David Attenborough: The force of nature at 90
As he celebrates his birthday, we survey the life and work of the world's greatest documentarian - from boyhood fossil collecting, giving Monty Python their big break, to thousands of animal encounters
David Attenborough turns 90 tomorrow, fittingly perhaps on the anniversary of Victory in Europe Day. He no doubt will smile with characteristic bemusement. For the veteran broadcaster and documentarian, it has all been tremendous fun.
For decades now, Attenborough has brought the glories, mysteries and cruel realities of the natural world into our living rooms. His contribution as a sympathetic interpreter of our planet is immense and profound. Mastering a cohesive, multdisciplinary approach, he draws on geology, geography and human history and well as zoology and botany to illustrate the complex story of the planet.
He and his tenacious team of gifted cameramen and researchers have travelled the continents investigating the jungles, deserts, grasslands and oceans to observe wildlife and plants in their natural habitat. The great 18th- and 19th-century explorers set off on voyages and returned with ships laden with dried and captive, usually dead, specimens. In contrast, Attenborough and his crews come home with invaluable footage to be shaped into natural science documentary film-making.
Attenborough has been internationally famous since the success of the landmark 13-part series Life on Earth (1979), which he scripted and presented. Life on Earth was an ambitious, pioneering project, surveying the animal kingdom in all its vast diversity. It was magical and in colour and confirmed that live-action footage in a natural setting conveys far more than words. Even now, with all the the advancements in film, it remains emotive and exciting.
Dramatic images of the marine iguanas and gigantic tortoises of the Galápagos Islands, the mountain gorillas of Rwanda, a ferocious crocodile carrying its young carefully in a mouth more usually associated with vicious attacks: all captured the imagination of a public accustomed to more sedate fare. There was beauty and savagery and it was real.
That first major series inspired a trilogy. The Living Planet followed in 1984. Here Attenborough, a fossil collector since boyhood, focused on individual habitats and used his specialist interest to explain the geology and subsequent evolution and ecology of the earth.
Viewers were realising that outstanding wildlife programmes could not be supplied on a weekly basis. Time was needed. Attenborough would take an even closer look at fossils in the four-part miniseries Lost Worlds, Vanished Lives, which he wrote and presented in 1989.
Behind the scenes, intense work involving thousands of hours of travel and waiting for the moment that makes a lasting image were lavished on what would become the trilogy’s powerful finale, The Trials of Life (1990). Its theme was the relentlessness of survival, which all too often comes down to the hunter and the hunted. Sentimentality has no place in serious natural history.
A lioness in Africa stalks a herd of wildebeest. The point is made that only one in five hunts by a single lion is successful. Lions and cheetahs are more effective when hunting in teams. Yet a solo lioness does bring down a wildebeest, which she then suffocates by closing her jaws on its throat.
A large wolf pack in the Arctic tundra of northern Canada target a musk oxen calf and, despite the efforts of its parents, the wolves eventually win. The scene switches to a forest in the Ivory Coast, where the chimpanzees live mainly on fruit, leaves and nuts. But at least once a week they hunt for meat. During the two-month rainy season the hunts become daily. Chimpanzees feed on the colobus monkey, which is about half its size.
These hunts are choreographed frenzies and combine experienced hunters with energetic youngsters creating a distraction. The prey, often exhausted and resigned, is pulled apart and shared out. One such hunt was played out during filming; the camera crew could do nothing except watch and record it in horrified fascination. Some viewers saw it as opportunistic and sensationalised. Others appreciated the realism, which is sometimes visually devastating.
This respect for the realities of the natural world has made Attenborough’s ground-breaking programmes about animal behaviour so important.
Life in the Freezer (1993) concentrated on the coldest, wildest, most isolated continent. It was the first complete study of Antarctica, filmed in temperatures ranging from -49 to -70 degrees. This six-part series remains a poignant exploration of the last great wilderness.
Attenborough will be celebrated tomorrow evening in a BBC special that attempts the impossible: encapsulating his massive legacy and how it happened. The dominant theme is the affection felt for this likeable old-school Englishman. Prime minister David Cameron refers to Britain’s pride in having given the world David Attenborough. Primatologist Jane Goodall thanks him for his work. The birthday boy smiles on, delighted that a beautiful, if common, blue dragonfly on Madagascar has been named after him.
Attenborough learned early in his career, begun quite by accident in 1954 on a programme called Zoo Quest, that live television is no place for pomposity, particularly if your guests happen to be wild animals with a tendency towards excitement, fear, potential acts of aggression and uninhibited defecation. Giant cobras have their own ideas, as he once discovered on air. Revealing slight traces of controlled panic, he quickly untangled himself and handed the snake back to zookeeper Jack Lester.
Attenborough understands the dramatic eloquence of a pause. He has also consistently given his subjects centre stage. Zoo Quest was the first of the BBC’s natural history programmes. It was live and gradually introduced filmed segments of those collecting missions. It ran for nine years, and 42 episodes. Although nowadays it seems rather quaint, it represents a vital chapter in television history.
Fate played its part. Attenborough was a producer on Zoo Quest when Lester, the regular presenter, became ill and he was asked to take over.
He also narrated all 253 episodes of Wildlife on One, which ran from 1977 until 2005, as well as more than 50 episodes of Natural World on BBC2.
Wary of campaigning, Attenborough doesn’t tell, he shows. The programmes have become more environmentally directed, although there was always a cautionary undertone hinting at the mess man has made of the world. He has spoken out about climate change and over- population as a logical voice of common sense and reason. He did risk an outcry when he stated of Darwin that natural selection is not a theory but a “statement of fact” and backed it up with scientific evidence.
When Zoo Quest first aired, television was in its infancy, black and white with one channel only. Very few people actually had a TV. Attenborough hadn’t seen one before he joined the BBC in 1952, having initially been turned down for a job in radio. (He only applied for it because he was bored working in publishing.) Summoned by the BBC during a recruitment drive for trainee television producers, he took it. Before that, he and Jane Elizabeth Oriel Epsworth had married in 1950, when he was 24. They would have a son and daughter.
Attenborough first visited Madagascar, the world’s fourth largest island, in 1961, wearing what looks like vintage Converse baseball boots. The tone was that of an outing staged for the viewers back home. He and his trusty sidekick, his camera man, often resembled schoolboy characters from Lord of the Flies as they chased animals and trapped them.
Attenborough was as enthusiastic a communicator then as he is now, yet Zoo Quest conveyed a blend of home movies meets the final days of the empire, an impression at times consolidated by the arrival of natives interested in seeing themselves on camera.
Flash forward 60 years. His magnificent Conquest of the Skies, chronicling nature’s greatest triumph, flight, aired in 2015 on Sky, not the BBC. The three-part Great Barrier Reef was made using a specialist exploration ship, complete with space race technology and a submersible capable of diving 1,000 metres beneath the ocean. Of course, Attenborough was on board when it did.
After all these years and all the marvels he has seen at close hand – including his famous spontaneous remark: “The blue whale. It’s the biggest creature that exists on the planet” as it suddenly surfaced mere feet way from the small boat in which he was sitting – the Great Barrier Reef, the world’s largest ecosystem made by living organisms, remains the most magical place he has ever visited.
Attenborough first visited the reef as a young man in 1957, scuba diving in baggy shorts and using film-making methods that now seem touchingly archaic. Shocked and saddened by the rate of corrosive destruction since, he now believes the 230km (1,400-mile) reef is in grave danger from climate change, which has increased both the ocean’s temperature and its acidity.
The series, featuring in-depth behind- the-scenes footage explaining the technology, has just been screened in Australia, where environmentalists feel that at last they have a chance of being heeded.
Turn the clock back to when Attenborough was a small boy in the English east midland town of Leicester, where his father was a university lecturer in Anglo-Saxon. David was born in 1926, the middle of three brothers, the eldest of which would later become movie star and Oscar-winning director Richard Attenborough. (The youngest, John, chose business.) Over the years there were times when Richard presented Bafta awards to his brother. They were always close, and Richard often reminisced about David’s love of nature, his messy hair and haphazard grooming.
Somehow, much to Richard’s amazement, David always managed to smell clean even when covered in mud and assorted organic materials.
He began collecting rocks and fossils when he was eight. There is a limestone Jurassic ridge in Leicestershire where he found ammonites and brachiopods. It was an amazing introduction. He has an impressive collection and enjoys asking visitors to his home to identify the objects.
The culmination of a life’s passion in piecing together the stories hinted at by fossilised remains must have arrived with the discovery of the titanosaur of Patagonia, which is the subject of Attenborough and the Giant Dinosaur (aired earlier this year). Through computerised reconstruction methods, at 65 feet it is believed to be the largest dinosaur that ever walked the earth. The titanosaur’s heart was the size of a car and the creature would have weighed more than 10 African elephants. Pondering how its blood circulated inside such a huge body is the kind of question that preoccupies David Attenborough.
Exploring Welsh beaches during many family vacations as a child developed a lifelong habit of picking things up and looking at them that bit more closely. He was eight and sitting in a cinema when he saw his first wildlife documentary, which was presented by a man dressed as a bush ranger who engaged in polite conversation with a female penguin.
The next year Attenborough discovered The Malay Archipelago, by Darwin contemporary Alfred Russell Wallace. Wallace was only the second European to see a bird of paradise in the wild. A Frenchman, René Lesson, got there first, but Wallace was the first to see one display as part of an elaborate mating ritual, which often includes the male bird flaunting its plumes in the crown of a tree.
There are about 40 species and most live in New Guinea. The vast island is more than a 1,000 miles long and mainly covered in rain forest. The absence of mammals means that some of the birds display on the ground without fear of attack. Attenborough spent years dreaming about seeing the display. Wallace remains one of his heroes, as does Darwin, about whom he made Charles Darwin and the Tree of Life (2009) to mark the bicentenary of Darwin’s birth.
Living at the university through his father’s work, Attenborough became aware that there was such a subject as zoology. For a small fee, he supplied a newt for the department. (He found a suitable semi- aquatic amphibian in a local pond.)
A scholarship took him to Clare College Cambridge to read natural sciences, specialising in geology and zoology. His wartime university experience was brisk and unromantic. Attenborough was only 19 when the second World War ended. He did his national service with the Royal Navy and spent two years as a navigational officer, based mostly in Wales and also the Firth of Forth.
It all makes sense: Attenborough is a dreamer. He is also practical, quick-thinking and efficient, knows how to get things done, and works well with a team.
One telling segment of Zoo Quest archive footage from that first Madagascar visit shows Attenborough intent on reassembling fragments of a giant egg believed to have been laid by the now extinct flightless elephant bird, the largest bird that has ever lived. He succeeds. For all his exuberance he is also studious. Patience in the field is the mark of a good natural scientist.
Before Life on Earth, Attenborough had already had a few careers. He resigned from the BBC soon after Zoo Quest ended to pursue a postgraduate degree in anthropology, but he was lured back and placed in charge of what was to be a TV revolution.
Two months shy of another birthday (his 39th), Attenborough was appointed controller of BBC2. His brief was to do something different. He did. Attenborough decided snooker was made for colour, and why not rugby league? He took the gamble on Monty Python, reckoning that even if it failed it still had cult potential.
Attenborough masterminded Civilisation, the 13-part art history series that made eloquent use of Europe’s great paintings and architecture, and Jacob Bronowski’s seminal The Ascent of Man, another 13-part series. He was making the way for the epic serial format. Introducing compelling narrative programmes brought the promise of audiences interested in watching every episode. Television, particularly in colour, needed all the help it could get in a wary 1960s Britain. Attenborough knew the value of high viewing figures.
Still, with success though came the threat of being offered the top job: director- general of the BBC. Attenborough was terrified; he was desperate to return to making and presenting natural history programmes before someone else did.
Life of Earth was more than a second coming. Looking at it now, nearly four decades on, it remains emotive and inspiring. Before the trilogy was completed, Attenborough had also written The First Eden, a study of the Mediterranean, the oldest humanised landscape in the world and the area where man has left his most continuous impact on the environment. Rich in history, it charts the rise and fall of the various competing civilisations – Greek, Roman, Turkish and Arab – and how their respective impacts altered the region more than the sea itself did. His scripts are excellent, as are his books. As a writer Attenborough possesses an instinctive clarity.
All the while, technology was evolving. Initially, The Private Life of Plants (1995) seemed a tame prospect for a six-part series. How wrong the cynics were. Attenborough considers plants to be much more successful organisms than animals, and he exploded the myth of their alleged passivity. The use of time-lapse photography demonstrated exactly how intelligent, determined and opportunistic plants are.
Journalists enjoy some privileges, one of which being the possibility of meeting your heroes. The three people I most wanted to meet were Attenborough; Roger Bannister, the first sub-four minute miler; and writer JG Ballard, who died in 2009 .They are three very English, if very dissimilar, Englishmen.
Attenborough, an able pianist who loves his Bach, is sustained by enthusiasm and curiosity. To borrow Scott Fitzgerald’s Nick Caraway on Gatsby the man, Attenborough has an enduring “capacity for wonder”. The first time I met him, he appeared out from behind a screen of ferns and yucca trees. Admittedly it was in a hotel lobby rather than a rain forest. His emphatic Brief Encounter voice is one of the most reassuring sounds imaginable.
On another occasion he summed up a story by saying “well I finally got there”, by which he meant he had finally succeeded in filming the birds of paradise in New Guinea (see panel). Previous difficulties had been caused by the birds only displaying at dawn when light is poor. Advances in film sensitivity have countered this.
One of his most personal films explores the secrets contained in a piece of Baltic amber given to him when he was 12 by a young German girl who had come to stay with the family during the wartime kindertransport. The Amber Time Machine (2004) is an extraordinary piece of scientific detection. His 10-part The Life of Birds (1998) is a masterpiece, yet it was marred for him by the sudden death of his wife while he was away filming. Both of his brothers have died, as has his niece, Richard’s daughter, and her daughter, in the tsunami in 2004.
Life of Mammals (2002) again soared thanks to the photographic advances with infrared and thermal lighting. It is interesting to compare the technology used in The Blue Planet (2001) series, which studied marine life with the even more sophisticated underwater filming methods than in The Great Barrier Reef.
Opinionated Attenborough is, though not dogmatic. There is no arrogance. From boyish-looking enthusiast to wise old seer, he has explored the planet and presented it to the world. He has experienced the bitter winds of Antarctica; investigated the depths of the ocean; waded through mangrove swamps; witnessed births as well as deadly battles; observed bower birds at work; evaded an angry bull elephant sea lion; traced the determined paths of insects; and reimagined the dinosaurs. All with respect and humility.
David Attenborough has seen far more than perhaps anyone else alive, and is still eager to see more. Therein lies his genius. He is Darwin’s most worthy disciple, and his incalculable legacy may well prove even more meaningful. n Attenborough at 90, tomorrow, BBC One, 7pm