a few pandas, but what about the forests? What have Greenpeace done?’
‘There are some very strange people out there,’ says Rosemary quietly.
It must have been terribly upsetting, I suggest. ‘Yes. It did upset us terribly,’ she says. ‘But we pretended not to be upset, didn’t we David? The best thing to do was not to talk about it. So we didn’t. It’s been very difficult, because he does feel strongly about things.’
‘I still say it’s poppycock!’ he snorts. ‘If you believe it, fine. But I don’t and there’s thousands like me. David Attenborough used to be one of us on wind farms, but then he changed his mind.’
For years, he and 86-year-old Sir David were peers. Isn’t he just a bit envious that the other David will probably still be churning out award-winning wildlife programmes when he’s 100 while he spends most of his time pottering in his garden, watching Upstairs Downstairs and Dad’s Army box sets and ‘just keeping up with what’s going on’.
‘No, no! You can’t knock him — he’s done a fantastic job of opening people’s eyes, and he has all the gadgets and stuff. But we’re different. He’s a natural history man and I’m a campaigner.
‘And I can’t complain. When I was at the BBC, I could do whatever I wanted. In those days, you could say what you liked. You can’t now.
'The world’s gone bonkers. What about this latest bloody thing — that poor lady who went to court because she wanted to wear a cross? It’s madness.’
It all started at Durham University, where David first studied and later taught botany: ‘Some of my lectures used to go on for hours. In my second year there I thought I should take my students to see a tropical rain forest — I’d never seen one. When I got there the only thing I could name was a cheese plant. So we got a nine-year-old local boy called Boko to tell us all the names and one day he didn’t turn up. He’d died of malnutrition — there was no food. I couldn’t believe it.’
That was the beginning of his environmental campaigning. After the Torrey Canyon oil disaster off the British coast in 1967, Bellamy, who was working on a project in Cornwall, gave a single TV interview on the subject and was spotted as television gold.
Decades of relentless programme-making during every university holiday followed. ‘I only ever filmed in the holidays, so my family could all come with me, which nearly bankrupted me.’
It was quite a family. ‘We were always going to have two children of our own and adopt two, but we lost our first five children before our son Rufus was born — two lived for a day, the others didn’t make it that far and Rufus was in an oxygen tent for six weeks. So we adopted the next four, from all round the world, and they’re wonderful.’
There were also 32 different species of pet, including a crocodile. ‘I bought it back from Australia — you couldn’t do that now.’
Today, David is the first to admit he’s getting old. Physically, he’s in
brilliant shape — at 6ft, he’s still an impressive specimen and instantly
recognisable. ‘I can’t get on to a train or aeroplane without people coming up
and saying: “David Bellamy! We haven’t seen you on telly — we thought you were
But he’s forgetful, is for ever grasping for missing words (which Rosemary
patiently supplies), and after years of deafness has recently succumbed to
‘Bloody things. But it’s nicer for Rosemary that I’m not yelling all the time.’
Rosemary has always been his ‘pillar’, he says. ‘She deals with everything.
For years I didn’t know who my bank manager was. She dealt with all that. And
taught full time and brought up five children and bought my clothes. I once had
to buy a shirt and tie to get into a club in London and I had no idea how to go
Does he ever regret his outspokenness and how it might have affected his
image and popularity?
‘Absolutely not! Who cares if they’ve put me on the back burner? I can still
talk to my flowers, which are all fine and growing amazingly and say, “Thank you
very much, David!” ’
And with that, we say our farewells. He gives me a warm hairy hug and big wet
‘I’m the world’s luckiest man — I’ve stood on top of the world and I married a wonderful woman and I’d still die for my country. And the BBC still makes damn good programmes, doesn’t it?’