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|Sir David Attenborough|
David Attenborough, May 2003
8 May 1926 |
|Spouse(s)||Jane Elizabeth Ebsworth Oriel (1950–1997 (Deceased))|
Sir David Frederick Attenborough (pronounced /ˈætənbərə/) OM, CH, CVO, CBE, FRS, FZS, FSA (born 8 May 1926 in London, England) is a broadcaster and naturalist. His career as the respected face and voice of natural history programmes has endured for more than 50 years. He is best known for writing and presenting the nine "Life" series, in conjunction with the BBC Natural History Unit, which collectively form a comprehensive survey of all life on the planet. He is also 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 younger brother of director, producer and actor Richard Attenborough.
Early life and family
Attenborough grew up in College House on the campus of University of Leicester, where his father, Frederick, was principal. He is the middle of three sons (his elder brother, Richard, became an actor/film director and his younger brother, John Michael Attenborough, an executive at Alfa Romeo). During World War II his parents also adopted 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". 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.
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; the marriage lasted until her death in 1997. The couple had two children, Robert and Susan.
His son, Dr Robert Attenborough, is a senior lecturer in Bioanthropology for the School of Archaeology and Anthropology at the Australian National University in Canberra.
First years at 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, however, and in 1950, he applied for a job as a radio talks 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 The Pattern of Animals. The studio-bound programme featured animals from London Zoo, with the naturalist Sir 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, which Attenborough presented 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 the Zoo Quest programmes 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 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 an uncontacted tribe.
BBC Two was 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 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.
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.
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 Quests but without the animal-collecting element.
On 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 the scientific community, 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 pieces to 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 livings 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" moniker 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 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 forthcoming 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 which ran for nearly more than 250 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 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, Attenborough 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.
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.
Interestingly, although Attenborough's documentaries have attained immense popularity in the United States, several have never been made available on DVD in NTSC format, most notably those that cast doubt upon conservative religious or political positions. These include:
- Life on Earth, which examines the evidence for evolution.
- State of the Planet
- The Truth About Climate Change
Attenborough continues to work into his ninth decade, and is currently involved in a number of projects for the BBC and for Sky.
He is writing and presenting Frozen Planet, a major new series for BBC One which examines the impact of a warming climate on the people and wildlife of the polar regions. He also has two projects currently in production for BBC Two. Wild Madagascar is a three-part series giving an overview of Madagascar's unique wildlife. The accompanying documentary Attenborough and the Giant Egg will feature the elephant bird egg which Attenborough discovered on his first filming expedition to the island in the 1960s.
Attenborough is also forging a new partnership with Sky, working on documentaries for the broadcaster's new 3D network, Sky 3D. Their first collaboration is Flying Monsters 3D, a film about pterosaurs which debuted on Christmas Day 2010. A second film, Penguin Island 3D, has also been announced. Both are produced by Atlantic Productions, the company behind Attenborough's 2010 series First Life.
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 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 in the Friday night slot vacated by Alistair Cooke's Letter from America. 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).
Attenborough also serves on the advisory board of BBC Wildlife magazine.
Honours, awards and recognition
|Styles and honours|
- 1970: BAFTA Desmond Davis Award
- 1974: Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE)
- 1980: BAFTA Fellowship
- 1980: honorary degree Doctor of the University from the Open University
- 1983: Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS)
- 1985: Knighthood
- 1991: Commander of the Royal Victorian Order (CVO) for producing Queen Elizabeth II's Christmas broadcast for a number of years from 1986
- 1996: Companion of Honour (CH) "for services to nature broadcasting"
- 1998: International Cosmos Prize
- 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
- 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
- 2009: BAFTA Specialist factual award for Life In Cold Blood
- 2009: Prince of Asturias Award
- 2010: Fonseca Prize
- 2010: Queensland Museum Medal
On 13 July 2006, Attenborough, along with his brother Richard, were awarded the titles 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.
In 1993, after discovering that the Mesozoic reptile Plesiosaurus conybeari had not, in fact, been a true plesiosaur, the paleontologist Robert Bakker renamed the species Attenborosaurus conybeari in Attenborough's honour.
Out of four extant species of echidna, one is named after him: Sir David's Long-beaked Echidna, Zaglossus attenboroughi, which inhabits the Cyclops mountains in the Papua province of New Guinea.
In June 2004, Attenborough and Sir Peter Scott were jointly profiled in the second of a three-part BBC Two series, The Way We Went Wild, about television wildlife presenters. Part three also featured Attenborough extensively. The next month, another BBC Two programme, Attenborough the Controller, recalled his time as Director of Programmes for BBC Two.
In November 2005, London's Natural History Museum announced a fundraising campaign to build a communications centre in Attenborough's honour. The museum opened the Attenborough Studio, part of its Darwin Centre phase two development, in September 2009.
An opinion poll of 4,900 Britons conducted by Reader's Digest in 2006, showed Attenborough to be the most trusted celebrity in Britain. In a list compiled by the magazine New Statesman in 2006, he was voted tenth in the list of "Heroes of our time".
It is often suggested that David Attenborough's 50-year career at the BBC making natural history documentaries and travelling extensively throughout the world has probably made him the most travelled person on Earth.
His contribution to broadcasting was recognised by the 60-minute documentary Life on Air, transmitted in 2002, to tie in with the publication of Attenborough's similarly titled autobiography. For the programme, the naturalist was interviewed at his home by his friend Michael Palin. Attenborough's reminiscences are interspersed with memorable clips from his series, with contributions from his brother Richard as well as professional colleagues. Life on Air is available on DVD as part of Attenborough in Paradise and Other Personal Voyages.
In May 2008, the oldest known prehistoric mother — a fossilised fish giving live birth, was given the name Materpiscis attenboroughi. It honoured David Attenborough's role in highlighting the scientific importance of the ancient fossilised Gogo Reef, Western Australia, in his 1979 Life on Earth TV series.
Attenborough received three honorary degrees in 2008; one from the University of Aberdeen on 1 July 2008, another from the University of Exeter on 11 July 2008 and the other on 4 November 2008 from Kingston University.
A species of the Pitcher plant from Palawan Island in the Philippines, discovered in 2007 and dedicated to Attenborough on the occasion of his 80th birthday, but only officially described in 2009 is named Nepenthes attenboroughii in his honour.
In 2006, British television viewers were asked to vote for their Favourite Attenborough Moments from a shortlist of twenty candidates. The results were revealed by UKTV on 7 May, the day before Attenborough's 80th birthday. The poll was won by a clip from The Life of Birds which showed the mimicry skills of the superb lyrebird.
In 2009, the comedians and intellectuals Stewart Lee and Armando Iannuci summed up Attenborough's place in the popular imagination: ""...David Attenburgh's position is unasailable, he *is* the BBC, ...sums it all up, yeah"
Views and advocacy
From the beginning, Attenborough's major series have included some content regarding 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, his programmes have been criticised for not making their environmental message more explicit. 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 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.
In the last few years, Attenborough has become increasingly vocal in 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, Fauna and Flora International, president of Butterfly Conservation and president of Leicestershire and Rutland Wildlife Trust. In 2003 he launched an appeal to create a rainforest reserve in Ecuador in memory of Christopher Parsons OBE, the producer of Life on Earth and a personal friend, who had died the previous year. Attenborough also launched ARKive in May 2003, a global project which had been instigated by Christopher Parsons to gather together natural history media into a digital library, an online Noah's Ark. 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 wind turbine in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and gave evidence at the planning inquiry arguing that the public must be prepared to accept the visual effects of something designed to combat climate change.
Attenborough has repeatedly said that he considers human overpopulation to be the root cause of many environmental problems. Both his series The Life of Mammals and the accompanying book end with a plea for humans to curb population growth so that other species will not be crowded out. In 2009, he became a patron of the Optimum Population Trust, a UK charity advocating sustainable human populations.
He has recently written and spoken publicly about the fact that, despite past scepticism, he now 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. At the climax of the aforementioned "Climate Chaos" documentaries, the naturalist gives this summing up of his findings:
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 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 USA's consumption of energy in relation to its population. When asked if he thought America 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.
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 Loa loa 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 I'm 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, Attenborough 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, Attenborough 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. Attenborough 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."
BBC and public service broadcasting
Attenborough is a lifelong supporter of the BBC, public broadcasting and the television licence. He has said:
PSB, to me, is not about selecting individual programme strands here or there, financing them from some outside source and then foisting them upon commercial networks. Public Service Broadcasting, watched by a healthy number of viewers, with programmes financed in proportion to their intrinsic needs and not the size of the audience, can only effectively operate as a network — a network whose aim is to cater for the broadest possible range of interests, popular as well as less popular, a network that measures its success not only by its audience size but by the range of its schedule.
Public service broadcasting is one of the things that distinguishes this country and makes me want to live here. I have spent all my life in it. I would be very distressed if public service broadcasting was weakened. I have been at the BBC since 1952, and know the BBC is constantly being battered. It is today.
If you could demonstrate that the BBC was grossly extravagant there might be a case for saying OK take it away. But in fact the BBC per minute in almost every category is as cheap as you can find anywhere in the world and produces the best quality. If you take the money away, which part of the BBC will you remove? 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 always that threat from politicians who will say your licence fee is up for grabs. We will take it. 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 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 May 2005, Attenborough was appointed as patron of the UK's Blood Pressure Association, which provides information and support to people with hypertension.
Attenborough is also an honorary member of BSES Expeditions, a youth development charity that operates challenging scientific research expeditions to remote wilderness environments.
Parodies and artistic portrayals
Attenborough's accent and hushed, excited delivery have been the subject of frequent parodies by comedians, most notably Spike Milligan, Marty Feldman and The Goodies. Attenborough is portrayed by Michael Palin in the final episode of Monty Python's Flying Circus, where he searches the African jungle for the legendary Walking Tree of Dahomey (Quercus Nicholas Parsonus), sweating excessively and accompanied by native guides wearing saxophones. David Attenborough has also been parodied in a series of GEICO insurance commercials, showing a nature show host, clearly patterned on Attenborough.
"Time Flies", a sketch by David Ives, features a pair of anthropomorphic mayflies engaging in a courtship ritual, while watching themselves on television in a documentary narrated by David Attenborough.
The character of Nigel Thornberry, a nature documentarian on Nickelodeon's The Wild Thornberrys is strongly influenced by Attenborough.
He has also been parodied by the Australia 1980s sketch show The Comedy Company where Ian McFadyen portrays a character called David Rabbitborough.
Discworld (video game), based on the series of books by Terry Pratchett, parodies his unique delivery to explain different aspects of Discworld Universe, such as L-Space.
Mythbusters host Adam Savage often imitates Attenborough when speaking about his co-host Jamie Hyneman, which Jamie verified in the YouTube Special Episode.
Attenborough is known foremost for writing and presenting the nine Life series, which are presented in chronological order below:
- Life on Earth (1979)
- The Living Planet (1984)
- The Trials of Life (1990)
- Life in the Freezer (1993)
- The Private Life of Plants (1995)
- The Life of Birds (1998)
- The Life of Mammals (2002)
- Life in the Undergrowth (2005)
- Life in Cold Blood (2008)
His voice is synonymous with wildlife documentaries for British audiences, and the principal series with which his narration is associated include:
- Wildlife on One (1977–2005)
- BBC Wildlife Specials (1995–2008)
- The Blue Planet (2001)
- Planet Earth (British version) (2006)
- Nature's Great Events (2009)
- Life (2009)
- The Frozen Planet (2011) (in production)
Attenborough has written the introduction or foreword for a number of books, including:
- Buxton, Cindy; Annie Price (1983). Survival South Atlantic. London :: Granada,. pp. xiii,237p.,p. of plates : ill(some col.), maps,col.ports. ; 26cm.. ISBN 0246120878.
- African Jigsaw: A Musical Entertainment, Peter Rose and Anne Conlon (published: 1986, Weinberger)
- Tomorrow Is Too Late, Various (The Macmillan Press, 1990)
- Life in the Freezer: Natural History of the Antarctic, Alastair Fothergill (BBC Books, 1993), ISBN 0-563-36431-9
- Birds of Paradise: Paradisaeidae (Bird Families of the World series) Clifford B. Frith, Bruce M. Beehler, William T. Cooper (Illustrator) (Oxford University Press, 1998) ISBN 0-19-854853-2
- The Blue Planet, Andrew Byatt, Alastair Fothergill, Martha Holmes (BBC Books, 2001) ISBN 0-563-38498-0.
- Light on the Earth (BBC Books, 2005), two decades of winning images from the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition, ISBN 0-563-52260-7
- Planet Earth, Alastair Fothergill (BBC Books, 2006), ISBN 0-563-52212-7
- 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.