One thing I've learned from David Attenborough: nature is bloody horrible


This week, after 60 years of broadcasting, David “animals” Attenborough unofficially anointed Prof Brian “space” Cox as his successor at a Radio Times event.

I like to imagine Attenborough made his magnanimous gesture by holding the infant Cox above his head on a clifftop, like the lion-child Simba in the film The Lion King, at which point everyone at the BBC sang the Circle of Life (note to self – Cox actually does look like a lion cub who has opened his eyes for the first time. Could Cox be a lion cub in disguise? Investigate further).

However, Attenborough would be the first to say that that film was highly unscientific, and that for a more accurate depiction of the symbiotic relationship between hippo, lion, zebra and lemur one should watch Madagascar.

In reality, of course, the young buck Cox probably bested the elder broadcaster in a wearying session of violent “rutting” (headbutting one another in a clearing). Because if I’ve learned anything about nature from David Attenborough, it’s that it’s bloody horrible. In the fullness of time Cox will, as I understand it, eat Attenborough’s heart, wear his entrails as jewellery and thus steal his power.

Attenborough ‘facts’

Here are some facts about David Attenborough that Cox will have to live up to: Attenborough first appeared on the BBC in 1953, shortly after the mysterious disappearance of Baron Davin Von Battenburgh, a big-game hunter and professional monkey-torturer, who looked, if you remove the monocle, sweeping moustache and pith helmet, very like David Attenborough in the nude.

In fact, Attenborough is never in the nude. That much-admired safari suit is actually “his pelt”. David Attenborough’s documentary career began with a simple dream: to catch and eat a golden eagle.

He did this in his debut programme David Attenborough eats a Golden Eagle, which aired in 1954. Capturing this on film involved having a crew surreptitiously stationed for years outside Attenborough’s home awaiting the greatest predator of all – man . . . specifically David Attenborough – to strike.

Most of the early documentaries were actually made in rural Surrey, where with judicious use of lighting and costume, cows and horses acted out the parts of camels, tigers and mosquitoes. The part of “the water buffalo” was played by veteran comic actor Arthur Askey. The squirrels were voiced by Dame Judi Dench.

Attenborough followed up such early triumphs with exploitative fly-on-the-wall reality programmes in which vulnerable animals revealed to us the previously hidden nuances of their private lives (this continued until he was sued by a marmoset called Nigel Thompson in 1973. They settled out of court.)

Animal misconceptions

Attenborough has shattered many misconceptions about the animal kingdom. Before his documentaries we did not know that giraffes were just tall leopards or that rhinos were actually armoured assault vehicles filled with ferrets. Nor did we know how gazelles accessed social media, or that pigs were just, in Attenborough’s words, “fat bald dogs”.

His calm half-whispered voice is an aphrodisiac for countless species, with many just needing a few words from the great man and they are “in the mood” and ready for an on-camera sexcapade.

There’s a Just So story by Rudyard Kipling called How David Attenborough Got His Voice, but it’s filthy.

While Brian “sexy boffin” Cox first came to prominence as keyboardist with 90s pop band D:Ream, Attenborough has always been more interested in old school hip-hop. He toured with 2 Live Crew under the alias Mr Mixx.

So, Sir David Attenborough – a tough act to follow.

We’ll be watching Prof Brian Cox!

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