He is perhaps the supreme natural-history broadcaster, one who has communed with gorillas in the forests of Rwanda, dived in a submersible to the Great Barrier Reef, and had dozens of creatures named after him, from Attenborough’s black-eyed satyr butterfly (Euptchia attenboroughi) to a weevil (Trigonopterus attenboroughi) and pitcher plant (Nepenthes attenboroughii).
After seven decades in broadcasting, Sir David Attenborough is an international treasure who is admired by presidents as much as the public.
Given his many decades with the BBC, Sir David is also a champion of Reithian values to inform, educate and entertain though has also worked with innovative and more traditional independent companies, as well as several of the big streamers.
“David’s extraordinary curiosity and insight has not only made him a master storyteller but he has sought to use the latest technology to find new ways to tell stories about the natural world that can reach every age group across the world,” said Anthony Geffen, CEO and Creative Director of Atlantic Productions, who worked with Sir David on virtual reality 3D TV, apps and more.
Sir David is modest to the point of always wanting to share his spotlight, whether with colourful birds of paradise, piles of droppings or armies of crabs. He insists his camera crews, photographers, field scientists and sound recordists share credit. In his beautifully written autobiography, Life on Air, subjectivity is dialled down low.
I know his toes will curl when I reveal that, when the Science Museum Group first considered celebrating 100 years of broadcasting with an exhibition (now open, and called Switched On, at the National Science and Media Museum, Bradford) Sir David was the original inspiration and kindly gave us lots of advice – including, most emphatically, not to structure the exhibition around his remarkable story.
Born in 1926, the same year as HM The Queen, Sir David was raised on the campus of University College, Leicester (now the university), where his father was principal and his interest in the natural world was encouraged by a young Jacquetta Hawkes, an archaeologist.
His life on air began in 1952. That year the young Attenborough happily traded a lowly proof-reading job for a three-month contract in the Talks department of BBC television at Alexandra Palace, London.
I asked him what BBC culture was like during this monochrome era, when many people (him included) did not even own a TV, and he talks of it as a monopoly, one very much part of the civil service.
That culture, which changed when the Government ushered in competition, was such that BBC stalwarts like Sir David would be ‘a little dismayed’ if viewers remained glued to their screens during broadcast hours. Even so, ‘they did’, he recalls.
When he started out in TV broadcasting, the schedule was ‘planned like a good meal’, Sir David remarks. The greatest change he has witnessed is the rise of streaming services that enable ‘everyone a mechanism to look at any programme at any time.’
But, at the dawn of television, when innovations such as recording did not exist, Sir David argues that programme makers were emboldened to take more risks, in his case using TV to showcase the wonders of nature and explore the great wildernesses that existed at that time.
The Race for Colour
In the 1960s, Sir David was for four years controller of BBC2, and then director of programmes for another four years. During this time, he commissioned the ground-breaking series Civilisation along with Monty Python, and became embroiled in the race to introduce colour broadcasting in Europe.
Europe seemed to lag behind America, where the National Television System Committee had developed the analogue television format encoding system, introduced in 1954. However, Sir David said the US system was a ‘catastrophe’ and joked that NTSC stood for ‘No Two Similar Colours’.
When it became clear that Germany was on the verge of becoming the first colour broadcaster in Europe, Sir David admits that he thought ‘in a pathetic childish way, no no no, we have got to be first.’ Colour cameras were in short supply and he had the brainwave of televising Wimbledon in colour.
‘You can get a first-rate exciting transmission just with three cameras, one at one end, one on another and a wide shot,’ he remembers. Colour broadcasts began in the UK a few weeks before Germany, marking a ‘little blow for the United Kingdom’
However, at the height of his BBC managerial career, when he was even a candidate for Director General, he decided in 1973 to return to his first love, making TV programmes.
Life on Earth
His milestone wildlife broadcast, Life on Earth (1979), was seen by half a billion people. The ratings were boosted not just by colour and novel broadcasting technologies but great storytelling along with the boldness of Attenborough’s vision; he wanted to visit every ecosystem and put the story of 4 billion years of life in its evolutionary context.
But the first chapter of that story, though mysterious and extraordinary, consists of myriad single cells that are not very televisual, certainly not charismatic enough to make for relatable stories. Much to the dismay of American executives, that meant starting the greatest story of all with ‘mud and worms,’ he recalls. Yet, almost half a century later, ‘people remember it and that is heartening.’
Over the years, whether 3D TV or cameras borne on drones, the viewer’s vista has transformed but ‘it has not changed the story’, he says. People are still as fascinated by the migration of the wildebeest in the Serengeti today ‘as they were in the 1930s and the 40s and 50s’.
’The fact we can show it better and better and better is something gives us pleasure, and I hope it gives the audience pleasure, but it is not the main thing, which is the wonder of the migration of the wildebeest.’
The Biggest Story of All
When it comes to the greatest achievement of TV broadcasting it may well be that it has brought the inhabitants of our fragile planet together to think about the conjoined problems of climate change and ecosystem destruction, according to Sir David.
TV has shown us we ‘are heading for a common disaster unless we all get together and work out how to deal with it,’ he says. The final episode of his Blue Planet II in 2017 has been widely heralded as a key moment sparking concern about plastic pollution. Sir David knows only too well that TV offers a unique way to unite the world around this existential threat.
As for what lies in store for broadcasting, it faces ever more balkanisation and splintering into channels, he says. Moreover, ‘everyone can make their own programmes now.’
The challenge is for professional broadcasters to innovate to stay ahead, which may be depressing for them but ‘does prevent totalitarianism and big brother.’
Sir David looks like he is never set to give in to old age. With my colleagues at the museum who have been lucky enough to benefit from his advice, notably Charlotte Howard, Helen Langwick, Julia Knights and Gemma Levett, we wish him well and look forward to his next seventy years of broadcasting!
Watch Sir David’s introduction to our flagship exhibition Switched On, open until January 2023 at the National Science and Media Museum in Bradford.
Discover more broadcasting stories produced as part of our Broadcast 100 celebrations.