The long read: He is the most beloved figure in Britain, and, at 93, a global superstar. His films long shied away from discussing humanitys impact on the planet. Now they are sounding the alarm but is it too late?
In the late 1980s, a meeting was convened at the BBC studios on Whiteladies Road in Bristol. Its participants mainly amiable former public schoolboys named Mike discussed the imminent retirement of a grey-haired freelancer, who had been working with the BBC for almost four decades. We need to think about who is going to take over from David when this series is finished, a junior producer, Mike Gunton, remembered his boss saying. David Attenborough was nearing 65 and putting the finishing touches to The Trials of Life, the third of his epic series about the natural world. These programmes had been broadcast around the globe. They had established a new genre, perhaps even a new language, of wildlife films. It was a fine legacy. Now it was time to go.
When Alastair Fothergill became head of the BBC Natural History Unit a few years later, executives were still worrying over the same question. The BBC director-general asked him to find a new David Attenborough. I remember thinking, thats not very sensible, said Fothergill. He has always been this great oak tree under which its been hard for a sapling to grow. Today, Mike Gunton has ascended the ranks to become creative director of the Natural History Unit. He still attends meetings on Whiteladies Road. But, three decades after the subject was first broached, finding the next David Attenborough is no longer on the agenda. We still havent got an answer and I dont want one, Gunton told me.
Attenborough was born on 8 May 1926, 17 days after the Queen. And, like the Queen, he has become a symbol of stability in a turbulent world. It is hard to imagine a time before he was on our screens, affably engaging with sloths or giant turtles partly because there wasnt. Television was invented the year after he was born, and only began to enter peoples homes in the 1950s, when he was beginning his career. The first programme he made was watched by barely 10,000 people gazing at 405 flickering black-and-white lines on large boxes in living rooms in the south-east of England. This spring, his series Our Planet became Netflixs most-watched original documentary, watched by 33 million people in its first month. This autumn, the BBC will broadcast Seven Worlds, One Planet, the 19th blockbuster series he has written and presented (add a zero and then some if also counting his pre-70s series, short series and one-offs). The television executives who keep offering this 93-year-old freelancer bountiful employment agree that he is more powerful than ever.
Attenborough and the Queen are more than just contemporaries. I see them quite a lot, Attenborough said of the royal family when I met him at his home in Richmond earlier this year. He first encountered the Queens children, Charles and Anne, in 1958, when they toured the BBCs Lime Grove studios and the young presenter introduced them to his pet cockatoo, Cocky. In 1986, the year after Attenborough was knighted, he produced the first of six Christmas broadcasts for the Queen. Earlier this year, he was interviewed by Prince William on stage at Davos; the future king asked him for advice on how best to save the planet.