David Attenborough, the Grand Old Man of wildlife programming, turned 90 on May 8, giving fans an opportunity to revisit the breathtaking scope of his work. Beginning with Life on Earth in 1979, Attenborough has produced as well as presented hundreds of hours of top-quality programming over a career spanning close to 40 years.
At a time when wildlife programming is overshadowed by such annoyingly unrelenting hosts as Bear Grylls or the late Steve Irwin, Attenborough remains the gold standard in the kind of reportage that seems quaint today because it is marked by an almost academic reserve.
Painstaking to a fault, Attenborough single-handedly introducing a refined idiom for nature programming at the BBC, where he moved in 1950 after serving a brief stint at the Royal Navy. His interests are delightfully eclectic – before turning to nature, he presented shows on tribal art and cryptozoology (the study of mythic animals).
But it was with Life on Earth that Attenborough truly discovered his métier. With sufficient financing and the BBC’s support, he deep-dived into the mysteries of nature. Over 13 one-hour episodes, he captured a dimension of animal life that had never before been caught on camera. From South American rain forests to caves in Australia, Attenborough and his crew travelled the world and brought the story of evolution into our drawing rooms.
Some of the wildlife filming techniques taken for granted today were first improvised on the sets of Life on Earth. Camera crews would wait for hours to get the right angle of, say, the frog that incubates its young in its mouth. This diligence earned the trust of animal scientists who invited Attenborough to film their experiments.
In Rwanda, while filming mountain gorillas, Attenborough came face to face with a female gorilla. He was so moved by the proximity that he discarded the prepared script about the ape’s use of opposable thumbs, and chose to describe the encounter. “There is more meaning and understanding in exchanging a glance with a gorilla than any other animal I know,” he said. “We’re so similar.”The moment, which Attenborough later described in his memoir as “one of the most exciting encounters of my life”, was voted the 12th greatest TV clip in a 1999 British poll.
The scene, apart from its sheer magic, is instructive for other reasons. Watch how the gorilla grabs hold of an uncertain Attenborough, who reacts with shy laughter. Attenborough’s subsequent piece to camera, even as it is impromptu, is mindful of the animal’s space. It is as if he felt the need to mask his glee by explaining his decision to deviate from the script. “We’re so similar,” he says, and that is all we get out of him.
While he spent time in every major jungle on the planet, Attenborough’s work was at heart educational. Not for him the jostling and cheeky risk-taking we associate with wildlife programming today. Not for him the publicity seeking that has turned nature into a reality TV spectacle. To Attenborough, the animal kingdom was a thing of beauty and respect, magnanimous in its bounty and febrile with danger at every corner.
Life on Earth was a stupendous success and it launched Attenborough on a lifelong expedition to uncover the other untold mysteries of nature. The Living Planet (1984) focused on ecological adaptation and The Trials of Life (1990) dealt with how animal behaviour changes with age.
Through the 1990s, Attenborough continued to produce programming under the “Life” rubric, investigating the natural history of Antarctica in Life in the Freezer and capturing plant growth using time-lapse photography in The Private Life of Plants. He followed these up with The Life of Birds, The Life of Mammals, and, in 2005, Life in the Undergrowth.
Meanwhile, he continued to narrate films that he had not produced himself. Attenborough’s gently authoritative voice made him a natural choice for providing voiceover in films such as The Blue Planet (2001), about marine life, and Planet Earth (2006).
Attenborough’s “Life” series made him an advocate for environment protection, resulting in the documentaries State of the Planet (2000) and The Truth about Climate Change (2006). Together with Al Gore’s climate change film, An Inconvenient Trut, these documentaries did much to swerve the public’s opinion on a burgeoning crisis that had until then largely exercised the scientific community.
Attenborough has been showered with accolades for his work. A number of species have been named after him, while his programming has won several Baftas. The British polar research ship will be named RRS Sir David Attenborough in his honour.
At 90, Attenborough continues to keep himself busy. He is due to return as narrator and presenter for Planet Earth II, a sequel to the earlier series. With high-definition and 3D programming, the technical quality of today’s productions is several notches above some of the earlier “Life” series, but little can match the unhurried demeanour and deep knowledge of the man who started it all.