As surprise Glastonbury speakers go, few could inspire as much excitement as Sir David Attenborough, who put in a last-minute appearance on The Pyramid Stage at 2.45 today. It’s a privilege for the select few: The Dalai Lama in 2015, Jeremy Corbyn in 2017, and now, arguably, Britain’s best-loved broadcaster, truthspeaker, naturalist and all-round dude.
Attenborough’s brief appearance was preceded by whalesong, which provided a springboard for the naturalist to talk about the problem of plastic in the ocean, as highlighted in his 2007 series Blue Planet II.
He praised the crowd – and a bloody huge crowd, too: more than that drawn by anyone but the two headliners so far – for accepting the festival’s new no-single-use-plastic policy, which is estimated to have spared over a million plastic bottles from becoming waste.
But then… he plugged his new BBC series.
The crowd were delighted, obviously, to see such an iconic and beloved figure on the Pyramid Stage, a man whose warmth and good nature frequently sees him top polls of the greatest Britons and whose cult has grown among Millennials in particular – Attenborugh T-shirts are a common sight here, and there’s even a mural of him on site. Attenborough, for his part, looked fairly overwhelmed, the crowd roaring so loudly he could barely be heard at first.
But as genial and welcome as his appearance was, you can’t help feeling he missed a trick. Here was a chance not just to wave and comment on the switch in plastic-use policy here, but to throw down the gauntlet to others too – to challenge every festival, in Britain, Europe, the world, to follow in Glastonbury’s footsteps. Because if the biggest and greatest music festival on the planet can do it, why can’t they?
And he needn’t have stopped there: the same could apply to sporting events, clubs, pubs, schools – everywhere. Blue Planet II’s shocking scenes of the damaging effects of plastic on ocean life essentially have eradicated the plastic straw in the UK. So, with the eyes of the world on him, why not go one more?
News of a new Attenborough series, Seven Worlds, One Planet, is of course exciting. But the BBC using its platform at the festival felt cynical, not least because their coverage of the event extends to not-very-Glasto-spirited fish finger butty telly like The One Show.
When Jeremy Corbyn spoke on this stage in 2017, it was at the height of Corbynmania. The ‘Oh Jeremy Corbyn’ song had been belted out across the campsites all weekend and he seemed to be the figure of hope we’d been looking for. When he spoke, it seemed like a turning point in British politics, a politician with his heart in the right place. But Corbyn has been a letdown ever since.
Attenborough, we can say with some certainty, has an unimpeachable legacy, but while it was nice to see him in the flesh, you can’t help but wish he’d used his platform to inspire, rather than promote.