Thu, Oct 01, 2009 - Page 13 News List

David Attenborough’s long walk on the wild side

Since the 1950s, the 83-year-old British naturalist and broadcaster has produced a formidable body of work. How has he kept up with the momentous changes in his subject? And does he think we’re all doomed?

By Nicholas Wroe  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON


The first natural history television program the British naturalist and broadcaster David Attenborough worked on adopted a very straightforward approach. “A keeper from London Zoo would put some creature in a sack,” he recalls. “It would then be transported to Alexandra Palace [TV studios], where we’d have put a doormat on a table. The keeper would put the animal on the doormat and then say to the camera, ‘this is a lion cub.’ In fact it could make for quite good television,” he laughs. “The animal would sometimes escape and bite the keeper. But it really wasn’t much to do with zoology.”

Within a year or two Attenborough had broken free of the studio and begun to create a body of work that ranks among the most memorable and technically innovative television ever made. From his first trip to Sierra Leone in 1954, where he filmed keepers from London Zoo searching for the bald-headed rock crow, to last month, when the 83-year-old Attenborough visited the North Pole, he has hardly been off the TV screen. In that time he has become one of the most trusted people on television and his programs some of the best loved. National treasure status was granted long ago, and was most recently evidenced by him not only occupying Alistair Cooke’s slot on Radio 4 but also appearing at the last night of the Proms (the BBC’s series of summer concerts) in a performance of Malcolm Arnold’s uproarious A Grand, Grand Overture for orchestra, vacuum cleaners, floor polisher and rifles. Attenborough played the floor polisher with gusto.

In the half-century he has been broadcasting, the perception of Attenborough’s subject has changed. Study of the natural world used to be a prime example of the apolitical, the reassuring and the timeless. It has become contentious, alarming and urgent. And Attenborough has not entirely escaped the crossfire. The British journalist George Monbiot crystallized the complaint of some environmentalists that Attenborough’s vision of the world too often underplayed the extent of humanity’s impact on the environment. “There are two planet Earths. One of them is the complex, morally challenging world in which we live, threatened by ecological collapse. The other is the one we see on the wildlife program.” Monbiot saw Attenborough’s “invocation of a fantastic, untainted world” as dangerous, claiming he had become, “in two respects, godlike. He can, in the eyes of all who worship him, do no wrong. And he has created a world which did not exist before. He’s a fine man, but for 50 years he has perpetuated one of humanity’s most dangerous myths.”

The campaigner Jonathon Porritt recognizes the charge. He remembers environmentalists having “unbelievable respect” for the awareness Attenborough engendered in millions of people around the world. “But that was tempered by a sense that he was less outspoken than he might have been in terms of the implications of human activity. Those views persisted well into the 90s. It wasn’t until comparatively recently that he emphatically said that we needed to get our act together. That was an incredibly powerful moment, and his recognition of human impact on the natural world has become a more confident and up-front thread throughout his broadcasting.”

Porritt and Attenborough are now fellow patrons of the Optimum Population Trust, which campaigns on issues of human population and its impact on environmental sustainability. Attenborough says that “the rather dated observation that you can travel to the heart of Africa and end up holding a Coca-Cola bottle was a kind of joke that has become an obvious reality. But the important point is that the planet has become overrun with humanity and we can’t go on expanding. If we were another species, then predators or lack of food or lack of territory would deal with it. Somehow we have accommodated ourselves, albeit often uncomfortably. But none of these things is sustainable. And unless we take some action, we will run out of food and places to live.”

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