Science only works if it can share its ideas so that we take them seriously. And nothing says ‘taking it seriously’ like the Planet Earth II craze which swept across Cambridge about 3 years ago. Suddenly, people who scorned vegetarianism and hunted foxes, wept as the caribou fell to the wolves. Out of nowhere, people who ignored the natural world absorbed its stories in awed reverence.
Was it the beautiful shots of the biosphere? Or the emotive orchestral chords they’re set to? Or perhaps the soothing, august tones of Sir David Attenborough? In my opinion, it was all of it. Attenborough’s vision harnesses the medium of television to enthrall us all with stories in faraway lands, with animals in the starring roles. Without a single acting class!
So, with Planet Earth playing in the background, I shall explore the life and work of a celebrated natural historian and beloved broadcaster, who got a knighthood for doing exactly what he loved most.
David Attenborough was born on 8th May 1926, in Hounslow, West London. When his father was appointed to a position at the University College in Leicester (now the University of Leicester), David and his brother Richard found themselves living in the university grounds. As a boy, David would frequent the New Walk Museum in Leicester, helping to collect and classify fossils. Apt, one might say, since his brother Richard would go on to breed dinosaurs.
I’m only half joking – Richard was himself a distinguished actor and filmmaker, known for his role as John Hammond in Jurassic Park, among others!
But back to David. Back when grammar schools were new, he attended Wyggeston Grammar School for Boys. During his school years, the young David showed an interest in geology, in keeping with his rather adorable fascination with his fossils.
As a result, he got some private tuition from a kindly physics master (are you under 18 and looking to master the world of Physics? Join the Immerse Physics summer course and be taught by leaders in your field!) who knew some stuff about rocks. And while Attenborough himself doesn’t claim to have been an incredibly bright youth, he was certainly driven! At 16, he did some teaching in slum schools in wartime Leicester, and would travel up to the University of Nottingham for extra zoology lessons of his own!
Attenborough would later win a scholarship to Clare College, Cambridge to read for a two-year natural sciences degree beginning in 1945. He graduated with a 2:1, and an undiminished love of rocks! In 1947, he was called up to the Navy for two years’ national service. He was really hoping to go abroad, but ended up posted in Scotland and Wales. At least he made it to lieutenant though…
Working for the BBC
Upon his return to England (from like, Wales, that far-off land…), Attenborough got a job as an editor in educational publishing. Unfortunately, he was less than enamoured, choosing to apply for a BBC Radio News vacancy he saw advertised in The Times.
They didn’t take him, but the head of factual programming for BBC television snapped him up and gave him training, despite Attenborough having never actually watched a TV programme by then! In 1952, he joined the Beeb full time, beginning on a quiz show called Animal, Vegetable, Mineral?
Initial years at the BBC
The format feels so charmingly 20th century to me that we need to talk about it. A panel of three scientists would be challenged, by a museum, to identify an object. And it was our David’s job to go to the museums issuing these challenges and pick the rocks (they weren’t always rocks), and spirit them back to London. Reading Attenborough’s memories of this time, I can’t shake the desire to this period dramatised. As a sitcom. Damaged artefacts, fake axes, tensions between presenters – with poor young David caught in the middle. All the makings of a classic!
By 1955, David was part of the crew on Zoo Quest, a programme more akin to what we know him for. In association with the London Zoo, the show would incorporate location footage from Africa with studio footage of animals brought along from the zoo. Jack Lester, curator of the London Zoo’s reptile house, was the original presenter.
Until he fell ill and David was shoved in front of the camera in his place! From here, Attenborough’s role as presenter afforded him influence over the programme’s direction, as well as exposure. When the 60s arrived, David was a household name.
Life Series and other documentaries
As the 60s continued, our protagonist was named head of the newly created BBC Two channel, ushering in new styles of educational programming on Europe’s first colour television service. The World About Us, Civilisation, and The Ascent of Man helped to define the modern-day television documentary under Attenborough’s stewardship. And in colour, in people’s living rooms for the first time!
Soon, his success led the BBC to make him Director of Programmes in the 70s, allowing him more freedom to go out on expeditions again, which he loved far more than dreary desk work. During this period, he set off around the world, making Tribal Eye to bring far-off cultures to the sitting rooms of Britain.
When talk emerged that David might be appointed Director General of the BBC, he declined. Electing instead to pursue a life of documentary filmmaking, Attenborough would go on to produce landmark series such as Life on Earth, The Living Planet and, yes, Planet Earth. Tying the facts of life to a compelling narrative on the grandest of scales, or the very smallest, Attenborough perfected a style that is instantly recognisable and captivating all over the world.
David Attenborough had far from a straightforward career path. There were times when he found himself stuck somewhere he didn’t necessarily want to be, before making the most of it and steering himself somewhere better.
Today, he’s a big part of the conversation on wildlife protection and climate change, bringing those huge issues to light for the average viewer. While he doesn’t fit the traditional profile of a scientist, he’s certainly done the life sciences an enormous favour!
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