British Producer/Host/Media Executive

David Attenborough joined the BBC's fledgling television service in 1952, fronting Zoo Quest, the breakthrough wildlife series that established the international reputation of the BBC Natural History Unit at Bristol. The first of these, Zoo Quest for a Dragon, established Attenborough as an intuitive performer, so prepossessed by his fascination with the subject at hand and unconcerned for his own dignity in front of the camera that he seemed to sweat integrity. A sense of daring has always surrounded him with a glamourous aura: even in this early outing, the massive Komodo Dragon, object of the quest through Borneo, at least looked as ferocious as its name portends, and Attenborough's presence seemed to prove not only the reality and size of his specimens, but a kind of guarantee that we too were part of this far-flung scientific endeavour, the last credible adventure in the period which witnessed the demise of the British Empire. Moreover, Zoo Quest engaged, albeit in an entertainment format, a far higher level of scientific seriousness than more child-oriented and anthropomorphic competitors from Europe and the United States. Perhaps only Jacques Cousteau was so resistant to the temptation to cuteness.

Despite this rare skill, shared only by a handful of his fellow scientists, mainly in weather reporting, Attenborough was promoted to senior management at the BBC where he served for 15 years. As controller of BBC2, he oversaw (and introduced on screen) the arrival of colour on British screens on 1 July 1967, and is credited with turning BBC2 round from elite ghetto to an attractive, varied and increasingly popular alternative to the main channels. His skill as scheduler was evidenced in the "common junctions" scheduling policy, which allowed announcers on the two BBC channels to introduce a choice of viewing, a practice which opened the Corporation up to charges of unfair advantage from the commercial broadcasters and contributed indirectly to the pressure for a fourth, commercial channel. Attenborough introduced popular sports like snooker as well as The Forsyte Saga, and he pioneered the blockbuster, personality-presenter documentaries like Kenneth Clark's Civilisation, Jacob Bronowski's The Ascent of Man, Alistair Cooke's America, J.K. Galbraith's The Age of Uncertainty and his own Life on Earth. Common to these expensive, and to that extent risky projects, was a faith in television as a medium for quite complex historical, cultural and scientific ideas. Even those series which were less popular achieved the talismanic status of the kind of programmes license fees should be used to make. Promoted to deputy controller of programmes for the whole network, third in the BBC's hierarchy, he was hotly tipped for the post of Director General, but abandoned management because, he said, "I haven't even seen the Galapagos Islands". However, he continued to speak passionately in defence of the public service ethos in many public fora.

Life on Earth, for which over 1.25 million feet of film were exposed in over thirty countries, subsequently sold in 100 territories and was seen by an estimated 500 million people worldwide. Though he has always claimed modestly that photographing animals will always bring in an audience, the accumulated skills of naturalists and wildlife cinematographers, as well as enormous planning, are required to reach remote places just in time for the great wildebeest migration, the laying of turtle eggs, or the blooming of desert cacti, scenes which have achieved almost mythic status in the popular history of British television. The multimillion pound sequels to Life, The Living Planet and The Trials of Life, the former concentrating on environments and ecologies created, through a blend of accessible scholarship and schoolboyish enthusiasm, the archetypal middlebrow mix of entertainment and education that marked the public service ethos of the mature BBC. Throughout the trilogy, the developing techniques of nature photography, allied with a sensitive use of computer-generated simulations, produced a spectacular intellectual montage, driven by the desire to communicate scientific theories as well as a sense of awe in the face of natural complexity and diversity. Though it is possible to be irritated by the lack of concern for the human populations of exotic countries, symbolised by the absence of local musics from the soundtrack, Attenborough's combination of charm and amazement has been profoundly influential on a generation of ecologically-aware viewers.

The Private Life of Plants, devoted to the evolution and adaptation of flora worldwide, was another spectacular success in the old mould, involving Attenborough popping up beside the world's oldest tree, hanging precariously in the jungle canopy, or seeking out the largest flower in existence by sense of smell. Honoured by the academy, respected by his peers and loved by audiences, Attenborough's imminent retirement leaves the BBC with a major problem in finding a replacement. Competitors have, since the pioneering work of Brian Moser on Anglia TV's Disappearing World, dispensed with onscreen presentation entirely, and in Moser's case opted for subtitled translations from local people rather than Western experts. Attenborough may be not only the first, but the last of a disappearing species.

-Sean Cubitt

David Attenborough
Photo courtesy of David Attenborough

SIR DAVID (FREDERICK) ATTENBOROUGH. Born in London, 8 May 1926, brother of actor Sir Richard Attenborough. Attended Wyggeston Grammar School for Boys, Leicester; Clare College, Cambridge. Married Jane Elizabeth Ebsworth Oriel, 1950; one son and one daughter. Served in Royal Navy, 1947-49. Worked for educational publishers, 1949-52, before joining BBC as trainee producer, 1952; host, long-running Zoo Quest, 1954-64; controller of BBC2, 1965-68; BBC's director of programmes, 1969-72; returned to documentary-making in 1979 with Life on Earth wildlife series; has since made several more similarly acclaimed nature series; gave Huw Wheldon Memorial Lecture, Royal Television Society, 1987. D.Litt.: University of Leicester, 1970; City University, 1972; University of London, 1980; University of Birmingham, 1982. DSc: University of Liverpool, 1974; Heriot-Watt University, 1978; Sussex University, 1979; Bath University, 1981; University of Ulster, 1982; Durham University, 1982; Keele University, 1986; Oxford University, 1988; Plymouth University, 1992. LLD: Bristol University, 1977; Glasgow University, 1980. D.Univ.: Open University, 1980; Essex University, 1987; Antwerp University, 1993. ScD: Cambridge University, 1984. DVetMed: Edinburgh University, 1994. Honorary Fellow: Manchester Polytechnic, 1976; University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology, 1980; Clare College, Cambridge, 1980. Fellow: British Academy of Film and Television Arts, 1980; Royal Society, 1983; Royal College of Physicians, 1991. Honorary Freeman, City of Leicester, 1990. Commander of the British Empire, 1974; Commander of the Golden Ark (Netherlands), 1983; knighted, 1985; Commander of the Royal Victorian Order, 1991. Member: Nature Conservancy Council, 1973-82; corresponding member, American Museum of Natural History, 1985; president, British Association for the Advancement of Science, 1990-91; president, Royal Society for Nature Conservation, since 1991. Trustee: Worldwide Fund for Nature U.K., 1965-69, 1972-82, 1984-90; Worldwide Fund for Nature International, 1979-86; British Museum, since 1980; Science Museum, 1984=-87; Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, 1986-92. Recipient: Society of Film and Television Arts Special Award, 1961; Royal Television Society Silver Medal, 1966; Zoological Society of London Silver Medal, 1966; Society of Film and Television Arts Desmond Davis Award, 1970; Royal Geographical Society Cherry Kearton Medal, 1972; UNESCO Kalinga Prize, 1981; Boston Museum of Science Washburn Award, 1983; Philadelphia Academy of Natural Science Hopper Day Medal, 1983; Royal Geographical Society Founder's Gold Medal, 1985; Encyclopedia Britannica Award, 1987; International Emmy Award, 1985; Royal Scottish Geographical Society Livingstone Medal, 1990; Royal Society of Arts Franklin Medal, 1990; Folden Kamera Award, Berlin, 1993.

TELEVISION (writer, presenter)

1954-64 Zoo Quest
1975 The Explorers
1976 The Tribal Eye
1977- Wildlife on One
1979 Life on Earth
1984 The Living Planet
1987 The First Eden
1989 Lost Worlds, Vanished Lives
1990 The Trials of Life
1993 Wildlife 100
1993 Life in the Freezer
1995 The Private Life of Plants


Zoo Quest to Guiana. n.p., 1956.
Zoo Quest for a Dragon. n.p., 1957.
Zoo Quest in Paraguay. n.p., 1959.
Quest in Paradise. n.p., 1960.
Zoo Quest to Madagascar. n.p., 1961.
Quest under Capricorn. n.p., 1963.
The Tribal Eye, New York: Norton, 1976.
Life on Earth, Glasgow: Collins and Sons, 1979.
The Living Planet, Boston: Little, Brown, 1984.
The First Eden, Boston: Little, Brown, 1987.
The Trials of Life. n.p., 1990.
The Private Life of Plants, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1994.

See also Ascent of Man; Civilisation