October 2, 2012


by Sir David Attenborough
403 pages, BBC Books

Review by Pat Black

It’s no longer a great unspoken. People are openly wondering what life on Earth will be like without Sir David Attenborough.

Sir David’s path as a broadcaster over the past 62 years reads like a history of British television, never mind natural history film-making. As the title suggests, this book looks at his experiences in broadcasting, rather than a complete autobiography.

He first started with the BBC in 1950, as a 26-year-old zoology graduate. Bush-whacking his way through the cabling and searing lights of ancient broadcasting technology right through to today’s calm oases of near-seamless digital techniques, Attenborough has seen the evolution of some amazing televisual advances. He makes a good stab at making these seem interesting.

But to be brutally honest, we’re just here for the animal stuff.

As a documentarian of the earth’s natural history, Attenborough is peerless. Ever since his first jungle expeditions in the 1950s for the Zoo Quest series, up until the recent Frozen Planet, he has been involved in the most impressive survey of life ever undertaken. Although his role is now largely as a narrator rather than producer and writer, his natural history programmes such as Life on Earth, the Living Planet and Planet Earth, are unmissable spectacles. The production of these shows, and the danger and wonder associated with them, is fully recounted here. From being charged by a rhino, to treating with previously undiscovered cannibal tribes, to being given an alarm call by a lioness when she sniffs at his face in Kenya one morning, the book has a hoard of priceless stories. You wonder how many Sir David had to leave out.

The primitive recording techniques Attenborough had to utilise in his early jungle expeditions makes his early achievements all the more impressive – giant tape recorders and prehistoric cameras which only worked in optimum light conditions, lugged across mountains, trailing alongside the snakes in steaming jungles and ferried across surging rivers.

The encounters with other naturalists are noteworthy. Attenborough has worked with Dian Fossey, met Gerald Durrell and, most interestingly, stayed at the compound of Joy and George Adamson, of Born Free fame. I was fascinated by the latter encounter as my dad loved the movie version of Born Free, with good old Ginny McKenna frolicking with lion cubs in her African idyll, an Elysian dream he harboured his whole life.

In truth, Attenborough says, the Adamsons’ compound was filled with a sense of violence and immanent death. The goats kept in the yard were constantly bleating in terror due to the presence of the looming Elsa the lioness and her siblings, while Attenborough and others grew to be understandably wary of huge, deadly predators loping around among them, sometimes taking playful swipes at their legs in the process. Joy Adamson, in truth an Austrian aristocrat rather than a plummy English game-for-a-dare type, treated these great predators with a delusional anthropomorphic dottiness which greatly disturbed Attenborough. Cattier still were Joy and George, who were frequently at each others’ throats in front of the TV crew. Attenborough, well used to describing creatures tearing each other apart with a soothing, scholarly calm, confesses he couldn’t bear to sit in their presence.

It’s not all about natural history. Attenborough was promoted up the ranks to an administrative position, as head of the then-new BBC2 in the late sixties, and seems to have done a decent job in an era when the UK only had three channels, with the full focus of the newspapers and the public on them. How interesting you may find this is entirely up to you; Attenborough did stage some ground-breaking events, mostly to do with musical extravaganzas, and carried out his desk job with a pleasing, Reithian zeal. But I couldn’t fully invest my attention in Attenborough’s recollections of his series The Tribal Eye, a labour of love which detailed his lifelong obsession with collecting tribal art. This chapter is longer than that detailing his ground-breaking Life on Earth series, which includes the author’s still-electrifying close encounter with the mountain gorillas in Rwanda. It also takes up about the same space as that allocated to his subsequent series The Living Planet. You may find it just as interesting, but many wouldn’t agree.

The book is peppered with witty anecdotes which I would guess have caused polite wuffly laughter at any number of formal dinner engagements in the past thirty-odd years. However, I was surprised that Attenborough, who has one of the most recognisable and easily-mimicked voices in broadcasting, should choose to make such sport of people with regional accents. If the book had been written in the Attenborough accent, you would hardly have needed to make any mental adjustment. And heahhh, a chaptahh, on cheetaaaahs.

It’s a fascinating book, stuffed with wonder and adventure among the planet’s rarest and most memorable creatures, experienced along rarely-trodden paths. Attenborough rarely touches on family relationships or friendships outside his work, so anyone looking for shocking revelations will be disappointed. But as a self-penned chronicle of one of the most famous living Britons – and certainly one of the best loved – it’s fantastic.

Attenborough has taken so many accolades and honours in his life… is a Nobel Prize out of the question? Crazy talk? Barack Obama got one, I guess. Maybe after the Higgs-Boson guy?

We all have our favourite Attenborough Moments; mine is the moment he continues to deliver his customary calm commentary even as he fights off a randy bull sea lion with a big stick. But for me, simply watching his films gave me and my father something to share, that timeless father-and-son bonding experience of watching a crocodile rip a wildebeest to pieces. This recollection makes me smile, but not nearly as much as the documentaries themselves.

And how do you replace David Attenborough, when that dark day dawns, hopefully a long way ahead of us? Simple answer – you can’t. He’s a one-off, and his legacy is almost beyond measure.

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