Attenborough is one of the world's best known broadcasters, humanists
and naturalists. Widely considered one of the pioneers of the nature
documentary, he has written and presented nine major series (with
a tenth in production) surveying every aspect of life on Earth.
He is also a former senior manager at the BBC, having served as
controller of BBC2 and director of programming for BBC Television
in the 1960s and 1970s.
Attenborough's father was principal of University College, University
of Leicester, and he grew up in a house on the university campus.
He was the middle of three sons. During World War II the family
also took in two Jewish refugee girls. One of Attenborough's foster
sisters gave him a piece of amber filled with prehistoric creatures,
which would be the focus of one of his television programmes many
spent his childhood collecting fossils, stones and other natural
specimens. He received encouragement in this pursuit at age 7,
when a young Jacquetta Hawkes admired his 'museum.' Attenborough
was educated at Wyggeston Grammar School for Boys in Leicester
and then won a scholarship to Clare College, University of Cambridge,
where he obtained a degree in Natural Sciences. He joined the
Royal Navy in 1947 and was stationed in North Wales during his
two years of service.
1950, Attenborough married Jane Elizabeth Ebsworth Oriel; the
marriage lasted until her death in 1997. The couple had two children,
Robert and Susan.
years at the BBC
After three years editing children's science textbooks for a publishing
company, Attenborough joined the BBC's television service in 1952.
Initially discouraged from appearing on camera because an administrator
thought his teeth were too big, he became a producer for the Talks
Department, which handled all non-fiction broadcasts. His early
projects included the quiz show Animal, Vegetable, Mineral? and
a series about folk music presented by Alan Lomax.
association with natural history programmes began when he produced
and presented the three-part series The Pattern of Animals. The
studio-bound programme featured animals from London Zoo, with
the naturalist Sir Julian Huxley discussing their use of camouflage,
aposematism and courtship displays. Through this programme, Attenborough
met Jack Lester, the curator of the zoo's reptile house, and they
decided to make a series about an animal-collecting expedition.
The result was Zoo Quest, first broadcast in 1954.
From 1965 to 1968 Attenborough was Controller of BBC2. Among the
programmes he commissioned during this time were Match of the
Day, Civilisation, The Ascent of Man, The Likely Lads, Not Only...
But Also, Man Alive, Masterclass, The Old Grey Whistle Test and
The Money Programme. He also introduced televised snooker. This
diversity of programme types reflects Attenborough's belief that
BBC2's output should be as varied as possible. In 1967, under
his watch, BBC2 became the first television channel in the United
Kingdom to broadcast in colour.
1969 to 1972 he was BBC Television's Director of Programmes (making
him responsible overall for both BBC1 and BBC2), but turned down
the offer to become Director General of the BBC. In 1972 he resigned
his post and returned to programme making.
Foremost among Attenborough's TV documentary series is the trilogy:
Life on Earth, The Living Planet and The Trials of Life. These
examine the world's organisms from the viewpoints of taxonomy,
ecology and stages of life respectively.
addition, he has written and presented more specialised surveys
including Life in the Freezer (about life in and around Antarctica),
The Private Life of Plants, The Life of Birds, The Life of Mammals
and his most recent, Life in the Undergrowth, which concerned
terrestrial invertebrates. Lost Worlds, Vanished Lives demonstrated
his passion for discovering fossils, while in 2000, State of the
Planet examined the environmental crisis that threatens the ecology
of the Earth. He also narrated two other significant series: The
Blue Planet (2001), and Planet Earth (2006). The latter is particularly
notable as it comprises the first natural history programmes to
be made entirely in high-definition format.
an interview published in the November 2005 issue of BBC Wildlife
magazine, Attenborough revealed that he had begun work on a series
about amphibians and reptiles with the working title Life in Cold
Blood. He said that he expected this to be his last major series.
However, in a subsequent interview with Radio Times, he said he
did not intend to retire completely and would probably make occasional
one-off programmes after Life in Cold Blood (currently in production
and due for completion in 2009) was finished.
Attenborough also narrated the long-running half-hour nature series
Wildlife on One on BBC One (variously retitled Wildlife on Two,
BBC Wildlife and Natural World depending on the channel on which
it is repeated), though his role has mainly been to introduce
or narrate other people's film, and he rarely appears on camera.
also serves on the advisory board of BBC Wildlife magazine.
awards and recognition
1970 : BAFTA Desmond Davis Award
1974 : CBE
1979 : BAFTA Fellowship
1983 : FRS
1985 : Knighthood
1991 : CVO for producing Queen Elizabeth II's Christmas broadcast
for a number of years from 1986
1996 : CH "for services to nature broadcasting"
2000 : International Cosmos Prize
2004 : Descartes Prize for Outstanding Science Communication Actions
2005 : OM
2005 : Nierenberg Prize for Science in the Public Interest
In 1993, after discovering that the Mesozoic reptile Plesiosaurus
conybeari had not, in fact, been a true plesiosaur, the paleontologist
Robert Bakker renamed the species Attenborosaurus conybeari in
June 2004, Attenborough and Sir Peter Scott were jointly profiled
in the second of a three part BBC Two series, The Way We Went
Wild, about television wildlife presenters. Part three also featured
Attenborough extensively. The next month, another BBC Two programme,
Attenborough the Controller, recalled his time as Director of
Programmes for BBC2.
November 2005, London's Natural History Museum announced a fundraising
campaign to build a communications centre in Attenborough's honour.
The museum intends to open the Sir David Attenborough Studio in
2008. An opinion poll of 4900 Britons conducted by Reader's Digest
in 2006 showed Attenborough to be the most trusted celebrity in
is often suggested that David Attenborough's 50-year career at
the BBC making natural history documentaries and travelling extensively
throughout the world, has probably made him the most travelled
person on Earth, ever.
contribution to broadcasting was recognised by the 60-minute documentary
Life on Air, transmitted in 2002 to tie in with the publication
of Attenborough's similarly titled autobiography. For the programme,
the naturalist was interviewed at his home by his friend Michael
Palin (someone who is almost as well-travelled). Attenborough's
reminiscences are interspersed with memorable clips from his series,
with contributions from his brother Richard as well as professional
colleagues. Life on Air is available on DVD as part of Attenborough
in Paradise and Other Personal Voyages.
and artistic portrayals
Attenborough's upper-class accent and hushed, excited delivery
have been the subject of frequent parodies by comedians, most
notably Spike Milligan and Marty Feldman. Especially apt for spoofing
is Attenborough's pronunciation of the word 'here' when using
it to introduce a sentence, as in, "He-eah, in the rain forest
of the Amazon Basin..."
also appears as a character in David Ives' play Time Flies, a
comedy focusing on a romance between two mayflies.
From the beginning, Attenborough's major series have included
some content regarding the impact of human society on the natural
world. The last episode of The Living Planet, for example, focuses
almost entirely on man's destruction of the environment and ways
that it could be stopped or reversed. Despite this, his programmes
have been criticised for not making their environmental message
more explicit. Some environmentalists feel that programmes like
Attenborough's give a false picture of idyllic wilderness and
do not do enough to acknowledge that such areas are increasingly
encroached upon by humans.
his closing message from State of the Planet was forthright:
future of life on earth depends on our ability to take action.
Many individuals are doing what they can, but real success can
only come if there's a change in our societies and our economics
and in our politics. I've been lucky in my lifetime to see some
of the greatest spectacles that the natural world has to offer.
Surely we have a responsibility to leave for future generations
a planet that is healthy, inhabitable by all species."
the 1980s, Attenborough has become increasingly outspoken in support
of environmental causes. In 2005 and 2006 he backed a BirdLife
International project to stop the killing of albatross by longline
fishing boats. He gave public support to WWF's campaign to have
22 million hectares of Borneo's rainforest designated a protected
area. He also serves as a vice-president of Fauna and Flora International.
has repeatedly said that he considers human overpopulation to
be the root cause of many environmental problems. Both his series
The Life of Mammals and the accompanying book end with a plea
for humans to curb population growth so that other species will
not be crowded out.
a 2005 interview with BBC Wildlife magazine, Attenborough said
he considered George W. Bush to be the era's top "environmental
In a December 2005 interview with Simon Mayo on BBC Radio Five
Live, Attenborough stated that he considers himself an agnostic.
When asked whether his observation of the natural world has given
him faith in a creator, he generally responds with some version
of this story:
response is that when Creationists talk about God creating every
individual species as a separate act, they always instance hummingbirds,
or orchids, sunflowers and beautiful things. But I tend to think
instead of a parasitic worm that is boring through the eye of
a boy sitting on the bank of a river in West Africa, [a worm]
that's going to make him blind. And [I ask them], 'Are you telling
me that the God you believe in, who you also say is an all-merciful
God, who cares for each one of us individually, are you saying
that God created this worm that can live in no other way than
in an innocent child's eyeball? Because that doesn't seem to me
to coincide with a God who's full of mercy."
has explained that he feels the evidence all over the planet clearly
shows evolution to be the best way to explain the diversity of
life, and that "as far as I'm concerned, if there is a supreme
being then He chose organic evolution as a way of bringing into
existence the natural world."
documentaries exposed millions to the diversity of life on Earth,
including, of course, viewers who subscribe to the belief that
all life was directly created by God, known as creationism. In
his series, Attenborough rarely explicitly speaks about the mechanisms
of evolution, except in Life on Earth, which was an entire series
explicitly on the evolution of life. Instead, he describes the
advantages of each adaptation in high detail — why flowers
are shaped in a certain way, why birds and animals migrate, how
mechanisms of mimicry can serve as protection or to attract insects
and animals, and so forth. As such, his work has been cited by
some creationists as exemplary in that it does not "shove
evolution down the viewer's throat". Others have written
to Attenborough and asked him to explicitly refer to God as the
creator of life.
2002, Attenborough joined an effort by leading clerics and scientists
to oppose the inclusion of creationism in the curriculum of state-funded
independent schools which receive private sponsorship, such as
the Emmanuel Schools Foundation. One of his more recent TV series,
The Life of Mammals, makes numerous direct references to evolution,
in particular human evolution.