35 Who Made a Difference: David Attenborough

The natural history filmmaker has brought serious science to a global audience

David Attenborough
Wikimedia Commons

I was driving down a dirt road looking for a sheep ranch on the coast of western Australia, trying to find a place to photograph stromatolites, living reefs of ancient blue-green algae that occur in only a few places on earth. A friend of a friend had recommended the ranch, but the description was a bit vague. As I pulled up to a cluster of old buildings, a tall, bowlegged man came out with a guestbook for me to sign, and when I saw David Attenborough's name in the book, I knew I had come to the right place.

Filmmaker David Attenborough has left his mark all over the planet in his more than 50 years of travel in the service of natural history. He has been a defining force in nature television programming, bringing science to a global audience, while setting high standards for the profession. "It's easy to become a celebrity on television," says BBC producer Alastair Fothergill, who has worked with Attenborough for more than 17 years. "It's much harder to be respected by your peers at the same time. And David succeeds brilliantly at both."

Attenborough is best known for his epic documentaries "Life on Earth," "The Living Planet" and "The Trials of Life," but these productions were rooted in a long and distinguished career with BBC TV as a producer, director, writer, editor, anchorman and executive. When Attenborough joined the network in 1952, natural history programs were rare. His first, a studio quiz show called "Animal, Vegetable, Mineral?" was followed by "Zoo Quest," a decade-long series that took him to exotic locations around the world to cover animal-collecting expeditions for the London Zoo. Later, as head of BBC Two, he commissioned a range of innovative programming, from highbrow series such as Kenneth Clark's "Civilisation," Jacob Bronowski's "The Ascent of Man" and Alistair Cooke's "America," to popular entertainment, including "Monty Python’s Flying Circus."

It was "Civilisation," a multipart series with a charismatic host filmed on location, that was the model for Attenborough's own "Life on Earth." He wrote the outline for all 13 parts in longhand, but it took a team of producers, dozens of cameramen, three years of filming, and the vast resources of the BBC to execute his vision. "To put out something with such an ambitious story line was new," he says. "I would start a sentence of my narration in one location and finish it off halfway around the world. People said it would never work—that viewers would not be able to follow it. But it did work, and I've produced variations on this approach ever since."

The series made Attenborough a global personality. "He has a unique ability as a storyteller and communicator," says Attenborough's BBC colleague Mike Salisbury. "We assemble reams of information, and he has this incredible ability to pick out the stories that really capture people."

"Life on Earth" became a template for more than half a dozen subsequent productions, from "The Living Planet" (1984) to "The Life of Mammals" (2002), each more ambitious than the last. "He's been an inspiration to several generations of people who have entered the fields of biology, conservation or filmmaking," says Salisbury.

Producer Alastair Fothergill was one of those individuals. "When I was a teenager I saw 'Life on Earth' and became absolutely determined to get into this profession myself," he says. He worked with Attenborough in locations around the world, but he remembers a defining moment in Ivory Coast that involved an exhausting pursuit of a group of chimpanzees. "David was in his 60s, but he kept the pace, and we caught up with the chimps in time to witness them killing a monkey. It was one of the most horrific things I've ever experienced in nature. We were panting with exhaustion, but we had only one minute to record David's commentary. He looked to the camera, and on the spot he turned a story of violence in nature into a comment on the origins of cooperative behavior in humans."

Attenborough, who at age 79 still writes, edits and directs, worries that computer imaging is blurring the lines between reality and fiction. "I fear that we are driven toward ever more sensationalism in nature programming," he says. "But I firmly believe that the art of storytelling will never change. If you tell a good story, people will hang on your words."

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