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

Opportunities for working on screen quickly presented themselves, despite an internal report on an early appearance insisting that he should not be used again because “his teeth are too big.” There was a strong tradition of natural history on radio, and a lot of nature films had been made by independent companies, but Attenborough and his colleagues were essentially inventing natural history television. Travel to the likes of Sierra Leone, Indonesia or New Guinea was unbelievably exotic. “People knew what elephants and giraffes looked like. But the komodo dragon we filmed wasn’t in any zoo. We were the first to film lemurs in Madagascar, the first to film birds of paradise displaying in the wild. This was all entirely new.”

Attenborough found himself back in front of the camera — despite the teeth — when a London Zoo keeper was taken ill on location. He says he did a bit of amateur dramatics at school — “although not as much as my brother did” — but never had any ambition to perform. “And it was all staff no fee in those days,” he laughs. Michael Palin, perhaps the most traveled television presenter since Attenborough — and the first to perpetrate the many TV parodies of him with Monty Python — describes him as the consummate presenter: “There was no blather. I learned from him that you couldn’t pretend to know what you are talking about, you really had to know. He’s also a very good actor. He knows how to draw an audience in, how to pause, how to create tension and how to play a laugh. There’s an awful lot of craft at work.”

Despite burgeoning fame, in the mid-1960s, after 10 years as a presenter, Attenborough enrolled on a part-time anthropology course at the London School of Economics. “It was wonderful, but after two terms I was given this chance to run the BBC’s BBC2 TV channel, so I had to properly ask myself whether I was a broadcaster or an academic. And I realized I was a broadcaster.”

He took over in 1965 and built the new channel as an alternative to BBC1 by encouraging new forms of program across the range of television output. “So we televised floodlit football and snooker, which hadn’t been done before. We did 26-part classic drama serials. We did science fiction. In comedy we had Peter Cook and Dudley Moore and The Likely Lads. Of course it is very much more difficult to do anything new today,” he says. “But even so, the number of genres you now see on television is lamentably small. All those cooking and property programs are a bit depressing.”

Another promotion followed, to the BBC’s director of programs, which, Attenborough says, “meant doing much more dogsbody work. I had to fire people and work on budgets. I was even responsible for the introduction of computers, which my children fall over laughing about as even now I don’t use e-mail.” He plays down the suggestion that he turned down the job of director general of the entire BBC. “My name was mentioned because I was a senior guy who’d been around for a while, but I wouldn’t have been any good at it and I wouldn’t have enjoyed it. And I’d got to the point where I thought, why on earth would I do something that I didn’t enjoy. So it was never me saying take away your gilded chariots.”

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