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.

David Attenborough on the Pyramid stage at Glastonbury in June. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

In our fractured age, Attenborough is the closest we have to a universally beloved public figure. Last year, a YouGov poll found him to be the most popular person in Britain. The crowd at Glastonburys Pyramid stage roared when he appeared on stage this summer. Viewers of Love Island expressed outrage when one contestant declared she found his programmes boring. But Attenborough transcended national treasure status some years ago. He is a truly global figure now. So many Chinese viewers downloaded Blue Planet II that it temporarily slowed down the countrys internet, according to the Sunday Times. The premiere of his new series, which took place earlier this month in London, was broadcast live in South Africa and India, where rapt schoolchildren held up signs: Thank you for being you Sir David A and Sir David please come to India please. As he moves from the White House to the World Economic Forum, urging presidents, businesspeople and the public to better protect the environment, he has come to be viewed, in a way he sees as overblown, as a keeper of humanitys conscience. That man who saves the world, is how my seven-year-old daughter describes him.

There will never be another David Attenborough. What makes him special, apart from all his personal qualities, is the timing of his life, said Fothergill. When Attenborough began travelling the world in the 1950s, Fothergill noted, we were in a different geological epoch, the Holocene. Today, we live in the Anthropocene, an epoch defined by Homo sapiens disruptive dominance of the planet. Hes seen more of the natural world than any human being that has ever lived on the planet and hes also seen more change than anyone else. And he feels a responsibility.

Despite the adulation, one charge has dogged Attenborough for decades. Critics argue that he has built himself a unique storytelling platform, only to fail to tell the most important story of all: the destructive impact of people on the planet. But one reason Attenborough has thrived on screen for seven decades is because he has always sensed how attitudes are changing, and moved with the times. For a long time, he maintained that his programmes must showcase the wonders of the natural world, and not speak of the human one. Now his newest series are filled with urgent messages about environmental destruction. Still, he resists the idea that he has changed; he prefers to say that it is the public mood that has transformed. After a lifetime of caution, almost despite himself, he has become a leading champion for action.

Attenborough fell in love with the natural world as a boy, exploring his way through his neighbourhood in Leicester, looking for bugs, insects and amphibians. The middle child of three brothers, he grew up in a family of teachers. His father was principal of University College, Leicester. His mother was a talented pianist. Education was revered. When I met Attenborough in the spring, he spoke of his boyhood passions keeping tanks of tropical fish, venturing across northern England on his bike as a young teen, alone, in search of fossils.

To this day, Attenborough is still a collector of tribal art, books and music but although more than a dozen species are named after him, including a flightless weevil, Trigonopterus Attenboroughi, and a genus of dinosaur, Attenborosaurus, he is not an authority on natural history. Everyone thinks hes an amazing naturalist, said the producer and writer Mary Colwell, who worked with him at the Natural History Unit in the 2000s. He isnt at all. Hes a great storyteller. Everyone thinks he makes these programmes. He doesnt but without him they wouldnt sparkle in the way they do.

Attenborough agrees. Work and reputation get separated, he said. Forty years ago, he travelled around the world three times in order to make his groundbreaking series Life on Earth. He wrote the script, and every page of the accompanying book. But now I just write and speak the words. And people say: What was it like when you saw that animal charging in? And I say: I wasnt there. Thirty cameramen worked on this thing. Im given credit for things I dont do. I am grateful, but Im also embarrassed.

Attenborough with a bird-eating spider in 2005 during an episode of Life In the Undergrowth. Photograph: BBC/Bridget Appleby/BBC

It is even worse, he said, when viewers assume he is a source of scientific wisdom. OK, I was a biologist once, but Im a hopeless birder. If I go out with a birder I keep my mouth shut. I just nod. Mmmm. Mmmm. So to use a horrible word, Ive become a kind of icon. Using it in its original meaning, Im the image of what they think of as a naturalist. Im a reasonable naturalist, but Im not the great all-seeing source of all information, knowledge and understanding. At times, Attenboroughs self-deprecation almost sounds like imposter syndrome. When I asked him to list his failings as a person, he narrowed his eyes. Im too convincing, he laughed, comparing his own expertise unfavourably to other wildlife broadcasters such as Simon King and Liz Bonnin. When it comes to, as it were, conning your way through, Im not bad at it. Never identify things unnecessarily.

Even so, plenty of colleagues recall Attenborough relishing his ability to surprise them with his knowledge. Jonny Keeling, the executive producer of Seven Worlds, One Planet, was excited to show his presenter never-obtained-before footage from China of a golden snub-nosed monkey. Oh yes, Rhinopithecus roxellana, remembered Attenborough instantly: he knew all about it and had tried to film it many years before.

The only praise Attenborough will accept is for his skill as a storyteller. Robert Attenborough, Davids son and an anthropologist at the University of Cambridge, remembered, as a teenager, watching him in the raconteur role as a host of a dinner party and admiring the skill with which he would tell a funny story. Sometimes they get slightly improved. Thats something we used to tease him about. Of course he wouldnt do that, then or now, when making a serious point.

Attenboroughs storytelling has been honed over seven decades in television and he is, above all, a TV man. After studying natural sciences at Cambridge, he married his university sweetheart, Jane Oriel, and ditched his boring junior publishing job for the glamorous new world of television. He started off behind the camera, after one of his first bosses decided his teeth were too big for a presenter. In 1954, Attenborough travelled to Sierra Leone with Jack Lester, London Zoos curator of reptiles, to film a new series, Zoo Quest. The concept was simple: they would catch wild animals their bounty from Sierra Leone included pythons, bird-eating spiders and their big prize, the bald-headed rockfowl and bring them back to London to add to the zoos collection. At the outset, Attenborough was the producer, director, sound man and animal-wrangler. He only ended up being the presenter because Lester was taken ill after the first episode.

Zoo Quest was broadcast in black and white, but the original colour footage, which was later discovered by BBC archivists, is beautiful. Attenborough narrates his encounters in clipped, 1950s, BBC-issue received pronunciation, with little trace of his more expressive later style. Although the colonial animal-snatching conceit of Zoo Quest is extremely dated, each episode focuses as much on the human worlds he visits as the exotic animals. Attenboroughs script is factual, respectful and open-minded; his films unsensationally depict nudity, polygamy and other cultural traditions, alongside the animal hunt.

Over the next few years, new series of Zoo Quest appeared and Attenboroughs reputation grew. With his keen eye for the perceptions of his TV audience, he adapted cannily to a rapidly expanding industry. By the dawn of the 60s, as he admitted in his autobiography, Zoo Quest was looking increasingly antiquated. He realised that it was time for a new approach. His next Quest series, filmed in northern Australia, eschewed attempts to bring animals home and instead depicted the cultural lives of Aboriginal peoples.

David Attenborough with an armadillo on BBC TV in 1963. Photograph: BBC

The trip to Australia inspired him to take a part-time postgraduate degree in anthropology, but he was tempted back to full-time TV work before he could complete it. In 1965, he became controller of BBC Two, an appointment greeted with scepticism by TV professionals quoted in newspaper columns of the day. At first, he was considered lightweight, a youthful bit of eye-candy, but he was soon hailed for his unexpected success, as a Daily Express profile put it. Everybody forgot I wasnt just a naturalist I was always a trained TV man, he told the paper in 1965. Hell, I love it. I watch everything. Straight home from the office switch to BBC Two see all my babies.

As the channels controller and then director of programmes for both BBC channels, Attenborough was a great innovator. In 1967, the government decided that BBC Two would become the first channel to switch to colour, and he set about exploiting this advantage. He put snooker on the channel and helped devise new forms of sport: one-day cricket and rugby league under floodlights. Programmes that emerged under his watch include Dads Army, Porridge and Monty Pythons Flying Circus. In 1972, he championed community programming that included what has been described as the first sympathetic portrayal of transgender people on British television; he even suggested phone-ins to widen audience participation, years before they became a staple of TV and radio.

One of his lasting innovations was the all-you-need-to-know documentary, beginning with Kenneth Clarks Civilisation. Attenborough designed this epic, 12-part series about the history of art and culture to showcase the glory of colour television. These monumental series became known as sledgehammers, and there followed uncompromisingly highbrow treatments of human evolution, economics and US history. But Attenborough believed the best subject for sledgehammer treatment was yet to come: natural history.

Attenboroughs achievements at BBC Two made him a prime candidate for director-general, the top job at the corporation. But he was tiring of the senior executives life desk-bound, constant meetings and in the early 70s he resigned. The fact he didnt want to stay as an executive and wanted to go back to programming says something very important about him, his son Robert told me. Attenborough yearned to be more creative, and had seen the thankless politics involved in the top job. The Archangel Gabriel couldnt do the DGs job, he remarked to me.

Instead, he persuaded the BBC that he could create a Civilisation-style treatment of the evolution of plants and animals. This series took three years to make, and the budget was so big that Attenborough had to pitch to US networks for funding. (He still enjoys impersonating a sceptical American TV man aghast at the prospect of funding a series that opened with slime mould.)

Life on Earth was broadcast for 55 minutes on 13 consecutive Sunday evenings in 1979. It started quietly, according to Mike Salisbury, a former producer who worked on the programme. Despite the presence of a safari-suited Attenborough, binoculars around his neck, skipping between exotic locations, the early episodes often feel like a lecture with moving pictures. Our handsome presenter tries to make the best of diagrams of DNA, micro-organisms and 200m-year-old fossils. A whole lot of worms have left this delicate tracery of trails in what was mud, he enthuses in the Grand Canyon. Salisbury chuckled at the difficulty of bringing this to life on television: Fossils, for Gods sake. They dont even move.

But as its epic story slowly unfolds, the series warms up. The writing is often superb: Four million animals and plants in the world, says Attenborough, four million different solutions to staying alive. The penultimate episode, on primates, features the first memorable Attenborough two shot, where he appears alongside another animal. He joins a grooming session among mountain gorillas in Rwanda, and still has the presence-of-mind to whisper: There is more meaning and mutual understanding in exchanging a glance with a gorilla than any other animal I know. Although some facts have changed we now know there are more than 8m species, not 4m the series stands the test of time; one Cambridge professor still shows his undergraduates the primates episode each year.

Attenborough introducing Prince Charles and Princess Anne to his cockatoo, Cocky, in 1958. Photograph: PA

For old-timers at the BBC, history is divided into before and after Life on Earth. We hadnt realised what a game-changer it was going to be, said Salisbury. By the end there were 14 million people watching it. The series established what television executives call the blue-chip natural history blockbuster. While the BBC has relinquished its dominance over most genres, it remains the pre-eminent maker of natural history programmes, according to Fothergill. So much of that is down to David, he said. Much imitated, these blockbusters are still a huge global export: the BBC will not reveal what profit, if any, these series make, but Planet Earth II and Blue Planet II were sold to more than 235 territories.

After the success of Life on Earth, Attenborough spent much of the 80s completing what became a triumvirate of blue-chip behemoths, with The Living Planet exploring ecology and The Trials of Life revealing animal behaviour. He also turned his attention to series about less fashionable subjects: plants, spiders, stick insects and other invertebrates. Audiences liked his enthusiasm, his quick wit and his affection for animals, already evident from his early days bottle-feeding a tiny African bush rat in Zoo Quest.

From Natural History Unit veterans such as Salisbury to colleagues today, everyone paints the same picture of Attenborough in the field: a team-player, carrying kit, energetic, curious, without vanity, funny, not suffering fools and preternaturally lucky. Everyone has a story about him joining a crew that has lucklessly staked out a target species for two weeks, only for that creature whether Hungarian mayfly or polar bear to suddenly hove into view. I dont like presenters on the whole. I dont think they are particularly nice people, one producer told me. But Attenborough was different. Hes not a prima donna. Hes not an ego on a stick. He doesnt need to be now.

By the early 80s, Attenboroughs programmes had been broadcast around the world and he became recognised wherever he went. But he was not yet, to use another label that vexes him, a global superstar. Until recently, when Attenboroughs series were shown on US television, broadcasters would replace his narration with voices they thought an American audience would prefer. In 2010, when Life was broadcast in the US, Oprah Winfrey was the narrator.

Viewers tend to assume Attenborough writes every word he says on screen, while TV people think his lines are written for him. The truth is somewhere in between. Attenboroughs scripts are written by production teams, but he is an unusually rigorous editor and rewriter. Even today, Attenborough rewrites each script to fit his own turn of phrase and checks for accuracy. If I send him a script, he goes through it with a fine-tooth comb. More than any other presenter, said Mary Colwell. His attention to detail is incredible and he wont say anything he doesnt want to say.

Get the Guardians award-winning long reads sent direct to you every Saturday morning

When filming, according to Mike Gunton, Attenborough does not learn his lines precisely. He looks at it and comes back and says: What do you think if I say it like this? His turn of phrase and the way he delivers these turns of phrase its got such power. He has the same genes as his brother, meaning Richard, the Oscar-winning actor-director, who died in 2014. Ive often said hes as good a performer as his brother, Gunton said.

You change the pace, you change the timbre, you change the mood, and the commentary has organic flow, Attenborough told me. If the last sentence ended 10 seconds ago rather than one minute ago, you start in a different kind of way. I dont think other people do that. Its a craft, and I quite enjoy it, actually. His colleagues think his voice has improved with age. If you go back to the older programmes, even on Blue Planet [from 2001], its quite a clipped voice, said Fothergill. Its now the voice of an older man, but its become even more powerful, with a timbre and an emotional resonance.

By his own admission, it took some time for Attenborough to realise just what a threat humankind posed to the environment. When he was younger, he said, people knew of species that had gone extinct, such as the Arabian oryx and the dodo, but you didnt perceive it as a major ecological problem. And in point of fact, lets be honest, if the Hawaiian goose disappears, the world doesnt actually judder in its revolutions. It wasnt until Life on Earth that he came to see that species decline was systemic and actually the disappearance of the giant panda represented some major change.

For most of his life, Attenboroughs environmentalism has been the old-fashioned, off-screen variety, lending his support to numerous green charities. Ever since he was asked, as a bit of a joke, to open a visitor centre at a nature reserve by the village of Attenborough in Nottinghamshire, in 1966, he has given rousing speeches (I have seen several) at hundreds of events for nature charities across Britain. It is hard to find a visitor centre at a Wildlife Trust nature reserve that does not feature a silver plaque declaring that it was Opened by Sir David Attenborough.

To his critics, these good deeds do not make up for what they see as Attenboroughs great failing as a broadcaster. Putting the case for the prosecution, the journalist George Monbiot has accused Attenborough of knowingly creating a false impression of the world by making films that underplay humanitys impact on the planet and fail to identify the forces driving mass extinction and the climate crisis. Another environmentalist told me that Attenborough possesses irreproachable integrity, but his long silence on extinction and global warming in his television work has contributed towards a popular knowledge deficit.

Richard Mabey, a naturalist who worked in television before almost single-handedly reviving British nature writing, has long made a version of this argument. When Life on Earth came out in 1979, and The Living Planet five years later, I was concerned about the fact that this wasnt a place I recognised, Mabey told me. What one saw was magnificent, but it was what one didnt see no humans, no environmental degradation. It was like an idealised biosphere on another planet. Once, in the early 80s, Mabey bumped into Attenborough at a lunch. I asked him, genuinely curious, why this picture of the planet was so devoid of environmental strife? He said, very simply: We wouldnt have got the viewers, they would have turned off. I was quite distressed.

TV executives repeat Attenboroughs argument today. A blue-chip series costs millions to produce and requires global funding. BBC programme-makers are terrified of being seen as political. At the launch of Seven Worlds, One Planet, Keeling insisted that its not preachy. As Miles Barton, a long-standing Attenborough producer, put it: The more preachy you are, the lower the numbers are going to be. The lower the numbers, the less money the series will make, the less funding for the next. Mabey understood this equation. Attenborough has power over the audience, he said. Im not sure he has power over the money men. My initial worry about him not including environmental disasters in his early series may have been less his personal choice than corporate pressure.

Attenborough taking part in a discussion with Christine Lagarde, managing director of the Internation Monetary Fund, in Washington earlier this year. Photograph: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty

As a young producer, it was drilled into Attenborough that private convictions must not be aired in public. He has always upheld the values of the liberal establishment avowedly internationalist and anti-populist in his veneration of expertise and taken the traditional BBC line on party-political neutrality. Im not a political chap, I know about bugs, he protested when asked about Brexit in 2017. (When pushed, he revealed that he voted to remain.)

Like most in the Natural History Unit, Attenborough has also long defended his work with a show the wonders and then people will care argument. When we spoke earlier this year, Attenborough put it more bluntly: People ought to be concerned because they think the natural world is important. If they know nothing about the natural world they wont care a toss.

To a sympathetic observer, the lack of campaigning films in Attenboroughs oeuvre might look like a canny political calculation about the most effective way to shift popular opinion over the long-term. But it may just reflect his temperament. I made natural history programmes not because I was a rampaging proselytiser preaching about conservation, he told me. I like looking at animals and seeing what they do. Attenborough praises more outspoken broadcasters, such as Chris Packham. Chris is to be admired, actually, because he would sacrifice his career in the name of something that he thought was important about conservation. He would. And more strength to his elbow, he said. But that is not Attenboroughs way. He acknowledged that he would probably not ever risk getting banned from the BBC.

In public, he has always been reserved. Journalists have often noted his refusal to emote in interviews. This image of an emotionally repressed English gentleman, a man of his era, is not his private self at all, says his son. I regard him as an exception to all the rules of English maleness, said Robert. In personal life, hes not shy with his emotions. I would not see him as a classic English male in that sense hes a warmer person, a more expressive person than that. When Attenboroughs wife, Jane, died 20 years ago, his grief was intense and fully expressed, remembered Robert.

Even so, his public reticence and natural caution have made the final stage of his career all the more striking.

In November 2004, nearly 20 years after the phrase global warming was first coined, Attenborough attended a lecture in Belgium given by Ralph Cicerone, an American expert on atmospheric chemistry. The graphs that Cicerone presented, showing the rise in global temperatures, finally convinced Attenborough, beyond any doubt, that humans were responsible for the changing climate. Attenborough insists he was never a sceptic about man-made climate change; just cautious. Even after Cicerones lecture, he still believed his job was to make programmes about wildlife. He worried that people would think he was setting himself up as an expert on climate science.

Attenboroughs output changed, however. This distinction may mystify those beyond the Natural History Unit, but its film-makers distinguish between natural history and environmental film-making. The former focus on animal or plant biology and behaviour; the latter address environmental issues. Attenboroughs 2006 BBC two-parter, The Truth About Climate Change, was his first to address global warming explicitly. Three years later came How Many People Can Live on Planet Earth?, which reflected his long-standing concern over the rising human population. (Attenboroughs position incurred criticism from some who argued he was focusing more on environmental harm caused by poorer nations rather than over-consumption by wealthier populations.) This year came a new Attenborough BBC documentary, Climate Change: The Facts. Next year, the BBC will broadcast another, Extinction: The Facts.

Extinction Rebellion protesters hold up an image of Attenborough in Parliament Square in April. Photograph: Richard Baker/In Pictures via Getty

The arrival of Blue Planet II in 2017 heralded a new urgency to Attenboroughs blockbusters, helping transform popular attitudes towards waste and pollution with its images of plastic enveloping a turtle, and albatrosses unwittingly feeding plastic bags to their chicks. When I interviewed Attenborough this spring, his Netflix series Our Planet had not yet been released. It was billed as a significantly more pressing appeal to save the world, and Fothergill, its producer, was keen to assert its environmental credentials. Attenborough, meanwhile, seemed equally keen to assert that it wasnt so different to his earlier work: If you forget the flummery and the propaganda and the press releases, what does it do? It shows the most breathtaking sequences youve ever seen beauty, wonder, spectacles filmed in a way that you never saw before, with drones and in fabulous colour, with surging music, and so on, and then at the end, it says its all in danger. Thats what they do. Im not ashamed of that. I think its a perfectly valid thing.

But the strange thing, when you sat down to watch Our Planet, was that it did not match Attenboroughs billing. Each episode began with him discussing the moon landing. Since then, the human population has more than doubled, his voiceover continued. This series will celebrate the natural wonders that remain, and reveal what we must preserve to ensure that people and nature thrive. The series returned, relentlessly, to this manifesto. It explained the importance of rainforest for a habitable climate, and almost no stunning sequence of wild animals came without Attenborough emphasising the precariousness of their continued existence. Likewise, in Seven Worlds, One Planet, the environmental messages are no longer restricted to an appeal at the end of each episode. The first story about the impact of climate change comes 16 minutes into the opening episode. Throughout, there are sequences that highlight the human actions climate change, pollution, habitat destruction, poaching causing Earths sixth great planetary extinction. We are a behavioural wildlife show and weve got a whole sequence without an animal in it thats a remarkable change, said the series producer, Scott Alexander.

This shift in Attenboroughs work reflects a response by film-makers, and particularly the Natural History Unit, to accusations that they have pulled punches in the past. Yet, as his protestations suggest, being environmental has not come easily to Attenborough. I dont think hes naturally an environmentalist at all, said one



Recommended For You

Like it? Share with your friends!


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.