With a television career spanning over 6 decades, Sir David Attenborough is one of few universally loved Britons. We're looking back on the work of a man who changed the nature documentary irreversibly, and moulded the way we look at the natural world forever. 

The call of the wild

David Attenborough first applied to work at the BBC in 1950 following a stint in the Royal Navy and an unfulfilling job editing children’s books.

Mary Adams, the BBC’s head of factual television broadcasting, picked up his CV and, although she believed his teeth too big for camera, she soon had him producing shows such as Animal, Vegetable, Mineral? and Song Hunter.

In 1957 the BBC’s natural history unit formed in Bristol, but Attenborough declined to join it because he didn’t want to move his young family from London. Instead, he set up his own department, the Travel and Exploration Unit, and set about creating shows such as the Travellers Tales and Adventures series, as well as continuing to front Zoo Quest.

A nature lover from a young age—he'd built an impressive fossil collection by the time he turned seven—it seemed Attenborough had finally found his calling. 

In the above clip, you can watch him go in search of an Orangutan in Indonesia for an episode of Zoo Quest in 1956.

 

 

Life begins…

After a hugely successful start to his broadcasting career, Attenborough became the controller of BBC 2 in 1965. He ensured a clause was written into his contract that permitted him to make his own programmes on an occasional basis.

When it was suggested in 1972 that he be considered for Director General, he confessed he had no appetite for the job and promptly resigned in order to return to making his own programmes.

This would allow him the time he needed to begin the Natural History epic series, Life. Here he’s captured frolicking with baby gorillas in Rwanda for the first episode of the legendary series. The Life collection would become a benchmark in wildlife filmmaking, influencing a generation of future documentary makers to come.

 

 

A passion for plants

Attenborough’s interest in the natural world always extended beyond the adorable animals that starred in many of his programmes. In the 1990s, he began work on The Private Life of Plants, a series that used groundbreaking time-lapse photography to show the way plants grew.

In this clip from 1995, he introduces viewers to the carnivorous Venus Flytrap showing through time-lapse photography how it catches its prey.

Another area of botanical interest for Attenborough is the Great Barrier Reef. Protection of this beautiful, expansive reef is a passion of the presenter and he has often spoken of the importance of saving this site of natural beauty from the dangers of climate change.

Here he explains that if the temperature of our oceans continues to rise, the reef could be gone within decades, something that would spell a global catastrophe. Throughout his career, Attenborough has emphasised the impact of humanity on the natural world around us.

 

 

“The future of life on earth depends on our ability to take action."

 

 

In his closing speech from the 2000 documentary The State of Our Planet, he made his view clear:

“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.”

 

Read more from David Attenborough on climate change

 

 

Walk with the animals, talk with the animals

One of the most incredible things about Attenborough for his viewers has always been his uncanny ability to befriend and communicate with wild animals. 

In his 2013 documentary series, Africa, he got up close and personal with an adorable blind baby rhinoceros.

Close encounters of this kind are a hallmark of Attenborough's style, interacting with animals in their natural environment, showing how much a little human empathy can help to restore the lives of endangered species. 

 

 

Never work with animals

Attenborough has certainly had his fair share of animal outtakes during his long career. Here he faces constant interruption from the greater bird of paradise and is knocked to his knees by a territorial grouse.

Unsurprisingly, it is often when things don't go quite to plan that Attenborough's documentaries are at their most fascinating. Speaking to the National Geographic about this phenomenon, he said:

"Animals, when they appear on your screen, have a number of qualities that are unique to them. They’re not trying to sell you anything and they’re not telling you lies. They are unpredictable. They are very often new. They’re extraordinarily beautiful. They’re dramatic. And they share something with us, which is life. What more do you want from your television?"

 

 

A national treasure

In 2016, David Attenborough celebrated his 90th birthday and Britain celebrated the long career of a national treasure. 

Personally, however, he doesn't have much time for the title: 

“What does ‘national treasure’ mean?… Nothing, except that people are favourably disposed towards you. You’re not being elected. You haven’t got the power to become prime minister. The problem is that you are credited with more wisdom and apprehension than is the case—which is quite easy actually. People think you know everything, but of course you don’t!"

Attenborough fans can rest easy as despite entering his nineties, he doesn't plan to retire anytime soon. "You never tire of the natural world. Putting your feet up is all very well, but it’s very boring, isn’t it?”

Above, members of Attenborough’s crew and his brother Richard remember working with the least vain man in television.

 

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Feature image via BBC

 

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