Sir David Attenborough is one of the most celebrated naturalists of our time. He has had a long and illustrious career spanning more than sixty years and is still producing documentaries today. Many consider him to be a British national treasure. In this article, we’ll be taking a look back at his remarkable life.
Life Before Broadcasting
David Attenborough was born on the 8th of May 1926, to Frederick Attenborough and Mary Clegg. He was the second of three boys, all of whom would go on to have successful careers. Though he had no natural sisters, his family fostered two Jewish refugee girls during the Second World War. An uncle in the United States later adopted them, but Sir David has said he still considers them family.
He was raised in Leicester and could often be found on the grounds of University College, where his father was principal. Sir David’s passion for nature started at a young age; by the age of seven, he had assembled a sizeable collection of bird eggs and fossils. This “museum” impressed Jacquetta Hawkes, a prominent archaeologist, who visited in 1934.
Sir David attended Wyggeston Grammar School for Boys and went on to win a scholarship to Clare College, Cambridge in 1945. There he studied geology and zoology, going on to obtain a degree in natural sciences.
After graduating, he was called up to serve in the Royal Navy for two years. He had hoped it would give him an opportunity to see the world, but he was posted to a ship in Wales instead.
Passion for Nature
Sir David’s passion for nature was reinforced in 1936 when he and his older brother, Richard, attended a lecture by Archibald Belaney (who styled himself as Grey Owl). Belaney advocated for conservation and the protection of the natural world. Richard would later say that David was…
bowled over by the man’s determination to save the beaver, by his profound knowledge of the flora and fauna of the Canadian wilderness and by his warnings of ecological disaster should the delicate balance between them be destroyed. The idea that mankind was endangering nature by recklessly despoiling and plundering its riches was unheard of at the time, but it is one that has remained part of Dave’s own credo to this day.
A year later, a young David Attenborough heard that the zoology department of University College needed a supply of newts. He offered – through his father – to supply them with newts for a fee of threepence per specimen. It later transpired that he had sourced the newts from a pond in the immediate vicinity of the zoology department.
Breakthrough into Broadcasting
Sir David Attenborough’s first job after completing his naval service was at a publishing company. He started in 1949, editing children’s science textbooks. He spent a year there, but found he was not passionate about the work. Hoping for a change in career, Sir David applied for a job as a radio talk producer with the BBC. He was rejected for this role, but his CV impressed them enough that he was offered a place on a BBC television training course.
By 1952, he completed his training and became a television producer. So began a career that would lead him to become a household name.
Though he did not appear in front of the camera for some time – Mary Adams, a producer, thought his teeth were too big for television – he worked on a number of non-fiction programs, including a quiz show called “Animal, Vegetable, Mineral?”. His first foray into natural history programs was the three-part series “Animal Patterns”, which featured animals at London Zoo. His work on this programme introduced him to Jack Lester, curator of the zoo’s reptile house.
He and Jack decided to break away from the then-normal format of such shows. As part of this format, animals were taken from their natural environment and into television studios. Instead, Sir David and Jack decided they wanted to film animals in the wild, as well as in zoos. This show was called “Zoo Quest” and was launched in 1954.
It was also David Attenborough’s first appearance in front of the camera, after Jack was forced to drop out due to illness. The show went on to be hugely successful, and its “on-location at a respectful distance” format set the standards for modern nature documentaries.
In 1957 the BBC established its Natural History Unit. Attenborough was invited to join but turned the position down. He did not want to move his family out of London. Instead, he formed his own department, the Travel and Exploration Unit. This decision allowed him to continue presenting “Zoo Quest”, whilst also producing other documentaries.
Three years later, Sir David resigned from the BBC to study for a postgraduate degree in social anthropology. However, in 1965, he was offered the role of “controller” on the newly launched BBC Two channel. He accepted this position, but the new role prevented him from finishing the course.
BBC and Beyond
In his role as controller, as well as a later promotion to director of programming for both the BBC and BBC Two, Sir David helped to launch series such as “The Ascent of Man” and “Civilisation”. It was also Attenborough who greenlit the comedy series “Monty Python’s Flying Circus”. In recognition of his contributions, Sir David was awarded a Desmond Davis Award in 1970.
He continued in this role until 1972. He then resigned so he could write and produce series on a freelance basis. Not long before his resignation, he confessed to his brother, Richard, that he was not passionate about the role.
Had he continued as director of programming, however, he may well have become Director-General of the BBC.
His first project following his resignation was “Eastwards with Attenborough”, which saw him travel to Indonesia with a crew from the Natural History Unit. Upon his return, he started work on the scripts for his “Life on Earth” documentary. The BBC, supporting his ambition, sought to partner with an American network to secure extra funding.
Whilst he waited, Sir David presented several other projects. These included a series on tribal art called “The Tribal Eye” and a children’s series about mythical creatures called “Fabulous Animals”. In 1976, a deal was finally made that allowed Sir David to start working on “Life on Earth”.
Sir David’s “Life” documentaries are generally considered to be his crowning achievement. He ended up exploring almost all aspects of the animal kingdom across a twenty-year period. This was made possible by technological advances and new filmmaking techniques. The series won two prestigious Peabody Awards.
He is also well known for providing his voice to documentaries such as The Blue Planet (2001) and Planet Earth (2006). At the time, Planet Earth was the most expensive nature documentary ever commissioned by the BBC. It was also the first BBC wildlife series to be shot in high definition.
Amongst his most recent productions is the film “David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet”. In this film, he reflects on his career and hopes for the future. It is in keeping with many of his other recent works, such as “The Truth About Climate Change”, in that he adopts a more environmentalist stance. He has also called it his “witness statement” on climate change and his career.
His brothers were Richard and John Attenborough. Richard was a beloved actor, director, and film producer, best known for “The Great Escape” (1963), “Jurassic Park” (1993), and “Miracle on 34th Street” (1994). He passed away in 2014.
David’s younger brother, John, was an executive at Italian car manufacturer Alfa Romeo. Later in life, he retired, becoming a financial advisor, but unfortunately died in 2012.
In 1950, Sir David married Jane Elizabeth Ebsworth Oriel, and they went on to have two children: Robert and Susan. Sadly, Jane passed away in 1997. Their children continue to live prosperous lives. Robert is a lecturer in bioanthropology for the School of Archaeology and Anthropology at the Australian National University in Canberra; Susan is a former primary school headmistress.
David Attenborough’s Honours and Legacy
Sir David Attenborough was awarded a knighthood for his work in 1985, followed by the Order of Merit from Queen Elizabeth II in 2002. A poll in the same year named Sir David as one of the 100 Greatest Britons. He is also regarded as the most travelled person in recorded human history and is the oldest person ever to have visited the North Pole.
By January 2013, Sir David had collected 32 honorary degrees from British universities. Amongst these are honorary doctorates from Durham University, the University of Cambridge, and the University of Oxford. His narration work on Blue Planet II earned him an Emmy.
He has also been honoured by having his name given to several species of plants and animals. This is a fitting tribute to his years of work in the fields of zoology, botany, and anthropology.
Sir David Attenborough’s immense catalogue of work will remain with us for many years to come. It is Attenborough’s hope that his documentaries will inspire people to be more conscious of their attitude towards the environment, whilst also fostering an increased appreciation for the natural world.
Image: Flickr – House of Lords