Sir David Frederick Attenborough OM CH CVO CBE FRS FLS FZS FSA FRSGS (UK: //; born 8 May 1926) is an English broadcaster and naturalist. He is best known for writing and presenting, in conjunction with the BBC Natural History Unit, the nine natural history documentary series that form the Life collection, which form a comprehensive survey of animal and plant life on Earth. He is a former senior manager at the BBC, having served as controller of BBC Two and director of programming for BBC Television in the 1960s and 1970s. He is the only person to have won BAFTAs for programmes in each of black and white, colour, HD, 3D and 4K.
OM CH CVO CBE FRS FLS FZS FSA FRSGS
Attenborough at the Great Barrier Reef c. 2015
|Born||David Frederick Attenborough
8 May 1926
Isleworth, Middlesex, England
|Spouse(s)||Jane Elizabeth Ebsworth Oriel (m. 1950; d. 1997)|
|Relatives||Richard Attenborough (brother)
John Attenborough (brother)
Michael Attenborough (nephew)
Attenborough is widely considered a national treasure in Britain, although he himself does not like the term. In 2002 he was named among the 100 Greatest Britons following a UK-wide poll for the BBC. He is the younger brother of the director, producer and actor Richard Attenborough, and older brother of the motor executive John Attenborough.
Early life and family
Attenborough was born in Isleworth, Middlesex (now part of west London), but grew up in College House on the campus of the University College, Leicester, where his father, Frederick, was principal. He is the middle of three sons (his elder brother, Richard, became an actor and director and his younger brother, John, was an executive at Italian car manufacturer Alfa Romeo), and the only surviving child among them. During World War II, through a British volunteer network known as the Refugee Children's Movement, his parents also fostered two Jewish refugee girls from Europe.
Attenborough spent his childhood collecting fossils, stones and other natural specimens. He received encouragement in this pursuit at age seven, when a young Jacquetta Hawkes admired his "museum". He also spent a considerable amount of his time in the grounds of the university, and, aged 11, he heard that the zoology department needed a large supply of newts, which he offered via his father to supply for 3d each. The source, which wasn't revealed at the time, was a pond less than five metres from the department. A few years later, one of his adoptive sisters gave him a piece of amber filled with prehistoric creatures; some 50 years later, it would be the focus of his programme The Amber Time Machine.
In 1936 David and his brother Richard attended a lecture by Grey Owl (Archibald Belaney) at De Montfort Hall, Leicester, and were influenced by his advocacy of conservation. According to Richard, David was "bowled over by the man's determination to save the beaver, by his profound knowledge of the flora and fauna of the Canadian wilderness and by his warnings of ecological disaster should the delicate balance between them be destroyed. The idea that mankind was endangering nature by recklessly despoiling and plundering its riches was unheard of at the time, but it is one that has remained part of Dave's own credo to this day." In 1999, Richard directed a biopic of Belaney entitled Grey Owl.
Attenborough was educated at Wyggeston Grammar School for Boys in Leicester and then won a scholarship to Clare College, Cambridge in 1945, where he studied geology and zoology and obtained a degree in natural sciences. In 1947 he was called up for national service in the Royal Navy and spent two years stationed in North Wales and the Firth of Forth.
In 1950 Attenborough married Jane Elizabeth Ebsworth Oriel; she died in 1997. The couple had two children, Robert and Susan. Robert is a senior lecturer in bioanthropology for the School of Archaeology and Anthropology at the Australian National University in Canberra. Susan is a former primary school headmistress.
First years at the BBC
After leaving the Navy, Attenborough took a position editing children's science textbooks for a publishing company. He soon became disillusioned with the work and in 1950 applied for a job as a radio talk producer with the BBC. Although he was rejected for this job, his CV later attracted the interest of Mary Adams, head of the Talks (factual broadcasting) department of the BBC's fledgling television service.
Attenborough, like most Britons at that time, did not own a television, and he had seen only one programme in his life. However, he accepted Adams' offer of a three-month training course, and in 1952 he joined the BBC full-time. Initially discouraged from appearing on camera because Adams 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 Song Hunter, a series about folk music presented by Alan Lomax.
Attenborough's association with natural history programmes began when he produced and presented the three-part series Animal Patterns. The studio-bound programme featured animals from London Zoo, with the naturalist 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, where Attenborough became the presenter at short notice due to Lester being taken ill.
In 1957, the BBC Natural History Unit was formally established in Bristol. Attenborough was asked to join it, but declined, not wishing to move from London where he and his young family were settled. Instead, he formed his own department, the Travel and Exploration Unit, which allowed him to continue to front Zoo Quest as well as produce other documentaries, notably the Travellers' Tales and Adventure series.
In the early 1960s, Attenborough resigned from the permanent staff of the BBC to study for a postgraduate degree in social anthropology at the London School of Economics, interweaving his study with further filming. However, he accepted an invitation to return to the BBC as controller of BBC Two before he could finish the degree.
Attenborough became the controller of BBC Two in March 1965, but had a clause inserted in his contract that would allow him to continue making programmes on an occasional basis. Later the same year he filmed elephants in Tanzania, and in 1969 he made a three-part series on the cultural history of the Indonesian island of Bali. For the 1971 film A Blank on the Map, he joined the first Western expedition to a remote highland valley in New Guinea to seek out a lost tribe.
BBC Two had been launched in 1964, but had struggled to capture the public's imagination. When Attenborough arrived as controller, he quickly abolished the channel's quirky kangaroo mascot and shook up the schedule. With a mission to make BBC Two's output diverse and different from that offered by other networks, he began to establish a portfolio of programmes that defined the channel's identity for decades to come. Under his tenure, music, the arts, entertainment, archaeology, experimental comedy, travel, drama, sport, business, science and natural history all found a place in the weekly schedules. Often, an eclectic mix was offered within a single evening's viewing. Programmes he commissioned included Man Alive, Call My Bluff, Chronicle, Life, One Pair of Eyes, The Old Grey Whistle Test, Monty Python's Flying Circus and The Money Programme. When BBC Two became the first British channel to broadcast in colour in 1967, Attenborough took advantage by introducing televised snooker, as well as bringing rugby league to British television on a regular basis via the BBC2 Floodlit Trophy.
One of his most significant decisions was to order a 13-part series on the history of Western art, to show off the quality of the new UHF colour television service that BBC Two offered. Broadcast to universal acclaim in 1969, Civilisation set the blueprint for landmark authored documentaries, which were informally known as "tombstone" or "sledgehammer" projects. Others followed, including Jacob Bronowski's The Ascent of Man (also commissioned by Attenborough), and Alistair Cooke's America. Attenborough thought that the story of evolution would be a natural subject for such a series. He shared his idea with Chris Parsons, a producer at the Natural History Unit, who came up with the title Life on Earth and returned to Bristol to start planning the series. Attenborough harboured a strong desire to present the series himself, but this would not be possible so long as he remained in a management post.
While in charge of BBC Two, Attenborough turned down Terry Wogan's job application to be a presenter on the channel, stating that there weren't any suitable vacancies. Attenborough later recalled: "To have had two Irishmen presenting on BBC Two would have looked ridiculous. This is no comment whatsoever on Terry Wogan's talents." Attenborough has also acknowledged that he sanctioned the wiping of programmes during this period to cut costs, including sketches by Alan Bennett, which he later regretted.
In 1969 Attenborough was promoted to director of programmes, making him responsible for the output of both BBC channels. His tasks, which included agreeing budgets, attending board meetings and firing staff, were now far removed from the business of filming programmes. When Attenborough's name was being suggested as a candidate for the position of Director-General of the BBC in 1972, he phoned his brother Richard to confess that he had no appetite for the job. Early the following year, he left his post to return to full-time programme-making, leaving him free to write and present the planned natural history epic.
Return to broadcasting
After his resignation, Attenborough became a freelance broadcaster and immediately started work on his next project, a pre-arranged trip to Indonesia with a crew from the Natural History Unit. It resulted in the 1973 series Eastwards with Attenborough, which was similar in tone to the earlier Zoo Quest but without the animal-collecting element.
After his return, he began to work on the scripts for Life on Earth. Due to the scale of his ambition, the BBC decided to partner with an American network to secure the necessary funding. While the negotiations were proceeding, he worked on a number of other television projects. He presented a series on tribal art (The Tribal Eye, 1975) and another on the voyages of discovery (The Explorers, 1975). He also presented a BBC children's series about cryptozoology entitled Fabulous Animals (1975), which featured mythical creatures such as the griffin and kraken. Eventually the BBC signed a co-production deal with Turner Broadcasting and Life on Earth moved into production in 1976.
Beginning with Life on Earth in 1979, Attenborough set about creating a body of work which became a benchmark of quality in wildlife film-making and influenced a generation of documentary film-makers. The series also established many of the hallmarks of the BBC's natural history output. By treating his subject seriously and researching the latest discoveries, Attenborough and his production team gained the trust of scientists, who responded by allowing him to feature their subjects in his programmes. In Rwanda, for example, Attenborough and his crew were granted privileged access to film Dian Fossey's research group of mountain gorillas. Innovation was another factor in Life on Earth's success: new film-making techniques were devised to get the shots Attenborough wanted, with a focus on events and animals that were hitherto unfilmed. Computerised airline schedules, which had only recently been introduced, enabled the series to be elaborately devised so that Attenborough visited several locations around the globe in each episode, sometimes even changing continents mid-sentence. Although appearing as the on-screen presenter, he consciously restricted his time on camera to give his subjects top billing.
The success of Life on Earth prompted the BBC to consider a follow-up, and five years later, The Living Planet was screened. This time, Attenborough built his series around the theme of ecology, the adaptations of living things to their environment. It was another critical and commercial success, generating huge international sales for the BBC. In 1990, The Trials of Life completed the original Life trilogy, looking at animal behaviour through the different stages of life. The series drew strong reactions from the viewing public for its sequences of killer whales hunting sea lions on a Patagonian beach and chimpanzees hunting and violently killing a colobus monkey.
In the 1990s, Attenborough continued to use the "Life" title for a succession of authored documentaries. In 1993, he presented Life in the Freezer, the first television series to survey the natural history of Antarctica. Although past normal retirement age, he then embarked on a number of more specialised surveys of the natural world, beginning with plants. They proved a difficult subject for his producers, who had to deliver five hours of television featuring what are essentially immobile objects. The result, The Private Life of Plants (1995), showed plants as dynamic organisms by using time-lapse photography to speed up their growth.
Prompted by an enthusiastic ornithologist at the BBC Natural History Unit, Attenborough then turned his attention to the animal kingdom and in particular, birds. As he was neither an obsessive twitcher nor a bird expert, he decided he was better qualified to make The Life of Birds (1998) on the theme of behaviour. The documentary series won a Peabody Award the following year. The order of the remaining "Life" series was dictated by developments in camera technology. For The Life of Mammals (2002), low-light and infrared cameras were deployed to reveal the behaviour of nocturnal mammals. The series contains a number of memorable two shots of Attenborough and his subjects, which included chimpanzees, a blue whale and a grizzly bear. Advances in macro photography made it possible to capture natural behaviour of very small creatures for the first time, and in 2005, Life in the Undergrowth introduced audiences to the world of invertebrates.
At this point, Attenborough realised that he had spent 20 years unconsciously assembling a collection of programmes on all the major groups of terrestrial animals and plants – only reptiles and amphibians were missing. When Life in Cold Blood was broadcast in 2008, he had the satisfaction of completing the set, brought together in a DVD encyclopaedia called Life on Land. In an interview that year, Attenborough was asked to sum up his achievement, and responded:
The evolutionary history is finished. The endeavour is complete. If you'd asked me 20 years ago whether we'd be attempting such a mammoth task, I'd have said "Don't be ridiculous!" These programmes tell a particular story and I'm sure others will come along and tell it much better than I did, but I do hope that if people watch it in 50 years' time, it will still have something to say about the world we live in.
However, in 2010 Attenborough asserted that his First Life – dealing with evolutionary history before Life on Earth – should also be included within the "Life" series. In the documentary Attenborough's Journey, he stated, "This series, to a degree which I really didn't fully appreciate until I started working on it, really completes the set."
Alongside the "Life" series, Attenborough has continued to work on other television documentaries, mainly in the natural history genre. He wrote and presented a series on man's influence on the natural history of the Mediterranean basin, The First Eden, in 1987. Two years later, he demonstrated his passion for fossils in Lost Worlds, Vanished Lives.
Attenborough narrated every episode of Wildlife on One, a BBC One wildlife series that ran for 253 episodes between 1977 and 2005. At its peak, it drew a weekly audience of eight to ten million, and the 1987 episode "Meerkats United" was voted the best wildlife documentary of all time by BBC viewers. He has also narrated over 50 episodes of Natural World, BBC Two's flagship wildlife series. (Its forerunner, The World About Us, was created by Attenborough in 1969, as a vehicle for colour television.) In 1997, he narrated the BBC Wildlife Specials, each focussing on a charismatic species, and screened to mark the Natural History Unit's 40th anniversary.
As a writer and narrator, he continued to collaborate with the BBC Natural History Unit in the new millennium. Alastair Fothergill, a senior producer with whom Attenborough had worked on The Trials of Life and Life in the Freezer, was making The Blue Planet (2001), the Unit's first comprehensive series on marine life. He decided not to use an on-screen presenter due to difficulties in speaking to a camera through diving apparatus, but asked Attenborough to narrate the films. The same team reunited for Planet Earth (2006), the biggest nature documentary ever made for television and the first BBC wildlife series to be shot in high definition. In 2009, he co-wrote and narrated Life, a ten-part series focussing on extraordinary animal behaviour, and narrated Nature's Great Events, which showed how seasonal changes trigger major natural spectacles. In 2011, Fothergill gave Attenborough a more prominent role in Frozen Planet, a major series on the natural history of the polar regions; Attenborough appeared on screen and authored the final episode, in addition to performing voiceover duties. Attenborough introduced and narrated the Unit's first 4K production Life Story. For Planet Earth II (2016), Attenborough returned as narrator and presenter, with the main theme music composed by Hans Zimmer.
In October 2014, the corporation announced a trio of new one-off Attenborough documentaries as part of a raft of new natural history programmes. "Attenborough's Paradise Birds" and "Attenborough's Big Birds" was shown on BBC Two and "Waking Giants", which follows the discovery of giant dinosaur bones in South America, aired on BBC One. The BBC also commissioned Atlantic Productions to make a three-part, Attenborough-fronted series Great Barrier Reef in 2015. The series marked the 10th project for Attenborough and Atlantic, and saw him returning to a location he first filmed at in 1957.
By the turn of the millennium, Attenborough's authored documentaries were adopting a more overtly environmentalist stance. In State of the Planet (2000), he used the latest scientific evidence and interviews with leading scientists and conservationists to assess the impact of man's activities on the natural world. He later turned to the issues of global warming (The Truth about Climate Change, 2006) and human population growth (How Many People Can Live on Planet Earth?, 2009). He also contributed a programme which highlighted the plight of endangered species to the BBC's Saving Planet Earth project in 2007, the 50th anniversary of the Natural History Unit.
Attenborough also forged a partnership with Sky, working on documentaries for the broadcaster's new 3D network, Sky 3D. Their first collaboration was Flying Monsters 3D, a film about pterosaurs which debuted on Christmas Day of 2010. A second film, The Bachelor King 3D, followed a year later. His next 3D project, Conquest of the Skies, made by the team behind the BAFTA-winning David Attenborough's Natural History Museum Alive, aired on Sky 3D at Christmas 2014.
From 1983, Attenborough worked on two environmentally themed musicals with the WWF and writers Peter Rose and Anne Conlon. Yanomamo was the first, about the Amazon rainforest, and the second, Ocean World, premiered at the Royal Festival Hall in 1991. They were both narrated by Attenborough on their national tour and recorded on to audio cassette. Ocean World was also filmed for Channel 4 and later released. In 1990, he highlighted the case of Mahjoub Sharif as part of the BBC's Prisoners of Conscience series.
In May 2005, Attenborough was appointed as patron of the UK's Blood Pressure Association, which provides information and support to people with hypertension. In January 2009, the BBC commissioned Attenborough to provide a series of 20 ten-minute monologues covering the history of nature. Entitled David Attenborough's Life Stories, they are broadcast on Radio 4 on Friday nights. Part of Radio 4's A Point of View strand, the talks are also available as podcasts.
He appeared in the 2009 Children's Prom at the BBC Promenade Concerts and in the Last Night of the Proms on 12 September 2009, playing a floor polisher in Sir Malcolm Arnold's "A Grand, Grand Overture" (after which he was "shot" by Rory Bremner, who was playing the gun). In 2009, he also became a patron of Population Matters (formerly known as the Optimum Population Trust), a UK charity advocating sustainable human populations.
He is also a patron of the Friends of Richmond Park and serves on the advisory board of BBC Wildlife magazine. Attenborough is also an honorary member of BSES Expeditions, a youth development charity that operates challenging scientific research expeditions to remote wilderness environments.
Achievements, awards and recognition
|Styles and honours|
Attenborough's contribution to broadcasting and wildlife film-making has brought him international recognition. He has been called "the great communicator, the peerless educator" and "the greatest broadcaster of our time." His programmes are often cited as an example of what public service broadcasting should be, even by critics of the BBC, and have influenced a generation of wildlife film-makers.
By January 2013, Attenborough had collected 32 honorary degrees from British universities, more than any other person. In 1980, he was honoured by the Open University with whom he has had a close association throughout his career. He also has honorary Doctor of Science awards from the University of Cambridge (1984) and University of Oxford (1988). In 2006, the two eldest Attenborough brothers returned to their home city to receive the title of Distinguished Honorary Fellows of the University of Leicester, "in recognition of a record of continuing distinguished service to the University." David Attenborough was previously awarded an honorary Doctor of Letters degree by the university in 1970, and was made an honorary Freeman of the City of Leicester in 1990. In 2013, he was made an Honorary Freeman of the City of Bristol. In 2010, he was awarded an Honorary Doctorate from Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, his first in Africa.
Attenborough has received the title Honorary Fellow from Clare College, Cambridge (1980), the Zoological Society of London (1998), the Linnean Society (1999), the Institute of Biology (Now the Royal Society of Biology) (2000) and the Society of Antiquaries (2007). He is Honorary Patron of the North American Native Plant Society and was elected as a Corresponding Member of the Australian Academy of Science.
Attenborough has been featured as the subject of a number of BBC television programmes. Life on Air (2002) examined the legacy of his work and Attenborough the Controller (2002) focused on his time in charge of BBC Two. He was also featured prominently in The Way We Went Wild (2004), a series about natural history television presenters, and 100 Years of Wildlife Films (2007), a special programme marking the centenary of the nature documentary. In 2006, British television viewers were asked to vote for their Favourite Attenborough Moments for a UKTV poll to coincide with the broadcaster's 80th birthday. The winning clip showed Attenborough observing the mimicry skills of the superb lyrebird.
Attenborough was named the most trusted celebrity in the UK in a 2006 Reader's Digest poll, and in 2007 he won The Culture Show's Living Icon Award. He has also been named among the 100 Greatest Britons in a 2002 BBC poll and is one of the top ten "Heroes of Our Time" according to New Statesman magazine.
In 2012, Attenborough was among the British cultural icons selected by artist Sir Peter Blake to appear in a new version of his most famous artwork – the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album cover – to celebrate the British cultural figures of his life. The same year, Attenborough featured in the BBC Radio 4 series The New Elizabethans to mark the diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II. A panel of seven academics, journalists and historians named him among the group of people in the UK "whose actions during the reign of Elizabeth II have had a significant impact on lives in these islands".
In May 2016, it was announced that a new British polar research ship will be named RRS Sir David Attenborough in his honour. While an Internet poll suggesting the name of the ship had the most votes for Boaty McBoatface, Science Minister Jo Johnson said there were "more suitable names", and the official name was eventually picked up from one of the more favoured choices. However, one of its research subs will be named "Boaty" in recognition of the public vote.
Species named in Attenborough's honour
At least 15 species and genera, both living and extinct, have been named in Attenborough's honour. Plants named after him include an alpine hawkweed (Hieracium attenboroughianum) discovered in the Brecon Beacons, a species of Ecuadorian flowering tree (Blakea attenboroughi), one of the world's largest-pitchered carnivorous plants (Nepenthes attenboroughii), along with a genus of flowering plants (Sirdavidia). Arthropods named after Attenborough include a butterfly, Attenborough's black-eyed satyr (Euptychia attenboroughi), a dragonfly, Attenborough's pintail, (Acisoma attenboroughi), the millimetre-long goblin spider Prethopalpus attenboroughi, an Indonesian flightless weevil (Trigonopterus attenboroughi), and a Madagascan ghost shrimp (Ctenocheloides attenboroughi). Vertebrates have also been named after Attenborough, including the Namibian lizard Platysaurus attenboroughi, the bird Polioptila attenboroughi, the Peruvian frog Pristimantis attenboroughi and one of only four species of long-beaked echidna (Zaglossus attenboroughi).
In 1993, after discovering that the Mesozoic reptile Plesiosaurus conybeari was not a true plesiosaur, the palaeontologist Robert Bakker renamed the species Attenborosaurus conybeari. A fossilised armoured fish discovered in Western Australia in 2008 was named Materpiscis attenboroughi, after Attenborough had filmed at the site and highlighted its scientific importance in Life on Earth. The Materpiscis fossil is believed to be the earliest organism capable of internal fertilisation. A miniature marsupial lion, Microleo attenboroughi, was named in his honour in 2016. The fossil grasshopper Electrotettix attenboroughi was named after Attenborough. In March 2017, a 430 million year old tiny crustacean was named after him. Called Cascolus ravitis, the first word is a Latin translation of the root meaning of "Attenborough", and the second is based on a description of him in Latin. A tiny soil snail from Misool Island offshore New Guinea, Palaina attenboroughi, was recently deicated to Attenborough.
In 2018, a new species of phytoplankton, Syracosphaera azureaplaneta, was named to honour the Blue Planet TV documentary fronted by Sir David Attenborough and to recognise his contribution to promoting understanding of the oceanic environment.
- 1970: BAFTA Desmond Davis Award
- 1972: Royal Geographical Society's Cherry Kearton Medal and Award
- 1974: Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) for services to nature conservation in the 1974 Birthday Honours
- 1980: BAFTA Fellowship
- 1981: Kalinga Prize for the Popularization of Science from UNESCO
- 1983: Elected a Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS) under Statute 12
- 1985: Knight Bachelor in the 1985 Birthday Honours
- 1991: Commander of the Royal Victorian Order (CVO) for producing Queen Elizabeth II's Christmas broadcast for a number of years from 1986 in the 1991 Birthday Honours
- 1991: Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences
- 1996: Companion of Honour (CH) for services to nature broadcasting in the 1996 New Year Honours
- 1997: Honorary Degree awarded by Ghent University
- 1998: International Cosmos Prize
- 2000: RSPB Medal
- 2003: Michael Faraday Prize awarded by the Royal Society
- 2004: Descartes Prize for Outstanding Science Communication Actions
- 2004: Caird Medal of the National Maritime Museum
- 2004: José Vasconcelos World Award of Education awarded by the World Cultural Council
- 2005: Order of Merit (OM)
- 2005: Nierenberg Prize for Science in the Public Interest
- 2006: National Television Awards Special Recognition Award
- 2006: Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management – Institute Medal in recognition of his outstanding contribution to the public perception and understanding of ecology
- 2006: The Culture Show British Icon Award
- 2007: British Naturalists' Association Peter Scott Memorial Award
- 2007: Fellowship of Society of Antiquaries
- 2008 The Royal Photographic Society awarded Attenborough its Progress medal and Honorary Fellowship in recognition of any invention, research, publication or other contribution which has resulted in an important advance in the scientific or technological development of photography or imaging in the widest sense.
- 2009: Prince of Asturias Award
- 2010: Fonseca Prize
- 2010: Queensland Museum Medal
- 2011: Society for the History of Natural History Founders' Medal
- 2011 Association for International Broadcasting AIB International TV Personality of the year
- 2012: IUCN Phillips Memorial Medal for outstanding service in international conservation
- 2017: Britain-Australia Society Award for outstanding contribution to strengthening British/Australian bilateral understanding and relations
- 2017: Honorary Member of the Moscow Society of Naturalists
In 1973, he was invited to deliver the Royal Institution Christmas Lecture on The Language of Animals.
Views and advocacy
This section contains too many or too-lengthy quotations for an encyclopedic entry. (March 2017)
Attenborough's programmes have often included references to the impact of human society on the natural world. The last episode of The Living Planet, for example, focuses almost entirely on humans' destruction of the environment and ways that it could be stopped or reversed. Despite this, he has been criticised for not giving enough prominence to environmental messages. 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.
However, his closing message from State of the Planet (2000) was forthright:
The 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.
His closing message from The Life of Mammals (2002) adopted the topic of human population:
Three and a half million years separate the individual who left these footprints in the sands of Africa from the one who left them on the moon. A mere blink in the eye of evolution. Using his burgeoning intelligence, this most successful of all mammals has exploited the environment to produce food for an ever-increasing population. In spite of disasters when civilisations have over-reached themselves, that process has continued, indeed accelerated, even today. Now mankind is looking for food, not just on this planet but on others. Perhaps the time has now come to put that process into reverse. Instead of controlling the environment for the benefit of the population, perhaps it's time we control the population to allow the survival of the environment."
Attenborough has subsequently become more vocal in his 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 220,000 square kilometres of Borneo's rainforest designated a protected area. He also serves as a vice-president of BTCV, vice-president of Fauna and Flora International, president of Butterfly Conservation and president of Leicestershire and Rutland Wildlife Trust. In 2003, he launched an appeal on behalf of the World Land Trust to create a rainforest reserve in Ecuador in memory of Christopher Parsons, the producer of Life on Earth and a personal friend, who had died the previous year. The same year, he helped to launch ARKive, a global project instigated by Parsons to gather together natural history media into a digital library. ARKive is an initiative of Wildscreen, of which Attenborough is a patron. He later became patron of the World Land Trust, and an active supporter. He supported Glyndebourne in their successful application to obtain planning permission for a wind turbine in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and gave evidence at the planning inquiry arguing in favour of the proposal.
In a 2005 interview with BBC Wildlife magazine, Attenborough said he considered George W. Bush to be the era's top "environmental villain". In 2007, he further elaborated on the consumption of energy in the US in relation to its population. When asked if he thought the US to be "the villain of the piece", he responded:
I don't think whole populations are villainous, but Americans are just extraordinarily unaware of all kinds of things. If you live in the middle of that vast continent, with apparently everything your heart could wish for just because you were born there, then why worry? [...] If people lose knowledge, sympathy and understanding of the natural world, they're going to mistreat it and will not ask their politicians to care for it.
In 2009, on becoming patron of UK population concern charity, Population Matters, he commented:
The growth in human numbers is frightening. I've seen wildlife under mounting human pressure all over the world, and it's not just from human economy or technology. Behind every threat is the frightening explosion in human numbers. I've never seen a problem that wouldn't be easier to solve with fewer people – or harder, and ultimately impossible, with more.
Attenborough again took up the topic of population in an episode of Horizon entitled, How Many People Can Live on Planet Earth?
See Wikiquote for a selection of quotes from the programme.
He has written and spoken publicly about the fact that, despite past scepticism, he believes the Earth's climate is warming in a way that is cause for concern, and that this can likely be attributed to human activity. He summed up his thoughts at the end of his 2006 documentary "Can We Save Planet Earth?" as follows:
In the past, we didn't understand the effect of our actions. Unknowingly, we sowed the wind and now, literally, we are reaping the whirlwind. But we no longer have that excuse: now we do recognise the consequences of our behaviour. Now surely, we must act to reform it — individually and collectively, nationally and internationally — or we doom future generations to catastrophe.
In 2012, Attenborough was quoted as saying that the planet has always and will always look after itself but:
what worries him most about the future of the natural world is that people are out of touch with it ... over half the world is urbanised; some people don't see any real thing except a rat or a pigeon ... ecosystems are incredibly complex and you fiddle with them at your peril."
When David Attenborough began his career, in 1950, Earth's human population was measured at just 2.5 billion people ... in 2012 he said:
We cannot continue to deny the problem. People have pushed aside the question of population sustainability and not considered it because it is too awkward, embarrassing and difficult. But we have to talk about it.
In January 2013, while being interviewed by Radio Times, he said:
We are a plague on the Earth. It's coming home to roost over the next 50 years or so. It's not just climate change; it's sheer space, places to grow food for this enormous horde. Either we limit our population growth or the natural world will do it for us, and the natural world is doing it for us right now.
In a Daily Telegraph interview in September 2013 he said:
What are all these famines in Ethiopia? What are they about? ... They're about too many people for too little land. That's what it's about. And we are blinding ourselves. We say, get the United Nations to send them bags of flour. That's barmy.
In May 2015, US President Barack Obama interviewed Attenborough at the White House in Washington D.C. Together, they discussed the future of the planet, their passion for nature and what measures can be taken to protect the environment.
The aforementioned RRS Sir David Attenborough was named after Attenborough partly due to his longstanding dissemination of environmental knowledge.
Attitude to religion and creationism
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, making reference to the Onchocerca volvulus parasitic worm:
My 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'.
He 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 [he's] concerned, if there is a supreme being then he chose organic evolution as a way of bringing into existence the natural world". In a BBC Four interview with Mark Lawson, he was asked if he at any time had any religious faith. He replied simply, "No." He has also said "It never really occurred to me to believe in God".
In 2002, Attenborough joined an effort by leading clerics and scientists to oppose the inclusion of creationism in the curriculum of UK state-funded independent schools which receive private sponsorship, such as the Emmanuel Schools Foundation. In 2009, he stated that the Book of Genesis, by saying that the world was there for people to dominate, had taught generations that they can "dominate" the environment, and that this has resulted in the devastation of vast areas of the environment. He further explained to the science journal Nature, "That's why Darwinism, and the fact of evolution, is of great importance, because it is that attitude which has led to the devastation of so much, and we are in the situation that we are in."
Also in early 2009, the BBC broadcast an Attenborough one-hour special, Charles Darwin and the Tree of Life. In reference to the programme, Attenborough stated that "People write to me that evolution is only a theory. Well, it is not a theory. Evolution is as solid a historical fact as you could conceive. Evidence from every quarter. What is a theory is whether natural selection is the mechanism and the only mechanism. That is a theory. But the historical reality that dinosaurs led to birds and mammals produced whales, that's not theory." He strongly opposes creationism and its offshoot "intelligent design", saying that a survey that found a quarter of science teachers in state schools believe that creationism should be taught alongside evolution in science lessons was "really terrible".
In March 2009, Attenborough appeared on Friday Night with Jonathan Ross. Attenborough stated that he felt evolution did not rule out the existence of a God and accepted the title of agnostic saying, "My view is: I don't know one way or the other but I don't think that evolution is against a belief in God."
Attenborough has joined the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins and other top scientists in signing a campaign statement co-ordinated by the British Humanist Association (BHA). The statement calls for "creationism to be banned from the school science curriculum and for evolution to be taught more widely in schools."
BBC and public service broadcasting
Attenborough is a lifelong supporter of the BBC, public service broadcasting and the television licence. He has said that public service broadcasting "is one of the things that distinguishes this country and makes me want to live here", and believes that it is not reduceable to individual programmes, but "can only effectively operate as a network [...] that measures its success not only by its audience size but by the range of its schedule".
... the BBC per minute in almost every category is as cheap as you can find anywhere in the world and produces the best quality. [...] The BBC has gone through swingeing staff cuts. It has been cut to the bone, if you divert licence fee money elsewhere, you cut quality and services. [...] There is a lot of people who want to see the BBC weakened. They talk of this terrible tax of the licence fee. Yet it is the best bargain that is going. Four radio channels and god knows how many TV channels. It is piffling.
There have always been politicians or business people who have wanted to cut the BBC back or stop it saying the sort of things it says. There's always been trouble about the licence and if you dropped your guard you could bet our bottom dollar there'd be plenty of people who'd want to take it away. The licence fee is the basis on which the BBC is based and if you destroy it, broadcasting... becomes a wasteland.
Attenborough expressed regret at some of the changes made to the BBC in the 1990s by its Director-General, John Birt, who introduced an internal market at the corporation, slimmed and even closed some departments and outsourced much of the corporation's output to private production companies, in line with the Broadcasting Act 1990. He has said:
There is no question but that Birtism... has had some terrible results. On the other hand, the BBC had to change. Now it has to produce programmes no one else can do. Otherwise, forget the licence fee.
The Bristol Unit has suffered along with the rest of the BBC from recent staff cuts. Yet it remains confident in the belief that the BBC will maintain it, in spite of the vagaries of fashion, because the Corporation believes that such programmes deserve a place in the schedules of any broadcaster with pretensions of providing a Public Service. In due course, similar specialist Units were also established in London, in order to produce programmes on archaeology and history, on the arts, on music and on science. They too, at one time, had their successes. But they have not survived as well as the Unit in Bristol. The statutory requirement that a certain percentage of programmes must come from independent producers has reduced in-house production and the Units necessarily shrank proportionately in size. As they dwindled, so the critical mass of their production expertise has diminished. The continuity of their archives has been broken, they have lost the close touch they once had worldwide with their subjects and they are no longer regarded internationally as the centres of innovation and expertise that they once were.
When Birt gets up and says the whole of the BBC was a creative mess and it was wasteful, I never saw any evidence of that. I absolutely know it wasn't so in my time. Producers now spend all their time worrying about money, and the thing has suffered for it.
In 2008, he criticised the BBC's television schedules:
I have to say that there are moments when I wonder — moments when its two senior networks, first set up as a partnership, schedule simultaneously programmes of identical character, thereby contradicting the very reason that the BBC was given a second network. Then there are times when both BBC One and BBC Two, intoxicated by the sudden popularity of a programme genre, allow that genre to proliferate and run rampant through the schedules. The result is that other kinds of programmes are not placed, simply because of a lack of space. Do we really require so many gardening programmes, make-over programmes or celebrity chefs? Is it not a scandal in this day and age, that there seems to be no place for continuing series of programmes about science or serious music or thoughtful in-depth interviews with people other than politicians?
In 2009, Attenborough commented on the general state of British television, describing the newly introduced product placement on commercial television as something he considered an "appalling" idea 20 years earlier:
I think it's in great trouble. The whole system on which it was built — a limited number of networks, with adequate funding — is under threat. That funding is no longer there. As stations proliferate, so audiences are reduced. The struggle for audiences becomes ever greater, while money diminishes. I think that's a fair recipe for trouble. Inevitably, this has an impact on the BBC ... Fortunately, the BBC doesn't think natural history programmes must compete with Strictly Come Dancing in terms of audience. The BBC says, 'Make proper, responsible natural history programmes.'
In August 2014, Attenborough was one of 200 public figures who were signatories to a letter to The Guardian expressing their hope that Scotland would vote to remain part of the United Kingdom in September's referendum on that issue.
Commenting on the 2016 US presidential election in an interview by Radio Times, Attenborough jokingly commented on the rise of Donald Trump: "Do we have any control or influence over the American elections? Of course we don’t. We could shoot him, it's not a bad idea."
Health and future plans
Attenborough had a pacemaker fitted in June 2013. In September 2013 he commented:
If I was earning my money by hewing coal I would be very glad indeed to stop. But I'm not. I'm swanning round the world looking at the most fabulously interesting things. Such good fortune.
David Attenborough's television credits span seven decades and his association with natural history programmes dates back to The Pattern of Animals and Zoo Quest in the early 1950s. His most influential work, 1979's Life on Earth, launched a strand of nine authored documentaries with the BBC Natural History Unit which shared the Life strand name and spanned 30 years. He narrated every episode of the long-running BBC series Wildlife on One and in his later career has voiced several high-profile BBC wildlife documentaries, among them The Blue Planet and Planet Earth. He became a pioneer in the 3D documentary format with Flying Monsters in 2010.
David Attenborough's work as an author has strong parallels with his broadcasting career. In the 1950s and 1960s, his published work included accounts of his animal collecting expeditions around the world, which became the Zoo Quest series. He wrote an accompanying volume to each of his nine Life documentaries, along with books on tribal art and birds of paradise. His autobiography, Life on Air, was published in 2002, revised in 2009 and is one of a number of his works which is available as a self-narrated audiobook. Attenborough has also contributed forewords and introductions to many other works, notably those accompanying Planet Earth, Frozen Planet, Africa and other BBC series he has narrated.
- Zoo Quest to Guyana (1956)
- Zoo Quest for a Dragon (1957) – republished in 1959 to include an additional 85 pages titled Quest for the Paradise Birds
- Zoo Quest in Paraguay (1959)
- Quest in Paradise (1960)
- People of Paradise (1960)
- Zoo Quest to Madagascar (1961)
- Quest Under Capricorn (1963)
- Fabulous Animals (1975)
- The Tribal Eye (1976)
- Life on Earth (1979)
- Discovering Life on Earth (1981)
- The Living Planet (1984)
- The First Eden: The Mediterranean World and Man (1987)
- The Atlas of the Living World (1989)
- The Trials of Life (1990)
- The Private Life of Plants (1994)
- The Life of Birds (1998)
- The Life of Mammals (2002)
- Life on Air: Memoirs of a Broadcaster (2002) – autobiography, revised in 2009
- Life in the Undergrowth (2005)
- Amazing Rare Things: The Art of Natural History in the Age of Discovery (2007) – with Susan Owens, Martin Clayton and Rea Alexandratos
- Life in Cold Blood (2007)
- David Attenborough's Life Stories (2009)
- David Attenborough's New Life Stories (2011)
- Drawn From Paradise: The Discovery, Art and Natural History of the Birds of Paradise (2012) – with Errol Fuller
- Adventures of a Young Naturalist: The Zoo Quest Expeditions (2017)
- Tarka the Otter by Henry Williamson (available on audiocassette, 1978)
- Yanomamo (musical entertainment, 1983) by Peter Rose and Anne Conlon; on-stage narration and published audio recording
- Ocean World (musical entertainment, 1990) by Peter Rose and Anne Conlon; on-stage narration (including at The Royal Festival Hall), for audio recording and video broadcast (both published)
- Peter and the Wolf for BBC Music Magazine (free CD with the June 2000 issue).
In addition, Attenborough has recorded some of his own works in audiobook form, including Life on Earth, Zoo Quest for a Dragon, and his autobiography Life on Air: Memoirs of a Broadcaster.
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to David Attenborough.|
- BBC Books David Attenborough website
- British Exploring Society
- Friends of Richmond Park
- Population Matters
- David Attenborough on IMDb
- Wildfilmhistory.org biography
- BBC interviews with Attenborough in 1976 and 1998 at the Wayback Machine (archived 1 May 2012)
- PBS interview with Attenborough in 1998
- People and Planet: David Attenborough, video of the 2011 RSA President's Lecture
- BBC Wildlife Finder – David Attenborough's favourite moments
- Tribute from the World Land Trust
- David Attenborough interview on BBC Radio 4 Desert Island Discs, 27 December 1998
- David Attenborough: humanity must come to its senses or face environmental disaster. Radio Times. 13 October 2016.
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|President of the Royal Society for Nature Conservation