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.
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.
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.
Photo courtesy of David Attenborough
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.
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
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.
also Ascent of Man;