Newsmaker: As India fetes David Attenborough, a look at an incredible career
The face (and voice) of wildlife documentaries recently won the Indira Gandhi peace prize. A look at a legacy unmatched, and things he might have done differently.Updated: Nov 29, 2019 18:40 IST
If it feels like David Attenborough’s always been on our TV screens, it’s because he has been. When he started working with the BBC in 1952, so few people owned a TV that he wasn’t even one of them. (In fact, data on the number of TV sets in British homes only began to be collected in 1956.)
Attenborough, a British naturalist, used the medium like no one else had. He brought blue whales into our drawing rooms, and invited us along as he explored dinosaur digs in the Sahara, discussed jewellery with a tribe of cannibals in Papua New Guinea, and got down on his knees to whisper to a blind baby rhino in Kenya.
Whatever the species, his response was always genuine interest, affection, awe. In an age when we were excited to be able to telegram each other, he walked out into the unknown, smiling, and took millions with him.
About five generations of humans have grown up watching him, through a seven-decade career that went from black-and-white to colour, HD, 3D and 4K (Attenborough’s the only person to have won BAFTAs in all five formats).
In recognition of his unique body of work, he’s been knighted in his home country, won honours around the world (including in South Africa, Spain and Russia), received multiple Emmys. And last week, the 93-year-old was awarded India’s Indira Gandhi Prize for Peace, Disarmament and Development.
- David Attenborough has had several species named after him, including a dinosaur (the Attenborosaurus), a weevil (Trigonopterus Attenboroughi), butterflies, beetles, and a flowering tree.
- In 2016, a British polar research ship was named the RRS Sir David Attenborough (after an Internet poll essentially failed, by suggesting it be named Boaty McBoatface).
- Few remember that Attenborough was once controller of BBC Two, in the 1960s, just as it switched to colour. Monty Python’s Flying Circus was one of the programmes launched during this time. He is also credited with introducing phone-ins to involve viewers.
- His voice and accent, now so loved, were for a long time considered hard to understand in parts of the world. Until recently, his shows were dubbed on US television. In 2010, for instance, Oprah Winfrey narrated his seminal series, Life, for US audiences.
“Few individuals have come to be as identified with the well being of our planet, of all living creatures, and their relationship with human beings, as Sir David,” the Indira Gandhi Memorial Trust said in a statement. The prize went to Attenborough for a lifetime of doing more to reveal the wonders of the natural world to us than perhaps any other individual, it added.
Attenborough holds another distinction — year after year, he’s been voted one of the most trusted public figures in the UK. Two years ago, after an episode of Blue Planet II showed albatrosses feeding plastic to their chicks, surveys showed Britons picking unpacked fruit over plastic-wrapped and refusing single-use plastic products.
But the episode about the chicks was the exception rather than the rule. For decades, Attenborough has shied away from depicting human impact on natural habitats, in his shows. Where other naturalists were warning of a sixth mass extinction, he produced stunning footage that carefully excluded signs of damage.
Meanwhile, the planet he’s been documenting has gone from the Holocene age to the Anthropocene, an epoch defined by the impact of our species on the earth. But you would never know it from the footage Attenborough generated through most of his career.
“When Life on Earth came out in 1979, and The Living Planet five years later, I was concerned about the fact that this wasn’t a place I recognised,” the naturalist Richard Mabey told Patrick Barkham, the natural history writer for The Guardian. “What one saw was magnificent, but it was what one didn’t see – no humans, no environmental degradation. It was like an idealised biosphere on another planet.” When 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 wouldn’t have got the viewers, they would have turned off.’”
At the BBC, Attenborough was taught early on that his role was to engage an audience. Every series he’s worked on has reflected that desire to create good television. Attenborough has said, repeatedly, that he believes depressing footage would be a turn-off, and what he wanted instead was for people to see the wonder and beauty, to fall in love with nature as he had; and start to care.
Naturalists and environmentalists argue that this was dangerous, disingenuous; his series were billed as documentaries, and didn’t tell the whole story. Instead, from one of the most trusted people in the country, you got a comforting sense that things were all right. Intact. Beautiful.
Over the past decade, there’s been a change of heart worldwide. Attenborough too has begun speaking of climate change, climate strikes, radical action. On his newer shows, there is an effort to represent at least parts of the problem. But it took more effort, naturalists say, to keep it out of the frame all these years.