The word ‘legend’ is thrown about too often and too whimsically these days, diluting the potency and impact of the term. If we could restore the word to its former glory, then very few people would earn the right to be classified as a true legend. Sir David Attenborough is one of those select few who not only garners legendary status but also adorns the lofty heights of ‘national treasure’ and ‘cultural icon’.
For nearly 70 years, Attenborough has brought the wonders of the natural world to our homes via television, radio and, more recently, social media. His unique voice, described as a ‘hushed, reverential whisper, full of barely contained excitement’, has introduced millions across the world to the rich, diverse and wonderful variety of flora and fauna our planet has to offer. In no simpler terms, Attenborough is the Godfather of natural history.
Born on 8th May 1926 in Leicester, Attenborough was one of three sons. His eldest brother, Richard, would go on to become an actor and director, starring in blockbuster movies such as Jurassic Park, A Bridge Too Far and The Great Escape, whilst his younger brother, John, was an executive for car manufacturer Alfa Romeo.
From a young age, Attenborough showed an interest in the world around him by collecting fossils and natural specimens. He went on to gain a Natural Sciences degree from Cambridge University before being called up for national service in the Royal Navy in 1947. He spent the next two years stationed in North Wales.
In 1950, Attenborough married Jane Elizabeth Ebsworth Oriel. The pair would remain together for the next 47 years before Jane passed away in 1997. The couple had two children, Robert and Susan.
Attenborough’s time at the BBC began in 1952 when he joined the broadcasting giant as a trainee. It wasn’t long before he became a producer, demonstrating a tenacious desire to take television shows to the next level.
His ground-breaking show Zoo Quest (1954) combined live studio presentation with actual wildlife footage shot on location, something that had never been done before. For the first time people’s living rooms were filled with the wonders of the natural world and the show’s success demonstrated to the execs that wildlife shows could attract large audiences. It was also Attenborough’s first stint in front of the camera.
In 1965, Attenborough accepted an offer from the BBC to become Controller of its new TV channel BBC 2. By establishing a portfolio of diverse programmes ranging from music and the arts to experimental comedy and travel, Attenborough defined the identity of the fledgling channel for decades to come. Some of his most famous commissions include Match of the Day, Call My Bluff and the era-defining comedic juggernaut Monty Python’s Flying Circus.
He also commissioned shows that became landmark series, defining a new kind of television documentary. Programmes such as Civilisation, a 13-part series on the history of Western art, and The Ascent of Man, another 13-part series tracing the development of human society, were critically-acclaimed.
Attenborough also pioneered the introduction of colour television, overseeing the first-ever colour broadcasts in Europe. To help show off the new medium, Attenborough brought snooker to the BBC. The bright vibrant colours of the balls demonstrated beautifully the potential of colour TV.
In 1969, Attenborough was promoted to BBC Director of Programmes. However, his desire to work in the boardroom was short-lived and in 1972 Attenborough handed in his resignation to become a freelance broadcaster, hoping to return to his natural history roots.
Attenborough once said: ‘An understanding of the natural world is a source of not only great curiosity, but great fulfilment.’ This insatiable curiosity transformed Attenborough from boardroom exec to wildlife explorer as he travelled the world writing and producing ground-breaking nature programmes.
Immersing himself in the environment in which he filmed, Attenborough pioneered new filming techniques and documentary styles, pushing the boundaries of natural history programming to deliver stunningly immersive wildlife shows. Life on Earth (1979) was a prime example – a televisual feast that became the benchmark of quality for wildlife shows. It was watched by upwards of 500 million people worldwide and became a huge commercial success for the BBC. Five years later, The Living Planet (1984), followed in its footsteps and proved Attenborough’s formula for wildlife filmmaking was now the gold standard.
In the years and decades that followed, Attenborough continued to raise the stakes and push the boundaries of film-making to bring to the small screen sights and sounds never seen before. From colour to high-definition, virtual reality to 4K resolution, Sir David’s continual desire to innovate and present stunning visuals has kept audiences at the edge of their seats for eight decades.
Although Attenborough's catalogue of work is too extensive to cover in just one article, if we were to cherry-pick a couple they would be The Blue Planet and Planet Earth franchises, both of which were spectacularly ambitious in their scope and utterly captivating to watch.
In more recent years, Attenborough has turned his attention to raising awareness of climate change, having had a front-row seat to the ever-increasing threat our natural world faces. ‘It's surely our responsibility to do everything within our power to create a planet that provides a home not just for us, but for all life on Earth,’ he once said.
Our Planet (2019) and David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet (2020) emphasised the destructive role of human activities on our world, hoping to inspire change and a renewed desire to preserve what we have before it’s too late.
For his work, Attenborough has been presented with numerous accolades including a Knighthood, a Knight Grand Cross of the Order of St Michael and St George as well as a Champion of the Earth award. Over twenty creatures, both living and extinct, have also been named in his honour.
Showing no signs of slowing down, Attenborough released Prehistoric Planet in May 2022, a five-part natural history series about the life of dinosaurs.