As Successful Author and TV Personality
He has had a very successful television and film career, having produced over 50 nature and wildlife documentaries. He also once served as a senior manager at the British Broadcasting Company, and is hailed by the company as one of its best, having worked as a director of programming for BBC Television in the sixties and the seventies. His “Life” series has become one of the most watched television shows in the entire planet.
David has written over 30 books on wildlife and nature, with every one of them becoming bestsellers not just in Britain, but internationally as well. Much of his work as an author mirrors his career as a broadcaster.
In the fifties and the sixties, David wrote the Zoo Quest series, which recounted his expeditions around the world in animal collecting. He also wrote the Life documentary series, which focused on tribal art and birds of paradise. Aside from writing his own books, David has also provided introductions and forewords to other works, establishing him as one of the most successful authors of his time.
David has received numerous awards and acknowledgements for his works in writing, television, and film documentaries. In fact, he is the person who holds the most number of honorary degrees (thirty one in all) from British Universities. His contributions to broadcasting and wildlife filming have earned him recognition worldwide, and have brought him titles such as “the great communicator,” “the peerless educator,” and “the greatest broadcaster of our time.”
One of the 100 Greatest Britons
His programs are often used as an example of what real public service broadcasting should be—both by his followers and even by his critics. He is also considered as a ‘national treasure’ in Britain, and has been included in the 100 Greatest Britons. David is also the only person to have won a BAFTA Award in black and white, color, HD, and 3D television categories.
Aside from having a successful career as an author, broadcaster, and producer, David is also an active advocate of wildlife and environmental protection and preservation. In fact, many of the documentaries that David produced have themes of wildlife conservation and protection, and David often includes in his narration how the human society has the ability to protect or destroy the environment.
In most of his documentaries, David often ends the series with a strong warning that if we continue to live the way we live, without taking care of our environment, our future generations would have nothing to live in. In his documentary titled “State of the Planet,” David stated:
“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.”
Many of David’s writings and documentaries have greatly inspired not just environmental organizations, but even many government departments all over the world in boosting their efforts in saving the environment.
David considers himself as an agnostic, and promotes the Darwinian theory of evolution. In many of his interviews, David often states that the best way to explain the diversity of life is by subscribing to evolution. He strongly opposes creationism, and states that if ever there was any high intelligence, that ‘someone’ or ‘something’ chose organic evolution as a means of bringing existence and life into the world. In an interview made with him regarding how his observation of the natural world gave him faith in a creator, he responded:
“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.”
Hailed as one of BBC’s best and most respected broadcasters, David is also a lifelong advocate and supporter of public service broadcasting. He strongly believes that broadcasting is a service, not a business. He is one of the most loyal supporters of BBC, and at many times has expressed his confidence in the company he once worked in. David stated in an interview:
“PSB, to me, is not about selecting individual program strands here or there, financing them from some outside source and then foisting them upon commercial networks. Public Service Broadcasting, watched by a healthy number of viewers, with programs financed in proportion to their intrinsic needs and not the size of the audience, can only effectively operate as a network—a network whose aim is to cater for the broadest possible range of interests, popular as well as less popular, a network that measures its success not only by its audience size but by the range of its schedule.”
David Attenborough was born in the city of London in 1926 to Frederick and Mary Attenborough. He is the middle child of Frederick and Mary’s three children: his older brother is Richard Attenborough, who would later on become an actor; and his younger brother is John Attenborough, who would later on become an executive at Alfa Romeo—an Italian car manufacturer. Frederick was a principal at the University College in Leicester, and because of this David and his siblings spent their childhood at the College House in the campus.
David became fond of the environment at a very young age, spending most of his time collecting fossils, stones, and other natural specimens. Whenever he and his brothers would go out and play, David would also take time in going around, looking for any unique specimen that he could lay his hands on.
With encouragement from his father and mother, he would arrange his collections and display them in his room in a museum-like fashion, which was inspired by the school’s very own museum. The collection eventually grew, and when David was seven, he was introduced to Jacquetta Hawkes, an archaeologist, who greatly admired David’s collection. This meeting sparked David’s desire to become an environmentalist.
David attended the Wyggeston Grammar School for Boys, where he became famous for his intelligence and knowledge, especially in the field of natural history (which was, during that time, something that was truly amazing, considering how there was not much information regarding environmental topics).
Before the outbreak of the Second World War, David’s parents, Frederick and Mary, took in two Jewish refugee girls who escaped the great persecution that was going on in Germany. David and his brothers loved their adoptive sisters and genuinely cared for them. One time, one of David’s adoptive sisters gave him a piece of amber that was filled with prehistoric creatures. David greatly appreciated this act, so much so that many years later, one of his programs, “The Amber Time Machine,” was said to be influenced by the amber that David received from his sister.
Family and Career
In 1945, at the close of the Second World War, David finished his high school studies and received a scholarship to enter Clare College in Cambridge. He studied geology and zoology and was hailed as one of the most excellent students.
In 1947, he received a degree in natural sciences. Before he could continue his studies, David was called up for national service in the Royal Navy. He spent the next two years being stationed at North Wales and the Firth of Forth.
Upon finishing his national service in late 1949, David started looking for a job. He applied to a publishing company and was accepted in a position where he edited children’s science textbooks. Due to his agnostic beliefs, David became disillusioned by the fact that both creationist and evolutionist ideals were being taught together in schools, and so after a few months of working, David decided to leave the company to look for better work.
In 1950, David married Jane Elizabeth Ebsworth Oriel. The couple met a few years ago while David was still studying. After a few dates, David and Jane developed a romantic relationship, which soon ended in a marriage. Jane bore David two children: Robert and Susan Attenborough. Robert eventually became a senior lecturer for the School of Archaeology and Anthropology at the Australian National University, while Susan followed her father in television production and became a producer herself. Jane Attenborough died in 1997.
Still in 1959, David applied at the British Broadcasting Company to become a radio talk producer, but was turned down for his lack of experience in the job and for his big teeth! Despite this initial disappointment, David did not give up and instead explored how the industry worked.
Eventually, his curriculum vitae took the interest of Mary Adams, who was then the head of the factual broadcasting department (Talks) of BBC’s developing television service. Although David, like most of the Britons that time, did not know much about television production (due to him not owning a television, and he had only seen one program in his life since he was a child), he was still offered a three-month training course by Mary Adams.
David accepted the offer, and by 1952 he became a full-time member of BBC. And while David was initially discouraged from appearing on camera due to Adams’ belief that David’s teeth were too big, he was appointed producer for the factual broadcasting department, which took care of all non-fiction broadcasts.
After a few projects—“Song Hunter” and “Animal, Vegetable, Mineral?”—David began to shift to producing natural history programs. His first natural history based program was “The Pattern of Animals,” where he featured the naturalist, Julian Huxley, in a studio talking about the animals of London Zoo and their use of aposematism, camouflage, and courtship displays.
Because of “The Pattern of Animals,” David got an opportunity to meet Jack Lester (the Zoo’s reptile house curator), and the two decided to make a television series on an animal collecting expedition, resulting in the “Zoo Quest” series in 1954, which became very popular.
Zoo Quest’s popularity paved the road for the establishment of the BBC Natural History Unit in 1957, but David declined the offer to join the department because he did not want to move his family from London (the BBC Natural History Unit was established in Bristol); he instead established his own department, which he named the Travel and Exploration Unit, and continued producing Zoo Quest and other documentaries such as the “Traveller’s Tales” and the “Adventure” series.
Leaving the Limelight for School
In 1960, David left the staff of BBC to further pursue his education and learn more about filmmaking by entering the London School of Economics and studying for a postgraduate degree in social anthropology; however, prior to finishing his degree, he received an offer to become the controller of BBC Two in 1965, with a clause stating that he was allowed to produce programs on an occasional basis.
When David started his work as the controller of BBC Two, the channel was struggling to get the public attention. In response to this, David began making changes in the channel, starting with the removal of the kangaroo mascot and by reshuffling the program schedule. Backed up by his mission of making BBC Two shows diverse and different from other television networks, David began to create a set of programming that would define the channel for the following decades.
He ensured that the weekly schedule contained programs on business, entertainment, travel, archaeology, arts, and entertainment, as well as other programs like experimental comedy, drama, science, sport, and natural history. Under David’s tenure, shows such as “Call My Bluff,” “The Old Grey Whistle Test,” “The Money Programme,” and “Man Alive” saw popularity. In 1966, David filmed and made a documentary on the elephants in Tanzania.
Under David’s leadership, in 1967, BBC Two became the first channel to broadcast in color. David took advantage of this upgrade by including televised snooker and the rugby league to its list of programs. In 1969, David produced a three-part series on the cultural history of Bali, one of Indonesia’s most popular destinations. That same year, he released the program titled “Civilisation,” a thirteen-part historical documentary on Western Art. The show went on to set the blueprint for landmark authored documentaries, which further established David’s reputation as an excellent documentary filmmaker.
David’s popularity and reputation resulted in a promotion. He was made director of programmes; however, he felt that filming programs was what he does best. When he was considered to become the Director General of BBC Two in 1972, he resigned from his position so he could go back to making programs.
In 1969, after his promotion, David met Chris Parsons, a producer at the Natural History Unit. David shared with Chris his ideas of making a series on evolution, which made Chris really interested. Chris came up with the title “Life on Earth,” then after some discussion with David returned to Bristol to begin plans for developing the documentary series.
The dilemma for David was that, as long as he remained in a management position, he wouldn’t be able to present the show himself. However, by resigning from the director position and becoming a freelance broadcaster, he was able to work on the project again. During the negotiation stages of the “Life on Earth” series, David also worked on other projects in 1975: “The Tribal Eye,” which was a documentary on tribal art; “The Explorers,” which was on the voyages of discovery; and “Fabulous Animals,” a children’s cryptozoology series.
In 1979, after over four years of negotiation and production, David’s project on “Life” series finally came into fruition. This started with “Life on Earth,” which upon release became critically acclaimed for its quality wildlife filmmaking, which set a standard that documentary filmmakers have come to rely on from that time.
Life on Earth showcased David’s serious treatment of the subject and his thorough research of the latest discoveries. Through his reputation in the scientific community, David was able to feature their works in his programs; a good example would be when he was given access to film Dian Fossey’s research on mountain gorillas. In “Life on Earth,” David revolutionized the way natural history shows were being made, by utilizing the newest filmmaking techniques that were available at that time.
The success achieved by David’s “Life on Earth” caused BBC to consider making a follow-up, and in 1984 the ecologically-themed documentary series “The Living Planet” was released. Built around the foundations of ecology, which showed the relationship of the living things to their environment, the show became another hit series, garnering critical and commercial success and giving large sales for BBC.
Six years later, in 1990, the show “The Trials of Life” was showed, completing the original Life trilogy. This show, which focused on the theme of animal behavior through the different life stages, did receive some strong reactions from the public for its sequences of animals killing each other for survival, such as killer whales hunting sea lions and chimpanzees hunting colobus monkeys.
Because of the success that David’s original Life series achieved, he decided to use the ‘Life’ moniker for the next generation of documentaries. For the next two decades, David produced numerous presentations that continued his Life series: “Life on Freezer,” a documentary about the natural history of Antarctica, was shown in 1993; this was followed by a focused study on the species of plants titled “The Private Life of Plants” in 1995, which aimed to show plants as dynamic organisms through time-lapse photography to speed their movements; afterwards, David shifted his study on the animal kingdom by releasing “The Life of Birds” (in 1998) and “The Life of Mammals” (in 2002).
In 2005, with the help of the advancements in macro photography, David was able to film and release a documentary about invertebrates that he titled “Life in the Undergrowth.” Finally, David made a study on the life of reptiles and amphibians, and in 2008 “Life in Cold Blood” was released. By this time, David became satisfied with completing his work with the Life series and brought together all the documentaries in a DVD encyclopedia he titled “Life on Land.” During an interview made with him regarding the series, David commented:
“The evolutionary history is finished. The endeavour is complete. If you'd asked me 20 years ago whether we'd be attempting such a mammoth task, I'd have said 'Don't be ridiculous!' These programmes tell a particular story and I'm sure others will come along and tell it much better than I did, but I do hope that if people watch it in 50 years' time, it will still have something to say about the world we live in.”
However, in 2010, when David released his documentary titled “The First Life” (which discussed the history of evolution prior to the events on Life on Earth) he stated that this documentary should be included in the Life series.
Aside from the Life series, David has also worked on numerous other projects throughout his entire career. In fact, while he was producing his Life series, David was also working as a narrator and presenter for BBC One’s “Wildlife on One,” a wildlife television series that ran from 1977 to 2005. David’s dynamic style of presentation caused the show to become very famous, and at its peak it garnered over ten million viewers.
David was also a narrator for BBC Two’s “Natural World,” which was the network’s flagship wildlife series. David was always a choice narrator for numerous wildlife television series done by the BBC’s Natural History Unit, such as the “BBC Wildlife Specials” in 1997, which celebrated the Natural History Unit’s fortieth anniversary; “The Blue Planet” (2001), which was the department’s first comprehensive series on marine life; “Planet Earth” (2006), the first ever and the biggest nature documentary to be shot in HD; and “Frozen Planet” (2011), which focused on the natural history of both polar regions.
By the 2000s, David started to create documentaries that included an environmentalist’s view, in response to what he believed to be a great destruction of the world’s natural resources brought upon by man. In his documentaries, such as “State of the Planet” (2000), “The Truth about Climate Change” (2006), “How Many People Can Live on Planet Earth” (2009), and “Saving Planet Earth” (2007), David, including a number of remarks made by many prominent scientists and conservationists, discussed the importance of knowing the adverse effects of the actions that are taken by the modern society.
He discussed issues, such as population overgrowth, global warming and endangered species, and encouraged his viewers to become aware of how they are contributing to the on-going destructive actions in nature.
In 2012, David celebrated his 60th year in the broadcasting industry. Even at 86 years old, David still continued to produce several television, film and radio projects on nature. His most recent production is “David Attenborough’s Natural Curiosities” on Eden network, where he discussed the quirks in the evolutionary theory, natural history, science, and melding history. He is currently planning to return for another production titled “Rise of Animals,” which will discuss the origins of vertebrates.
David’s passion for the environment and his belief in truthful and honest broadcasting has become a powerful inspiration to many people, not just for those who believe the same things that he does, but also for everyone who is longing to make a significant change in today’s world.
Film and Television Work
- 1952: Coelacanth
- 1952: Animal, Vegetable, Mineral?
- 1953: Song Hunter
- 1953: The Pattern of Animals
- 1954: Zoo Quest
- 1955: Zoo Quest to Guiana
- 1955: The Trans-Antarctic Expedition
- 1956: Zoo Quest for a Dragon
- 1957: Quest for the Paradise Birds
- 1959: Zoo Quest in Paraguay
- 1960: The People of Paradise
- 1960: Traveller’s Tales
- 1961: Zoo Quest to Madagascar
- 1961: Adventure
- 1961: Japan
- 1962: Destruction of the Indian
- 1963: Attenborough and Animals
- 1963: Quest Under Capricorn
- 1965: Zambezi
- 1967: Life: East Africa
- 1969: The Miracle of Bali
- 1969: The World About Us
- 1970: A Blank on the Map
- 1973: Eastwards with Attenborough
- 1973: Natural Break
- 1973: The Life Game
- 1973: Royal Institution Christmas Lectures
- 1975: The Explorers
- 1975: The Tribal Eye
- 1976: The Discoverers
- 1977: Wildlife on One
- 1979: Life on Earth
- 1980: The Spirit of Asia
- 1981: The Ark in South Kensington
- 1982: Omnibus
- 1983: Natural World
- 1984: The Living Planet
- 1985: The Million Pound Bird Book
- 1986: The Queen’s Christmas Message
- 1986: World Safari
- 1987: The First Eden
- 1989: Lost Worlds, Vanished Lives
- 1990: The Trials of Life
- 1993: Life in the Freezer
- 1993: Wildlife 100
- 1994: Heart of a Nomad
- 1995: The Private Life of Plants
- 1996: Winners and Losers
- 1996: Q.E.D. “The Secret Life of Seahorses”
- 1996: Attenborough in Paradise
- 1997: BBC Wildlife Specials
- 1998: The Life of Birds
- 1998: The Origin of Species: An Illustrated Guide
- 1999: Sharks – The Truth
- 1999: They Said It Couldn’t Be Done
- 2000: State of the Planet
- 2000: Living with Dinosaurs
- 2000: The Song of the Earth
- 2000: The Greatest Wildlife Show on Earth
- 2000: The Lost Gods of Easter Island
- 2000: Bowerbirds: The Art of Seduction
- 2001: The Blue Planet
- 2002: Life on Air
- 2002: The Life of Mammals
- 2002: Great Natural Wonders of the World
- 2004: The Amber Time Machine
- 2005: Animal Crime Scene
- 2005: Life in the Undergrowth
- 2006: Planet Earth
- 2006: The Truth about Climate Change
- 2006: Gorillas Revisited
- 2007: Climate Change: Britain Under Threat
- 2007: Trek: Spy in the Wildebeest
- 2007: Shining Planet Earth
- 2008: Life in Cold Blood
- 2008: Tiger: Spy in the Jungle
- 2009: Charles Darwin and the Tree of Life
- 2009: Nature’s Great Events
- 2009: Uncovering Our Earliest Ancestor: The Link
- 2009: Life
- 2010: Genius of Britain
- 2010: Attenborough’s Journey
- 2010: David Attenborough’s First Life
- 2011: Madagascar
- 2011: Attenborough and the Giant Egg
- 2011: Frozen Planet
- 2012: Kingdom of Plants
- 2012: Attenborough: 60 Years in the Wild
- 2013: Galapagos 3D
- 2013: David Attenborough’s Natural Curiosities
- 2013: Africa
Organizations and Programmes Supported
- BirdLife International
- Fauna and Flora International
- Leicestershire and Rutland Wildlife Trust
- Butterfly Conservation
- World Land Trust
- Population Matters
- Emmanuel Schools Foundation
- British Humanist Association
Awards and Achievements
- 1970: Received the BAFTA Desmond Davis Award
- 1974: Conferred the title of Commander of the Order of the British Empire
- 1980: Received a BAFTA Fellowship
- 1983: Named a Fellow of the Royal Society
- 1985: Conferred Knighthood
- 1990: Made an Honorary Freeman of the City of Leicester
- 1991: Conferred the title of Commander of the Royal Victorian Order
- 1991: Made a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences
- 1996: Conferred the title of Companion of Honour
- 1998: Won the International Cosmos Prize
- 2003: Won the Michael Faraday Prize from the Royal Society
- 2004: Won the Descartes Prize for Outstanding Science Communication Actions
- 2004: Awarded the Caird Medal of the National Maritime Museum
- 2005: Conferred the Order of Merit
- 2005: Won the Nierenberg Prize for Science in the Public Interest
- 2006: Received the Special Recognition Award in the National Television Awards
- 2006: Awarded the Institute Medal from the Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management
- 2006: Received the British Icon Award from the Culture Show
- 2006: Named a Distinguished Honorary Fellow of the University of Leicester
- 2007: Received the Peter Scott Memorial Award from the British Naturalists’ Association
- 2009: Received the Prince of Asturias Award
- 2010: Won the Fonseca Prize
- 2010: Awarded the Queensland Museum Medal
- 2011: Awarded the Founders’ Medal by the Society for the History of Natural History
- 2012: Awarded the Phillips Memorial Medal for his outstanding service in international conservation
- 1970: Honorary Doctor of Letters from the University of Leicester
- 1984: Honorary Doctor of Science from the University of Cambridge
- 1988: Honorary Doctor of Science from the University of Oxford
- 1994: Honorary Doctor of Veterinary Medicine and Surgery from the University of Edinburgh
- 2008: Honorary Doctorate from the University of Aberdeen
- 2009: Honorary Doctorate from Bangor University
- 2010: Honorary Doctorate from the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University
- 2010: Honorary Doctorate from the Nottingham Trent University
- 2011: Honorary Doctor of Science from St. Andrews University
- 2013: Honorary Doctorate from Belfast University