Sir David Attenborough - Naturalist
Created | Updated Nov 30, 2011
It seems to me that the natural world is the greatest source of excitement; the greatest source of visual beauty; the greatest source of intellectual interest. It is the greatest source of so much in life that makes life worth living.
- Sir David Attenborough
With his instantly recognisable voice and its rich, melodic tone, Sir David Attenborough has the power to move the hardest of hearts. The descriptive stories he tells and his powerful love of his subject combine to transform any programme in which he appears. Whether he's wrestling with apes or lying on the ground with a meerkat guard standing on his chest, his obvious delight at being in the thick of the action is transmitted to the viewer, drawing his audience into the glories of the natural world. It is no wonder that Attenborough has inspired over 500 million people worldwide with his passion for and knowledge of nature. He has been so influential that his name has been given to a Mesozoic reptile and an echidna.
As a small boy I lived in Leicestershire, where there are fossils from 150 million years ago, and they were beautiful and mysterious. When you know how it got there, you know that yours are the first eyes to see it, and it's thrilling - I still feel the same.
Born on 8 May, 1926 in London, England, David Frederick Attenborough was a middle child, the second of three sons born to Frederick Levi Attenborough and Mary Clegg. The elder brother was Richard Samuel Attenborough, who went on to become Lord Attenborough, a celebrated actor, filmmaker and elder statesman of the British film industry; the younger was John Michael Attenborough. The family later expanded to include two fostered Jewish refugee girls from Europe during World War II. Together the family lived in College House within the University of Leicester, where his father was the principal.
From an early age, Attenborough was fascinated by nature and was encouraged in his pursuit by those around him. Jacquetta Hawkes1, who was a British archaeologist and daughter of a Nobel Prize-winning scientist2 admired his collection of stones and fossils, and one of his foster sisters found a piece of amber near their home and gave it to him for his birthday. This piece of amber consequently went on to become the focal point of a documentary called The Amber Time Machine.
Attenborough attended Wyggeston Grammar School for Boys in Leicester where he read about the journeys of the 19th-Century British naturalists. On graduating, Attenborough went on to study for a degree in Natural Sciences at Clare College, Cambridge University, where he was enthralled by the programme.
You really want to see new sections of the animal kingdom that you don't know anything about, kinds of animals that you've not dreamt of...or new techniques - like you can identify any plant from looking at a grain of its pollen under a microscope; you can count pollen grains, plot them on a graph and therefore see what the history of the woodland and vegetation was over a period of a thousand years. That's exciting!
For a while, Attenborough considered continuing his education and working towards a PhD but decided against this as he did not feel confident enough in his ability to succeed.
It was in a tutorial and we were talking about X-Ray crystallography and I was with another chap and there was the tutor; and those two were talking. And it was perfectly clear to me that they were thinking in three dimensions in a way I simply couldn't do. Couldn't do. And it was a very unhappy, sobering moment.
Attenborough then undertook National Service in the Royal Navy in 1947. He was stationed for two years in North Wales and the Firth of Forth. In 1950, he married Jane Elizabeth Ebsworth Oriel and together they had two children: Robert and Susan3. The family lived together in Richmond, Surrey4, near his brother Richard Attenborough.
You know, it is a terrible thing to appear on television, because people think that you actually know what you're talking about.
After his career in the navy came to a close, Attenborough became an editor for children's science textbooks. This didn't last long though as Attenborough's interest in the job waned and at 26 years old, in 1950, he found himself trying for a position as a radio talks producer with the BBC. Although he was turned down, his CV soon fell into the hands of Mary Adams who enquired whether the young Attenborough would be interested in taking a job in television production. He was, and in 1952 he began a three-month course which led him to his first job as a producer for the BBC Talks Department based at Alexandra Palace. During the course it is very possible that Attenborough was taught the values of Lord Reith (the founder of the BBC) 'to entertain, educate and inform', which he went on to employ within every programme he made. The Pattern of Animals was Attenborough's first series, featuring Jack Lester sitting in the studio discussing animals in cages in zoos. For Attenborough though, this style of presenting was uninspired and he was eager to take the camera outside with him. At first he was met with the excuse:
Sorry old boy, that's not what television's about. Television is about what you do in here.
Eventually, however, the BBC gave him a chance and he flew to Freetown, West Africa with a team from London Zoo and filmed the programme Zoo Quest5, which followed a group of people tracking down animals for a zoo. In contrast to The Pattern of Animals, Zoo Quest was full of adventure and Attenborough really got up close and personal with the creatures both in and out of the studio. Zoo Quest also reflected Attenborough's high appreciation for the cameramen's work and his realisation that they have played an important role in enabling him to present his information effectively. Attenborough realised that while he could relay his knowledge of the world to his audience through his own handcrafted scripts, the cameraman has to take hours if not days following the progress of the animal that is being filmed in order to come up with the right picture sequence for the right passage of speech. In an interview with the Guardian on 20 February, 2006, Attenborough reflected on how bad he would be at doing their job by saying:
For example, with the polar bear, I mean you're sitting there and you're having a fag or a cup of tea or something and then, bloody hell, she's out! And you've missed it.
When Attenborough travels with his crew he helps carry the equipment and when people ask whether he wants to be upgraded from economy he replies: only if the crew can be upgraded too.
During 1965 to 1969, Attenborough was the Controller of BBC Two and oversaw the channel becoming the first British channel to be in colour from 1 July, 1967. He also changed the way people perceived the BBC channels and encouraged more variety, bringing about various landmark programmes including Match of the Day, The Forsyte Saga, Monty Python's Flying Circus, and Pot Black as well as making way for programmes like Kenneth Clark's Civilisation.
Life on Earth was gratifyingly well-received. Its ability to take the viewer in a fraction of a second from one continent to another, the systematic and serious way in which we had surveyed the natural world, not taking shortcuts and featuring groups of animals that had hitherto been largely neglected...made a great impression. The critics were unstinting in their praise, the audience huge.
- Sir David Attenborough
Attenborough went on to become Director of Programmes during 1969 to 1972 and won a couple of awards including an Honorary Doctor of Letters degree from Leicester University (1970) and a BAFTA Desmond Davis Award (1970). Later, in 1973, he was offered the position of Director-General of the BBC, but turned it down with the realisation that his true love lay in creating natural history programmes.
I would like to think that I could do it, but I was also very well aware that I wasn't enjoying it. And my moral fibre is sufficiently frayed and weak that if I'm not enjoying things for too long, I end up by not doing them very well.
In 1974 Attenborough won a CBE, then, in 1975, he took a break from creating natural history programmes to present a children's programme called Fabulous Animals that looked at mythical creatures such as the griffin and kraken. He also persuaded the BBC to put totem poles, old paintings and masks into their schedule with the end result being The Tribal Eye in 1976. He also started the Life series trilogy with Life on Earth6, a 13-part series similar to Kenneth Clark's Civilisation and Jacob Bronowski's The Ascent of Man, that followed the evolution of life through the ages. A total of 13 programmes made up the natural history television series, with the most famous episode being the twelfth, when Attenborough comes into contact with mountain gorillas in Dian Fossey's sanctuary in Rwanda. Over thirty different countries were showcased during the 1.25 million feet of film and an estimated 500 million people worldwide have now viewed it.
More awards for Attenborough arrived in the 1980s and 1990s such as the FRS (1983), a Knighthood (1985), a CVO7 (1991) for broadcasting the Queen's Speeches since 1986 and a CH 'for services to nature broadcasting' in 1996. Of course there were more natural history programmes too such as The First Eden (1987) that concentrated on man's relationship with the Mediterranean and Lost Worlds, Vanished Lives (1989), which picked up on a childhood hobby of Attenborough's, looking at fossils and led him to travel the world in search of them and reveal how life evolved in Earth's past. He was helped in his pursuit by palaeontologists and fossil hunters. Modern animation was used in the programme to help people gain a better understanding of fossils.
The Private Life of Plants in 1994 worried the Head of the BBC's Natural History Unit for he felt that people wouldn't be as interested in plants as in animals. Plants, of course, don't move like animals do and he felt viewers would be less interested. He needn't have worried, though, for the programme was successful and employed new innovative techniques from the Natural History Unit at Bristol. This led to plants being seen in a new light. Once again the questions Attenborough set out to ask in the programme were answered, questions such as: what is the largest flower?; what is the jungle canopy like?; and where do you find the world's oldest tree? This programme was followed by Attenborough in Paradise (1996), The Wildlife Specials (1997) and The Life of Birds (1998) that traced the evolution of birds and their habits.
Attenborough's Wife Dies
In 1997 Attenborough's wife died due to a brain haemorrhage while Attenborough was working on Life of Birds in New Zealand. As a private person, Attenborough has spoken little about the death of his wife, making only two public comments: one at the end of his biography Life On Air; and in an interview with the Guardian in 2006. In the interview he recalled that his wife wanted him to carry on making programmes despite the fact she had been ill with cancer.
I mean, she would have been very upset if I had stopped making programmes. And her last illness [she had been suffering from cancer] was nothing to do with the brain haemorrhage.
He also said that he regretted being away from her when she passed away.
And it was unpredictable. It wasn't that I had gone away saying, well, she's ill, but none the less I'll...in fact, she was better. And she collapsed in the kitchen. And Susie wasn't there. And I got back in 24 hours, as did Robert from Australia.
After the death of his wife his daughter manned the fort, keeping him up to date with the accounts and making sure there was enough food in the house. As for socialising, he says it isn't his thing:
I'm not very good at cocktail parties. At gatherings of 50 people, most of whom you don't know...I mean, anthropologically I know what people are doing. But dinner with friends, really. We went to the theatre with Dick last Saturday, and so on.
Still, Attenborough was quite content working on new documentaries. He has been increasingly involved with creating programmes that reflect the impact that humans have had on the planet and how to prevent further damage, such as State of the Planet (2000), which attempted to find the answers to the world’s ecological problems, Life In The Undergrowth (2005) that examined the evolution and habits of invertebrates and Planet Earth (2006) which was the first programme to appear in high definition format and show how diverse the earth is. As part of the BBC's themed season on 'Climate Chaos', Attenborough produced two documentaries, Are We Changing Planet Earth? and Can We Save Planet Earth? This documentary reflected Attenborough's change of mind on the subject. Beginning as a sceptic on global warming, Attenborough was converted by what he felt was enough evidence to claim that the world was indeed under threat. Despite this, however, critics question whether he is doing enough to promote the ideology of climate-warming within his work.
If we do care about our grandchildren then we have to do something.
Further to Attenborough's work on the climate is the increasing support he gives to environmental causes such as BirdLife International, WWF, Fauna and Flora International in which he acts as vice-president and World Land Trust. Attenborough is also a trustee of the British Museum and of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, is the President of the Royal Society for Nature Conservation and the patron of the UK's Blood Pressure Association.
The awards kept coming through the 2000s. Attenborough won the International Cosmos Prize in 2000, Michael Faraday Prize awarded by the Royal Society (2003), the Descartes Prize for Outstanding Science Communication Actions (2004) and OM (2005), as well as the Nierenberg Prize for Science in the Public Interest (2005).
As Attenborough turned 80 the Natural History Museum in London called upon celebrities and non-celebrities to answer the question: what is your favourite Attenborough moment? They showed 20 different clips on the UKTV Documentary channel and each clip was introduced by a different celebrity such as Joanna Lumley, Bill Oddie, Alan Titchmarsh, Ray Mears and Björk. A moving film of a lyrebird mimicking a chainsaw noise, the instrument destroying its natural habitat, was judged the best clip. Voted second was the famous clip of Attenborough being groomed by gorillas in Rwanda and third was a clip of a whale surprising Attenborough in an episode of The Life Of Mammals. As a thank you to Attenborough, the Natural History Museum are going to build the David Attenborough Studio.
In 2006 Attenborough also became a Distinguished Honorary Fellow of Leicester University (2006) and received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Television Awards (2006) from Terri Irwin who also commented on how he inspired her husband during his life.
If there's one person who directly inspired my husband it's the person being honoured tonight. [Steve's] real, true love was conservation - and the influence of tonight's recipient in preserving the natural world has been immense.
- Terry Irwin
Finally, around the time that Attenborough was promoting Life in the Undergrowth, he mentioned that Life in Cold Blood would be his last major television series:
Once I have completed the reptiles series [I] that will be enough. It would complete the survey for me. I will have given a series to every group of animals and when that is done there would be 100 or so hours of DVDs on the shelf.
However, according to Attenborough interviewed by Radio Times, he may occasionally create one-off programmes and provide more voiceovers for other programmes such as Wildlife On One and The Natural World.