Sir David Attenborough is a titanic figure in British television and the televised natural world at large. His work in conjunction with the BBC, documenting the natural world throughout the late-20th and 21st centuries, and his tireless efforts in conservation and the preservation of wild species, have cemented his place as a British national treasure, and an international ambassador for the natural world.
This article will discuss Attenborough’s extraordinary life, his valiant contribution to the BBC and British television in general, and the remarkable legacy he has created, which will no doubt inform our own relationships with the world around us for generations to come.
Attenborough’s early life seemingly set him up perfectly for a career engaging with the natural world. His upbringing on the ground of University College, Leicester, where his father worked as principal, was one which surprisingly was able to effectively foster his eventual love of animals and animal habitats.
He spent years of his childhood collecting fossils, stones, and natural specimens, and, at age 11, even helped the University’s Zoology department acquire a supply of newts for their studies.
After completing his education at Wyggeston Grammar School for Boys in Leicester, Attenborough was awarded a scholarship to Clare College at Cambridge, where he studied Natural Sciences.
His route through education and his fascination with the natural world as a child set Attenborough on a clear path towards conservation and natural science that would develop profoundly as his career with the BBC began to take off in the 1950s.
Radio and Television at the BBC
Attenborough’s journey with the BBC began in 1950, when his CV attracted the attention of television producer and programme director Mary Adams, who offered him a three-month training course, which would eventually lead to a full-time position with the BBC’s ‘Talks’ department, which he graduated into in 1952.
Following a number of natural history programmes featured on both television and radio, and a brief hiatus where he elected to pursue a postgraduate degree in social anthropology from the London School of Economics, Attenborough found himself as controller of BBC2 in 1965, just one year after its introduction into British programming.
His leadership oversaw a significant surge in the number of weekly programmes promoting music, the arts, entertainment, archaeology, experimental comedy, travel, drama, sport, business, science, and natural history, with Attenborough himself personally commissioning such popular and revered British television programmes as Match of the Day, and Monty Python’s Flying Circus.
While the 1960s brought a lot of great success for the BBC with him at the helm, Attenborough had started to lose interest in the position. His fidelity to his role as controller of BBC2, and later as Director of Programmes, making him responsible for the output of both BBC channels, had meant that his passion for conservation and the production of authentic natural history documentaries with the BBC had to be sidelined.
In early 1973, he left his senior position at the BBC, to return to full-time programme-making, and pursue a ‘natural history epic’ that he was passionate about leading and presenting.
A Return to Programme Making and the Life on Earth Series
In spite of Attenborough’s natural passion for this project, its ambition to establish a benchmark of quality in wildlife film-making meant that it could not be produced at the desired level of quality until 1979.
Attenborough sought to innovate the processes and production of wildlife film-making in a manner that was unprecedented until his own personal arrival into this particular broadcasting space.
He integrated new film-making techniques into his production, which placed animal within their natural habitats at the centre of the project. He removed himself physically from a lot of the action, operating largely as a narrative voice and offering his specialist insight into the drama and intrigue created solely by the animal and events featured on-screen.
The subject of innovation was one that was central to most of Attenborough’s output during this period, with his subsequent project, The Living Planet, expanding on the success of Life on Earth and continuing to revolutionise the field of filming and presenting the natural world.
Attenborough endeavoured to document thoroughly the natural world from every possible angle, with such productions as Life in the Freezer (1993), the first television series to survey the natural history of Antarctica, and The Private Life of Plants (1995), demonstrating plants to be dynamic organisms by using time-lapse photography to project their growth and evolution in a format more suitable for television, contributing to a complete collection which tells a thorough and insightful story of life on our planet.
Environmental Advocacy and Work Outside of Television
Of course, Sir David Attenborough is most familiar to people around the world for his film-making and continued work with the BBC. His overall legacy however, is compounded of his work both within and outside of televisual broadcasting.
His filming of the natural world has largely been intertwined with his continued advocacy for social and legislative action that would see our global carbon footprint reduced, and help to undo decades of damage to the o-zone layer that our own technological innovation has stimulated.
He has been a long-time supporter of the World Wildlife Fund, and presently serves as the vice-president of both The Conservation Volunteers and Fauna and Flora International, as well as solely chairing the Butterfly Conservation group and the Leicestershire and Rutland Wildlife Trust.
His devotion to environmentalism and his prominence within social public consciousness affirms his position as a national and international ambassador for the natural world and the species that inhabit it – but what can we learn from Sir David Attenborough’s remarkable life?
What Can We Learn?
There is much to take from the life and work of Sir David Attenborough. First, we can see the considerable advantages of pursuing your passion – whilst his work with the BBC in his earlier years as controller were momentous for British television, it was in documenting and engaging with the natural world where Attenborough was able to take most satisfaction.
Second, we are able to understand the importance of environmentalism, particularly as technology is continually developed that will encroach further on the lives and habitats of the animals that Attenborough is so passionate about documenting.
And finally, we can see the significance of really using your platform to raise important questions.
Sir David Attenborough has spent his life cultivating his position as the leading figure in British documentary-making, and in doing so, has inspired generations of us to develop our understanding of the natural world and our relationship with it.
For more content on health and the environment, check out another one of our articles on how what you eat can affect your mental health here!
- “David Attenborough: A Life in Television”, BAFTAGuru, 19 May 2009, archived from the original on 1 August 2015.
- “These 18 Insanely Successful People All Went to the London School of Economics”, Business Insider, archived from the original on 26 May 2018.
- “Transcript of Interview with David Attenborough”, archived from the original (PDF) on 2 December 2008.