Today we point our spotlight on one of my personal heroes…a true legend in the field of broadcasting. He is the man behind the most successful nature documentaries ever made and his voice makes me listen in awe. This week’s “In The Spotlight” is about the one and only: Sir David Attenborough!
Sir David Attenborough is a British broadcaster/naturalist/writer/director/presenter and he’s been making nature documentaries for 60 years now. He is mostly known for his work on BBC’s “Life”, “Planet Earth”, “The Blue Planet”, “The Life of Mammals”, “First Life”, “Madagascar”, “Frozen Planet”, “Africa”, “The Hunt” and many (many) more. This year Sir David reached the admirable age of 90 and he is still going strong (currently he is working on “Planet Earth II”).
Attenborough was born in London on May 8th, 1926 as the younger brother of actor/director Lord Richard (“Welcome to Jurassic Park”) Attenborough (“Jurassic Park”, “The Great Escape”). His younger brother is John Attenborough, an executive in the motor industry. During WWII their parents also fostered two Jewish refugee girls Irene and Helga, as part of the “Kindertransport” programme. They lived with the family for 7 years and were considered part of the family. Lord Richard Attenborough later said the two girls were cherished and that he and his brother saw the girls as their sisters.
David spent his childhood years searching for and collecting fossils and stones. Fun Fact: At age 7 his “museum” was visited and admired by a young Jacquetta Hawkes (a well-known British archaeologist/writer and daughter of Nobel Prize winning scientist Fredrick Hopkins). His Father (Fredrick Attenborough) was principle of the University College of Leicester and the young David spent a great amount of time in the grounds of the University.
He attended Wyggeston Grammar School for Boys in Leicester. In 1945 he won a scholarship to attend Clare College at the University of Cambridge. He studied geology and zoology and he obtained a degree in natural sciences. From 1947 to 1949 he was stationed in North Wales and the Firth of Forth for national service in the Royal Navy. In 1950 David married his wife of 47 years Jane Elizabeth Ebsworth Oriel (she died in 1997) and together they had two children (Robert and Susan). At the same time he applied for some jobs at the BBC (although he did not own a TV and had only seen one television program in his life) he took up Mary Adams (head of the Talk Department of the BBC) offer to join a training course and in 1952 he joined the BBC fulltime. Fun Fact: At first Attenborough was discouraged to appear before the camera by Adams (because she thought his teeth were too big) and he became a producer for the BBC Talks Department (Later renamed to Current Affairs).
In 1953 he presented and produced a miniseries called “The Pattern of Animals” (his first association with natural history programs), which later amounted in the “Zoo Quest” series (1954-1963) in collaboration with the London Zoo. In 1957 the BBC formally established their Natural History Department (in Bristol) and they asked Attenborough to join. Attenborough however did not want to move to Bristol and he established his own department: the Travel and Exploration Unit. This allowed him to continue working on Zoo Quest as well as the chance to produce other documentaries, like Traveler’s Tales and Adventure).
In the early 60’s Attenborough resigned for a period of a few years to study for a post graduate degree in social anthropology at the London School of Economics. In March 1965, however (before finishing his degree) he accepted an offer to return and became controller of BBC Two. He had a clause included in his contract that allowed him to keep making programs. Under his wing BBC Two became the first British channel to broadcast in color and under his commission programs like "Monty Python’s Flying Circus" and "Civilisation" (a series about the history of Western art and architecture, which set the blueprint for landmark authored documentaries) were introduced to the world. Later Attenborough was promoted to director of programs, which made him responsible for both BBC Channels and his name was suggested for Director General of the BBC. His tasks as director of programs however, were too far removed from his true passion of film making and after a phone call with his brother he resigned and became free-lance broadcaster. The next big milestones in Attenborough’s career are the "Life" series, starting with “Life on Earth” (a co-production with Turner Broadcasting). With this series Attenborough changed the field of wildlife filmmaking and he brought a lot of innovations in the filming techniques. (Fun Fact: Attenborough and his crew were granted privileged access to film Diane Fossey’s research group of mountain gorillas in Rwanda). Due to the success of the “Life on Earth” series, the BBC launched a follow up in the form of “The Living Planet” (a series around the theme of ecology and the adaptation of living thing to their environment). In 1990 the original “Life” series were concluded by “The Trials of Life”, about the behavior of animals through different stages of their life. This series drew attention because of its sequences about killer whales hunting sea lions and chimpanzees hunting and killing another monkey. In the following decades Attenborough continued his “Life” series with (among others): “Life of Mammals”, “Life of Birds”, Life in Cold Blood and First Life. Alongside his Life series Attenborough worked on a great amount of other (BBC Earth) projects, like: “Wildlife on One” (he narrated all of the 253 episodes) and “Natural World” (he narrated 50 episodes). The list goes on and on with big names Like “Planet Earth”, “Life”, “Frozen Planet” and I’m sure I forgot to mention a lot of other great productions.
Some more (Fun) Facts about Sir David Attenborough:
- In 1985 he was knighted and became Sir David Attenborough.
- He has a Dinosaur named after him called: "Attenborosaurus Conybeari".
- In 2013 he received a pacemaker under the pressure of his insurance company. They refused to insure him for a trip to Australia unless he had something to monitor his heart. His explanation was that he was given “this thing called a pacemaker” to make sure his heart “didn’t to funny things”
- His favorite filming location is Central Europe, because “I can get decent food and a reasonable bottle of cheap wine”
- He introduced televised snooker to the BBC
- He is agnostic in his beliefs in a greater power, because it cannot be proved or disproved. During an interview with The Daily Mail he said the following:
“While it would be unscientific not to acknowledge that there are areas we don’t know anything about, it’s equally unscientific to say, ‘I will therefore believe there are little green men living on an asteroid whizzing round the world or, indeed, there’s an old guy with a long grey beard sitting on a cloud".
- His least favorite animal is a rat and he refers to rats as “the ultimate horrible thing”. During a stomach upset in India, he sat on a loo when a rat popped up from between his legs. It came out of the loo.
- He refused to fly business class for the greatest part of his career, unless his camera crew would also be upgraded.
- When asked what he would have done if he hadn’t gone into TV he answered he would have tried teaching
- He always wears a blue shirt on camera, it’s his trademark. Once, when filming in the Jura in Switzerland, he forgot to take it with him and he was truly lost without it. Luckily, when the team travelled through a small village, they found a blue shirt in a clothing shop. He bought the shirt and wore it on camera. Later he found out that there was something off with the buttons of the shirt and it turned out to be a women’s shirt.
- He holds the most honorary degrees from British Universities, adding up to a total of 31.
To me Sir David Attenborough is the greatest wildlife film maker of all time; seriously the man is a true living legend. I own a lot of his documentaries and they never seize to amaze me. Apart from his unbelievable knowledge about all living things Sir David has a great sense of humor.
I could keep on writing for hours about him but I would like to end this article with the following words:
“Sir David Attenborough is king”