“I often get letters, quite frequently, from people who say how they like the programs a lot, but I never give credit to the almighty power that created nature, to which I reply and say, “Well, it’s funny that the people, when they say that this is evidence of the almighty, always quote beautiful things, they always quote orchids and hummingbirds and butterflies and roses.” But I always have to think too of a little boy sitting on the banks of a river in west Africa who has a worm boring through his eyeball, turning him blind before he’s five years old, and I reply and say, “Well presumably the god you speak about created the worm as well,” and now, I find that baffling to credit a merciful god with that action, and therefore it seems to me safer to show things that I know to be truth, truthful and factual, and allow people to make up their own minds about the moralities of this thing, or indeed the theology of this thing.”
— David Attenborough
David Attenborough is one of the world’s best known broadcasters, humanists and naturalists. Widely considered one of the pioneers of the nature documentary, he has written and presented nine major series (with a tenth in production) surveying every aspect of life on Earth. He is also a former senior manager at the BBC, having served as controller of BBC2 and director of programming for BBC Television in the 1960s and 1970s.
Attenborough’s father was principal of University College, University of Leicester, and he grew up in a house on the university campus. He was the middle of three sons. During World War II the family also took in two Jewish refugee girls. One of Attenborough’s foster sisters gave him a piece of amber filled with prehistoric creatures, which would be the focus of one of his television programmes many years later.
Attenborough spent his childhood collecting fossils, stones and other natural specimens. He received encouragement in this pursuit at age 7, when a young Jacquetta Hawkes admired his ‘museum.’ Attenborough was educated at Wyggeston Grammar School for Boys in Leicester and then won a scholarship to Clare College, University of Cambridge, where he obtained a degree in Natural Sciences. He joined the Royal Navy in 1947 and was stationed in North Wales during his two years of service.
In 1950, Attenborough married Jane Elizabeth Ebsworth Oriel; the marriage lasted until her death in 1997. The couple had two children, Robert and Susan.
First years at the BBC
After three years editing children’s science textbooks for a publishing company, Attenborough joined the BBC’s television service in 1952. Initially discouraged from appearing on camera because an administrator thought his teeth were too big, he became a producer for the Talks Department, which handled all non-fiction broadcasts. His early projects included the quiz show Animal, Vegetable, Mineral? and a series about folk music presented by Alan Lomax.
Attenborough’s association with natural history programmes began when he produced and presented the three-part series The Pattern of Animals. The studio-bound programme featured animals from London Zoo, with the naturalist Sir Julian Huxley discussing their use of camouflage, aposematism and courtship displays. Through this programme, Attenborough met Jack Lester, the curator of the zoo’s reptile house, and they decided to make a series about an animal-collecting expedition. The result was Zoo Quest, first broadcast in 1954.
From 1965 to 1968 Attenborough was Controller of BBC2. Among the programmes he commissioned during this time were Match of the Day, Civilisation, The Ascent of Man, The Likely Lads, Not Only… But Also, Man Alive, Masterclass, The Old Grey Whistle Test and The Money Programme. He also introduced televised snooker. This diversity of programme types reflects Attenborough’s belief that BBC2’s output should be as varied as possible. In 1967, under his watch, BBC2 became the first television channel in the United Kingdom to broadcast in colour.
From 1969 to 1972 he was BBC Television’s Director of Programmes (making him responsible overall for both BBC1 and BBC2), but turned down the offer to become Director General of the BBC. In 1972 he resigned his post and returned to programme making.
Foremost among Attenborough’s TV documentary series is the trilogy: Life on Earth, The Living Planet and The Trials of Life. These examine the world’s organisms from the viewpoints of taxonomy, ecology and stages of life respectively.
In addition, he has written and presented more specialised surveys including Life in the Freezer (about life in and around Antarctica), The Private Life of Plants, The Life of Birds, The Life of Mammals and his most recent, Life in the Undergrowth, which concerned terrestrial invertebrates. Lost Worlds, Vanished Lives demonstrated his passion for discovering fossils, while in 2000, State of the Planet examined the environmental crisis that threatens the ecology of the Earth. He also narrated two other significant series: The Blue Planet (2001), and Planet Earth (2006). The latter is particularly notable as it comprises the first natural history programmes to be made entirely in high-definition format.
In an interview published in the November 2005 issue of BBC Wildlife magazine, Attenborough revealed that he had begun work on a series about amphibians and reptiles with the working title Life in Cold Blood. He said that he expected this to be his last major series. However, in a subsequent interview with Radio Times, he said he did not intend to retire completely and would probably make occasional one-off programmes after Life in Cold Blood (currently in production and due for completion in 2009) was finished.
Attenborough also narrated the long-running half-hour nature series Wildlife on One on BBC One (variously retitled Wildlife on Two, BBC Wildlife and Natural World depending on the channel on which it is repeated), though his role has mainly been to introduce or narrate other people’s film, and he rarely appears on camera.
Attenborough also serves on the advisory board of BBC Wildlife magazine.
Achievements, awards and recognition
1970 : BAFTA Desmond Davis Award
1974 : CBE
1979 : BAFTA Fellowship
1983 : FRS
1985 : Knighthood
1991 : CVO for producing Queen Elizabeth II’s Christmas broadcast for a number of years from 1986
1996 : CH “for services to nature broadcasting”
2000 : International Cosmos Prize
2004 : Descartes Prize for Outstanding Science Communication Actions
2005 : OM
2005 : Nierenberg Prize for Science in the Public Interest
In 1993, after discovering that the Mesozoic reptile Plesiosaurus conybeari had not, in fact, been a true plesiosaur, the paleontologist Robert Bakker renamed the species Attenborosaurus conybeari in Attenborough’s honour.
In June 2004, Attenborough and Sir Peter Scott were jointly profiled in the second of a three part BBC Two series, The Way We Went Wild, about television wildlife presenters. Part three also featured Attenborough extensively. The next month, another BBC Two programme, Attenborough the Controller, recalled his time as Director of Programmes for BBC2.
In November 2005, London’s Natural History Museum announced a fundraising campaign to build a communications centre in Attenborough’s honour. The museum intends to open the Sir David Attenborough Studio in 2008. An opinion poll of 4900 Britons conducted by Reader’s Digest in 2006 showed Attenborough to be the most trusted celebrity in Britain.
It is often suggested that David Attenborough’s 50-year career at the BBC making natural history documentaries and travelling extensively throughout the world, has probably made him the most travelled person on Earth, ever.
His contribution to broadcasting was recognised by the 60-minute documentary Life on Air, transmitted in 2002 to tie in with the publication of Attenborough’s similarly titled autobiography. For the programme, the naturalist was interviewed at his home by his friend Michael Palin (someone who is almost as well-travelled). Attenborough’s reminiscences are interspersed with memorable clips from his series, with contributions from his brother Richard as well as professional colleagues. Life on Air is available on DVD as part of Attenborough in Paradise and Other Personal Voyages.
Parodies and artistic portrayals
Attenborough’s upper-class accent and hushed, excited delivery have been the subject of frequent parodies by comedians, most notably Spike Milligan and Marty Feldman. Especially apt for spoofing is Attenborough’s pronunciation of the word ‘here’ when using it to introduce a sentence, as in, “He-eah, in the rain forest of the Amazon Basin…”
Attenborough also appears as a character in David Ives’ play Time Flies, a comedy focusing on a romance between two mayflies.
Views and advocacy
From the beginning, Attenborough’s major series have included some content regarding the impact of human society on the natural world. The last episode of The Living Planet, for example, focuses almost entirely on man’s destruction of the environment and ways that it could be stopped or reversed. Despite this, his programmes have been criticised for not making their environmental message more explicit. Some environmentalists feel that programmes like Attenborough’s give a false picture of idyllic wilderness and do not do enough to acknowledge that such areas are increasingly encroached upon by humans.
However, his closing message from State of the Planet was forthright:
“The future of life on earth depends on our ability to take action. Many individuals are doing what they can, but real success can only come if there’s a change in our societies and our economics and in our politics. I’ve been lucky in my lifetime to see some of the greatest spectacles that the natural world has to offer. Surely we have a responsibility to leave for future generations a planet that is healthy, inhabitable by all species.”
Since the 1980s, Attenborough has become increasingly outspoken in support of environmental causes. In 2005 and 2006 he backed a BirdLife International project to stop the killing of albatross by longline fishing boats. He gave public support to WWF’s campaign to have 22 million hectares of Borneo’s rainforest designated a protected area. He also serves as a vice-president of Fauna and Flora International.
Attenborough has repeatedly said that he considers human overpopulation to be the root cause of many environmental problems. Both his series The Life of Mammals and the accompanying book end with a plea for humans to curb population growth so that other species will not be crowded out.
In a 2005 interview with BBC Wildlife magazine, Attenborough said he considered George W. Bush to be the era’s top “environmental villain”.
Religion and creationism
In a December 2005 interview with Simon Mayo on BBC Radio Five Live, Attenborough stated that he considers himself an agnostic. When asked whether his observation of the natural world has given him faith in a creator, he generally responds with some version of this story:
“My response is that when Creationists talk about God creating every individual species as a separate act, they always instance hummingbirds, or orchids, sunflowers and beautiful things. But I tend to think instead of a parasitic worm that is boring through the eye of a boy sitting on the bank of a river in West Africa, [a worm] that’s going to make him blind. And [I ask them], ‘Are you telling me that the God you believe in, who you also say is an all-merciful God, who cares for each one of us individually, are you saying that God created this worm that can live in no other way than in an innocent child’s eyeball? Because that doesn’t seem to me to coincide with a God who’s full of mercy.”
He has explained that he feels the evidence all over the planet clearly shows evolution to be the best way to explain the diversity of life, and that “as far as I’m concerned, if there is a supreme being then He chose organic evolution as a way of bringing into existence the natural world.”
Attenborough’s documentaries exposed millions to the diversity of life on Earth, including, of course, viewers who subscribe to the belief that all life was directly created by God, known as creationism. In his series, Attenborough rarely explicitly speaks about the mechanisms of evolution, except in Life on Earth, which was an entire series explicitly on the evolution of life. Instead, he describes the advantages of each adaptation in high detail — why flowers are shaped in a certain way, why birds and animals migrate, how mechanisms of mimicry can serve as protection or to attract insects and animals, and so forth. As such, his work has been cited by some creationists as exemplary in that it does not “shove evolution down the viewer’s throat”. Others have written to Attenborough and asked him to explicitly refer to God as the creator of life.
In 2002, Attenborough joined an effort by leading clerics and scientists to oppose the inclusion of creationism in the curriculum of state-funded independent schools which receive private sponsorship, such as the Emmanuel Schools Foundation. One of his more recent TV series, The Life of Mammals, makes numerous direct references to evolution, in particular human evolution.