David Attenborough

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Producers, directors and media figures

David Attenborough
David Attenborough's autobiography, Life on Air
David Attenborough's autobiography, Life on Air
Born 8 May 1926
London, England
Residence Richmond upon Thames, London
Nationality British
Field Naturalist
Alma Mater Clare College, University of Cambridge ( Natural Sciences); University College London (Anthropology)
Notable Prizes Order of Merit, Order of the Companions of Honour, Royal Victorian Order, Order of the British Empire, Fellow of the Royal Society

Sir David Frederick Attenborough, OM, CH, CVO, CBE, FRS (born on May 8, 1926 in London, England) is one of the world's best known broadcasters and naturalists. Widely considered one of the pioneers of the nature documentary, he has written and presented eight major series (with a ninth in production) surveying nearly every aspect of life on Earth. He is also a former senior manager at the BBC, having served as controller of BBC2 and director of programming for BBC Television in the 1960s and 1970s.

He is the younger brother of director and actor Richard Attenborough.

Early life

Attenborough grew up in College House on the campus of University College, Leicester, where his father, Frederick, was principal. He was the middle of three sons. During World War II his parents also adopted two Jewish refugee girls from Europe.

Attenborough spent his childhood collecting fossils, stones and other natural specimens. He received encouragement in this pursuit at age 7, when a young Jacquetta Hawkes admired his 'museum.' A few years later, one of his adoptive sisters gave him a piece of amber filled with prehistoric creatures; some 50 years later, this amber would be the focus of his programme "The Amber Time Machine".

Attenborough was educated at Wyggeston Grammar School for Boys in Leicester and then won a scholarship to Clare College, University of Cambridge, where he obtained a degree in Natural Sciences. In 1947, he was called up for National Service in the Royal Navy and spent two years stationed in North Wales and the Firth of Forth.

In 1950, Attenborough married Jane Elizabeth Ebsworth Oriel; the marriage lasted until her death in 1997. The couple had two children, Robert and Susan.

First years at the BBC

After leaving the Navy, Attenborough took a position editing children's science textbooks for a publishing company. He soon became disillusioned with the work, however, and in 1950 he applied for a job as a radio talks producer with the BBC. Although he was rejected for this job, his CV later attracted the interest of Mary Adams, head of the "talks" (factual broadcasting) department of the BBC's fledging television service. Attenborough, like most Britons at that time, did not own a television, and he had seen only one programme in his life. However, he accepted Adams' offer of a three-month training course, and in 1952 he joined the BBC full time. Initially discouraged from appearing on camera because Adams thought his teeth were too big, he became a producer for the Talks Department, which handled all non-fiction broadcasts. His early projects included the quiz show Animal, Vegetable, Mineral? and a series about folk music presented by Alan Lomax.

Attenborough's association with natural history programmes began when he produced and presented the three-part series The Pattern of Animals. The studio-bound programme featured animals from London Zoo, with the naturalist Sir Julian Huxley discussing their use of camouflage, aposematism and courtship displays. Through this programme, Attenborough met Jack Lester, the curator of the zoo's reptile house, and they decided to make a series about an animal-collecting expedition. The result was Zoo Quest, first broadcast in 1954.

BBC administration

From 1965 to 1969 Attenborough was Controller of BBC2. Among the programmes he commissioned during this time were Match of the Day, Civilisation, The Ascent of Man, The Likely Lads, Not Only... But Also, Man Alive, Masterclass, The Old Grey Whistle Test and The Money Programme. He also initiated televised snooker. This diversity of programme types reflects Attenborough's belief that BBC2's output should be as varied as possible. In 1967, under his watch, BBC2 became the first television channel in the United Kingdom to broadcast in colour.

From 1969 to 1972 he was BBC Television's Director of Programmes (making him responsible overall for both BBC1 and BBC2), but turned down the offer to become Director General of the BBC. In 1972 he resigned his post and returned to programme making.

Major series

Foremost among Attenborough's TV documentary work as writer and presenter is the 'Life' series, which begins with the trilogy: Life on Earth, The Living Planet and The Trials of Life. These examine the world's organisms from the viewpoints of taxonomy, ecology and stages of life respectively.

They were followed by more specialised surveys: Life in the Freezer (about Antarctica), The Private Life of Plants, The Life of Birds, The Life of Mammals and his most recent, Life in the Undergrowth, which concerned terrestrial invertebrates. Life in Cold Blood (dealing with reptiles and amphibians) is currently in production and due for completion in 2008. The 'Life' series as a whole currently comprises 74 programmes.

Attenborough has also written and/or presented other shorter productions. One of the first after his return to programme-making was The Tribal Eye ( 1976), which enabled him to expand on his interest in tribal art. Others include The First Eden ( 1987), about man's relationship with the natural habitats of the Mediterranean, and Lost Worlds, Vanished Lives ( 1989), which demonstrated Attenborough's passion for discovering fossils. In 2000, State of the Planet examined the environmental crisis that threatens the ecology of the Earth. The naturalist also narrated two other significant series: The Blue Planet ( 2001) and Planet Earth ( 2006). The latter is the first natural history series to be made entirely in high-definition.

In May–June 2006, the BBC broadcast a major two-part environmental documentary as part of its " Climate Chaos" season of programmes on global warming. In Are We Changing Planet Earth? and Can We Save Planet Earth?, Attenborough investigated the subject and put forward some potential solutions. He returned to the locations of some of his past productions and discovered the effect that climate change has had on them.

Life in Cold Blood is intended to be Attenborough's last major series. In an interview to promote Life in the Undergrowth, he stated:

"Once I have completed the reptiles series [...] that will be enough. It would complete the survey for me. I will have given a series to every group of animals and when that is done there would be 100 or so hours of DVDs on the shelf."

However, in a subsequent interview with Radio Times, he said that he did not intend to retire completely and would probably continue to make occasional one-off programmes.

Other work

In 1975, the naturalist presented a BBC children's series entitled Fabulous Animals. This represented a diversion from Attenborough's usual fare, as it dealt with the creatures of myths and legends, such as the griffin and kraken. It was a studio-based production, with the presenter describing his subjects with the aid of large, ornately illustrated books.

From 1997 to 2005, Attenborough also narrated the long-running half-hour nature series Wildlife on One on BBC One (variously retitled Wildlife on Two, BBC Wildlife and Natural World depending on the channel on which it is repeated), though his role has mainly been to introduce or narrate other people's film, and he rarely appears on camera.

Attenborough also serves on the advisory board of BBC Wildlife magazine.

Achievements, awards and recognition

  • 1970 : BAFTA Desmond Davis Award
  • 1974 : CBE
  • 1979 : BAFTA Fellowship
  • 1983 : FRS
  • 1985 : Knighthood
  • 1991 : CVO for producing Queen Elizabeth II's Christmas broadcast for a number of years from 1986
  • 1996 : CH "for services to nature broadcasting"
  • 2000 : International Cosmos Prize
  • 2003 : Michael Faraday Prize awarded by the Royal Society
  • 2004 : Descartes Prize for Outstanding Science Communication Actions
  • 2005 : OM
  • 2005 : Nierenberg Prize for Science in the Public Interest
  • 2006 : National Television Awards Special Recognition Award

On 13 July 2006, Attenborough, along with his brother Richard, were awarded the titles of Distinguished Honorary Fellows of the University of Leicester "in recognition of a record of continuing distinguished service to the University." David Attenborough was previously awarded an Honorary Doctor of Letters degree by the university in 1970.

In 1993, after discovering that the Mesozoic reptile Plesiosaurus conybeari had not, in fact, been a true plesiosaur, the paleontologist Robert Bakker renamed the species Attenborosaurus conybeari in Attenborough's honour.

Out of four extant species of echidna, one is named after him: Sir David's Long-beaked Echidna, Zaglossus attenboroughi, which inhabits the Cyclops mountains in the Papua province of New Guinea.

In June 2004, Attenborough and Sir Peter Scott were jointly profiled in the second of a three part BBC Two series, The Way We Went Wild, about television wildlife presenters. Part three also featured Attenborough extensively. The next month, another BBC Two programme, Attenborough the Controller, recalled his time as Director of Programmes for BBC2.

In November 2005, London's Natural History Museum announced a fundraising campaign to build a communications centre in Attenborough's honour. The museum intends to open the Sir David Attenborough Studio in 2008.

An opinion poll of 4900 Britons conducted by Reader's Digest in 2006 showed Attenborough to be the most trusted celebrity in Britain. In a list compiled by the magazine New Statesman in 2006, he was voted tenth in the list of "Heroes of our time".

It is often suggested that David Attenborough's 50-year career at the BBC making natural history documentaries and travelling extensively throughout the world, has probably made him the most travelled person on Earth ever.

His contribution to broadcasting was recognised by the 60-minute documentary Life on Air, transmitted in 2002 to tie in with the publication of Attenborough's similarly titled autobiography. For the programme, the naturalist was interviewed at his home by his friend Michael Palin (someone who is almost as well-travelled). Attenborough's reminiscences are interspersed with memorable clips from his series, with contributions from his brother Richard as well as professional colleagues. Life on Air is available on DVD as part of Attenborough in Paradise and Other Personal Voyages.

Favourite Attenborough moments

In April 2006, to celebrate Attenborough's 80th birthday, the public were asked to vote on their favourite of his television moments, out of twenty candidates. The results were announced on UKTV on 7 May. Each is given with its series and advocate:

  1. Attenborough watching a lyrebird mimicking various noises (The Life of Birds, selected by Bill Oddie)
  2. Mountain gorillas (Life on Earth, Sanjeev Bhaskar)
  3. Blue whale encounter (The Life of Mammals, Alan Titchmarsh)
  4. His description of the demise of Easter Island's native society (State of the Planet, Charlotte Uhlenbroek)
  5. Chimpanzees using tools to crack nuts (The Life of Mammals, Charlotte Uhlenbroek)
  6. A grizzly bear fishing (The Life of Mammals, Steve Leonard)
  7. Imitating a woodpecker to lure in a real one (The Life of Birds, Ray Mears)
  8. The presenter being attacked by a displaying male capercaillie (The Life of Birds, Bill Oddie)
  9. Chimps wading through water on two feet (The Life of Mammals, Gavin Thurston)
  10. Observing a male bowerbird's display (The Life of Birds, Joanna Lumley)
  11. Watching elephants in a salt cave (The Life of Mammals, Joanna Lumley)
  12. Wild chimps hunting monkeys (The Trials of Life, Alastair Fothergill)
  13. Freetail bats leaving a cave and Attenborough holding one of their young (The Trials of Life, Rory McGrath)
  14. Being threatened by a bull elephant seal (Life in the Freezer, Björk)
  15. A wandering albatross chick and its parent (Life in the Freezer, Ellen MacArthur)
  16. Spawning Christmas Island red crabs (The Trials of Life, Simon King)
  17. In a tree with gibbons (The Life of Mammals, Steve Leonard)
  18. Burrowing under a termite mound to demonstrate its cooling system (The Trials of Life, Björk)
  19. Observing a titan arum (The Private Life of Plants, Alan Titchmarsh)
  20. Timelapse footage of a bramble growing (The Private Life of Plants, Rory McGrath)

Parodies and artistic portrayals

Attenborough's accent and hushed, excited delivery have been the subject of frequent parodies by comedians, most notably Spike Milligan, Marty Feldman and The Goodies. Especially apt for spoofing is Attenborough's pronunciation of the word 'here' when using it to introduce a sentence, as in, " He-eah, in the rain forest of the Amazon Basin..."

Attenborough also appears as a character in David Ives' play Time Flies, a comedy focusing on a romance between two mayflies.

Views and advocacy

Environmental causes

From the beginning, Attenborough's major series have included some content regarding the impact of human society on the natural world. The last episode of The Living Planet, for example, focuses almost entirely on man's destruction of the environment and ways that it could be stopped or reversed. Despite this, his programmes have been criticised for not making their environmental message more explicit. Some environmentalists feel that programmes like Attenborough's give a false picture of idyllic wilderness and do not do enough to acknowledge that such areas are increasingly encroached upon by humans.

However, his closing message from State of the Planet was forthright:

"The future of life on earth depends on our ability to take action. Many individuals are doing what they can, but real success can only come if there's a change in our societies and our economics and in our politics. I've been lucky in my lifetime to see some of the greatest spectacles that the natural world has to offer. Surely we have a responsibility to leave for future generations a planet that is healthy, inhabitable by all species."

Since the 1980s, Attenborough has become increasingly outspoken in support of environmental causes. In 2005 and 2006 he backed a BirdLife International project to stop the killing of albatross by longline fishing boats. He gave public support to WWF's campaign to have 220,000 square kilometres of Borneo's rainforest designated a protected area. He also serves as a vice-president of Fauna and Flora International. In 2003 he launched an appeal to create a rainforest reserve in Ecuador in memory of Christopher Parsons OBE, the producer of Life on Earth and a personal friend, who had died the previous year. He later became Patron of the World Land Trust, and an active supporter.

Attenborough has repeatedly said that he considers human overpopulation to be the root cause of many environmental problems. Both his series The Life of Mammals and the accompanying book end with a plea for humans to curb population growth so that other species will not be crowded out.

He has recently written and spoken publicly about the fact that he now believes global warming is definitely real, and caused by humans. At the climax of the aforementioned "Climate Chaos" documentaries, the naturalist gives this summing up of his findings:

"In the past, we didn't understand the effect of our actions. Unknowingly, we sowed the wind and now, literally, we are reaping the whirlwind. But we no longer have that excuse: now we do recognise the consequences of our behaviour. Now surely, we must act to reform it: individually and collectively; nationally and internationally — or we doom future generations to catastrophe."

In a 2005 interview with BBC Wildlife magazine, Attenborough said he considered George W. Bush to be the era's top "environmental villain".

Other causes

In May 2005, Attenborough was appointed as patron of the UK's Blood Pressure Association, which provides information and support to people with hypertension.

Religion and creationism

In a December 2005 interview with Simon Mayo on BBC Radio Five Live, Attenborough stated that he considers himself an agnostic. When asked whether his observation of the natural world has given him faith in a creator, he generally responds with some version of this story:

"My response is that when Creationists talk about God creating every individual species as a separate act, they always instance hummingbirds, or orchids, sunflowers and beautiful things. But I tend to think instead of a parasitic worm that is boring through the eye of a boy sitting on the bank of a river in West Africa, [a worm] that's going to make him blind. And [I ask them], 'Are you telling me that the God you believe in, who you also say is an all-merciful God, who cares for each one of us individually, are you saying that God created this worm that can live in no other way than in an innocent child's eyeball? Because that doesn't seem to me to coincide with a God who's full of mercy."

He has explained that he feels the evidence all over the planet clearly shows evolution to be the best way to explain the diversity of life, and that "as far as I'm concerned, if there is a supreme being then He chose organic evolution as a way of bringing into existence the natural world."

Attenborough's documentaries exposed millions to the diversity of life on Earth, including, of course, viewers who subscribe to the belief that all life was spontaneously created by God, known as creationism. In his series, Attenborough rarely explicitly speaks about the mechanisms of evolution, except in Life on Earth, which was an entire series that was specifically devoted to it. Instead, he describes the advantages of each adaptation in high detail — why flowers are shaped in a certain way, why birds and animals migrate, how mechanisms of mimicry can serve as protection or to attract insects and animals, and so forth. As such, his work has been cited by some creationists as exemplary in that it does not "shove evolution down the viewer's throat". Others have written to Attenborough and asked him to clearly refer to God as the creator of life.

In 2002, Attenborough joined an effort by leading clerics and scientists to oppose the inclusion of creationism in the curriculum of UK state-funded independent schools which receive private sponsorship, such as the Emmanuel Schools Foundation. One of Attenborough's more recent TV series, The Life of Mammals, makes numerous direct references to evolution, in particular that of humans.


For a list of films and programmes in which David Attenborough has been involved see David Attenborough at the Internet Movie Database.


Attenborough has written the introduction or foreword for a number of books, including:

  • Life in the Freezer: Natural History of the Antarctic, Alastair Fothergill (BBC Books, 1993), ISBN 0-563-36431-9
  • Birds of Paradise: Paradisaeidae (Bird Families of the World series) Clifford B. Frith, Bruce M. Beehler, William T. Cooper (Illustrator) (Oxford University Press, 1998) ISBN 0-19-854853-2
  • The Blue Planet, Andrew Byatt, Alastair Fothergill, Martha Holmes (BBC Books, 2001) ISBN 0-563-38498-0.
  • Light on the Earth (BBC Books, 2005), two decades of winning images from the BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition, ISBN 0-563-52260-7
  • Planet Earth, Alastair Fothergill (BBC Books, due for publication in October 2006), ISBN 0-563-52212-7


Major programmes

A number of Attenborough's programmes have been available on video; most are now out-of-print. These DVDs are available (unless stated, dates are of original transmission):

  • Life on Earth ( 1979)
  • The Living Planet ( 1984)
  • Lost Worlds, Vanished Lives ( 1989)
  • Trials of Life [sic] ( 1990)
  • Life in the Freezer ( 1993)
  • The Private Life of Plants ( 1995)
  • The Life of Birds ( 1998)
  • State of the Planet ( 2000)
  • The Blue Planet (2001)
  • The Life of Mammals ( 2002)
  • Deep Blue ( 2004, feature, based on The Blue Planet))
  • Life in the Undergrowth ( 2005)
  • Great Wildlife Moments with David Attenborough (compilation)
  • Wildlife Special: The Tiger
  • Wildlife Special: The Eagle
  • Wildlife Special: The Leopard
  • Wildlife Special: The Serpent
  • Attenborough in Paradise and Other Personal Voyages includes seven one-off documentaries:
    • Attenborough in Paradise: 1996- 04-08
    • The Lost Gods of Easter Island: 2000- 04-24
    • The Amber Time Machine: 2004- 02-15
    • Bowerbirds: The Art of Seduction: 2000- 12-17
    • The Song of the Earth: 2000- 12-23
    • A Blank on the Map: 1971- 12-29
    • Life on Air: 2002- 11-20
  • The Life Collection, a comprehensive box set, was released 5 December 2005
  • Planet Earth (2006) (scheduled for release 27 November 2006)

Narrated by Attenborough

  • A Zed & Two Noughts (film drama)
  • Tarka the Otter by Henry Williamson, read by David Attenborough (available on audiocassette, 1978)

Character voice

  • Voice of the museum commentary in Robbie the Reindeer: Legend of the Lost Tribe

Other programmes

Author and producer

  • Zoo Quest
  • Eastwards with Attenborough
  • The Tribal Eye


  • 1986– 1991, The Queen's Christmas Message
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