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David Attenborough

Full / Real Name: Sir David Frederick Attenborough
Born: 08 May 1926 (93 years old)
Gender: Male

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Bio

Sir David Frederick Attenborough, 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 (his elder brother, Richard, became a director and his younger brother, John, an executive at Alfa Romeo). 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, which Attenborough presented at short notice, due to Lester being taken ill.

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 (1979), The Living Planet (1984) and The Trials of Life (1990). 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; 1993), The Private Life of Plants (1995), The Life of Birds (1998), The Life of Mammals (2002) and his most recent, Life in the Undergrowth (2005), 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 1983, Attenborough worked on a number of enviromentally-themed musicals with the WWF and writers Peter Rose and Anne Conlon. Yanomamo was the first, about the Amazon Rainforest, and the second was Ocean World in 1991 which premiered at the Royal Festival Hall.

They were both narrated by Attenborough on their national tour, and recorded on to audio cassette. Ocean World was also filmed for Channel 4 and later released.

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 was mainly to introduce or narrate other people's film, and he rarely appeared 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
- 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
- 2004: Caird Medal of the National Maritime Museum
- 2005: OM
- 2005: Nierenberg Prize for Science in the Public Interest
- 2006: National Television Awards Special Recognition Award
- 2006: Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management - Institute Medal
- 2006: The Culture Show British Icon 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 David Attenborough Studio in 2008.

An opinion poll of 4,900 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.

Parodies and Artistic Portrayalss

Attenborough's accent and hushed, excited delivery have been the subject of frequent parodies by comedians, most notably Spike Milligan, Marty Feldman, The Goodies and South Park.

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.

In the documentary In the Wild: Lemurs with John Cleese, while trekking through the forest in Madagascar, Cleese points as if to have seen an exotic creature and exclaims, "It's David Attenborough!"

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 humans' 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."

In the last few years, 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 and president of Leicestershire and Rutland Wildlife Trust.

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.

Sir David also launched ARKive in May 2003, a global project which had been instigated by Christopher Parsons to gather together natural history media into a digital library, an online Noah's Ark.

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.

Sir David Attenborough is also an honorary member of BSES Expeditions, a youth development charity that operates challenging scientific research expeditions to remote wilderness environments

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."

In a BBC4 interview with Mark Lawson Sir David, in answer to the question "Have you at any time had any religious faith?" replied "No."

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.


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