From the team at BBC Wildlife Magazine

David Attenborough: A National Treasure

Beloved by millions around the world, Sir David Attenborough is an inspirational broadcaster, presenter and conservationist. He first worked as a producer in the early 1950s and began to present in 1954 on Zoo Quest. Even though he is in his 90s, he continues to present and narrate natural history documentaries, such as The Green Planet and Dynasties II for the BBC and Prehistoric Planet for Apple TV.

Sir David Attenborough on stage at Glastonbury, with his arms in the air.
Published: May 8, 2022 at 7:00 am
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The longevity of Attenborough’s career is remarkable. He has often said during his life that work was what made him get up in the mornings, and that as long as people wanted to watch and listen to him, he would carry on.

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But then Attenborough has never considered what he did as arduous. Indeed, he was once quoted as saying that the time when he felt like he was really working was the “nasty time” as a senior BBC executive.

He became controller of BBC Two in 1965, then four years later was made director of programmes of both BBC One and BBC Two. He eventually quit in 1973, hanging up his suit to return to his earlier, happier existence as a peripatetic natural-history presenter.

One of the ironies of Attenborough’s career has been that while many members of the public appeared to believe he did just about everything, from writing and presenting the scripts to operating the boom and making the tea, he has always made a point of highlighting the teamwork required to create his programmes.

Sir David Attenborough (right) with Huw Wheldon and Michael Peacock at BBC Television Centre in London, 5th March 1965
Sir David Attenborough (right) with Huw Wheldon and Michael Peacock at BBC Television Centre in London, 5th March 1965. © Evening Standard/Stringer/Getty

He lavishes praise on the patience and dedication of cameramen, sound mixers, producers and researchers. They in return respect Sir David’s willingness to get his hands dirty and the fact that he rarely needed more than one take. And they adore his sense of fun. He is renowned for telling stories round the restaurant table or campfire.

The Attenborough brand is built on his authority, drawing much of its power from his refusal to do commercial voiceovers. “If I start telling people to buy margarine not butter, they won’t believe a word I say any more,” he said once.

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Interview with David Attenborough - Attenborough at 90 - BBC

Though Sir David has avoided commenting on politics for much of his career, when he does choose to speak out, and has increasingly done so in recent years – he criticised the badger culls initiated in 2013 during the coalition government and highlighted the environmental problems caused by overpopulation – people tend to sit up and take note.

Patron saint of wildlife TV, saviour of the BBC, national treasure, shoo-in for elected monarch, heartthrob – Sir David has been called lots of things. But really, he is the presenter all other natural-history presenters aspired to be.

Presenter, naturalist and author Chris Packham has described him as his main inspiration: “David tells stories so that they become irresistible to us. We want to know what happens. We care because we trust him, he is an expert and he is so very passionate.”

David Attenborough after he was appointed the new head of BBC 2, 4th March 1965
British naturalist and broadcaster David Attenborough after he was appointed the new head of BBC 2, 4th March 1965. © David Cairns/Express/Getty

Why Attenborough is irreplacable

Who could ever replace the man who has done so much good for the planet’s wildlife, and enjoys the adoration and respect of his peers, asks author and birder Stephen Moss:

When I used to work for the BBC Natural History Unit, the first question people usually asked was, “Do you know David Attenborough?”. They invariably followed this up with, “So, who’ll replace him, when he finally goes?”.

The answer is, of course, everyone and no one. There will never be another David Attenborough, for two good reasons. First, the man is unique. No one else can communicate the wonders of the natural world with quite the same blend of enthusiasm and knowledge – and I doubt any one in the future will be able to, either.

The other reason is that the world of television has changed beyond recognition since his broadcasting career began more than 60 years ago. Back then, there were two TV channels; now there are hundreds. So no other presenter will ever again be able to command the wholesale adoration of the British public, because viewers are now watching TV very differently.

While in some ways Attenborough is irreplaceable, there are dozens of his successors on our TV screens. Chris Packham and Steve Backshall, Miranda Krestovnikoff and Mike Dilger, Gordon Buchanan and Liz Bonnin all owe their success to Sir David.

His passion for wildlife first caught people’s attention on Zoo Quest, back in the 1950s, and he continued to enchant and delight us well into his 10th decade with programmes such as Planet Earth II.

To see why, just take a look at the famous clip of Sir David with the gorillas on YouTube. It’s as fresh and enthralling now as when it was filmed four decades ago. It continues to attract new generations of viewers, some of whose parents were not even born when the original encounter took place.

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David Attenborough Plays with Cute Baby Gorillas | BBC Earth

Fast forward to the new millennium, when at the age of almost 90, Sir David crammed himself into a submersible to get an undersea view of the Great Barrier Reef. Then watch any wildlife presenter, and you can see how they all channel the way of communicating he pioneered.

Attenborough has been endlessly parodied, though always with great affection; from Rory Bremner to Spitting Image, his voice is simply unmistakable. And now that we are able to watch repeats of his shows on cable channel re-runs, YouTube clips or DVD box sets, we can all get our regular fix of Attenborough whenever we want.

Beyond the screen, Sir David’s legacy is even greater. A few years ago, I attended the New Networks for Nature conference in Cambridge – held, of course, in the David Attenborough Building. The final keynote speech was given by the man himself, following which there was a standing ovation from 500 delegates. Attenborough simply stood and smiled back at us, rightly basking in our adoration.

Every person in that room – authors and broadcasters, conservationists and scientists, artists and musicians – had been influenced by Sir David; it is fair to say that, without him, many of us would have followed a very different path in life. Instead, we are all doing our utmost to make things better for the world’s wildlife.

So when it comes to deciding just how important Sir David Attenborough’s legacy really is, it is hard to do so without appearing to resort to overstatement. Has there been another more important man, or a bigger influence for good, in our lifetimes? I can’t think of anyone to rival him as the greatest figure of our age.


When was Sir David Attenborough born?

Sir David Frederick Attenborough was born on the 8th May 1926, in Isleworth Middlesex England, to parents Frederick and Mary and was middle child of three boys.

He is younger brother to the renowned actor and director Sir Richard Attenborough (1923 - 2014).

During the Second World War David's parents fostered two Jewish girls Helga and Irene Bejach, via the Refugee Children's Movement, who had fled Germany.


What was Sir David Attenborough's early life?

He grew up on the campus of the University College Leicester, where his father was principal.

During his early childhood he became interested in natural history and started collecting fossils, stones and natural specimens.

His father introduced him to Jacquetta Hawkes, a young academic, who sent him a box of artefacts including fossils and dried seahorses after being impressed with his collection. This played a part in confirming his interest in becoming a naturalist.

Sir David was educated at Wyggeston Grammar School and in 1945 won a scholarship to Clare College of Cambridge University where he obtained a degree in natural sciences.

In 1947 he was called up for national service, serving in the Royal Navy, he was stationed in North Wales and the Firth of Forth.


Who did Sir David Attenborough marry?

In 1950 David married Jane Elizabeth Ebsworth Oriel, they had two children, Robert and Susan. Jane died in 1997.

Robert became a senior lecturer, at the Australian National University in Canberra, in bioanthropology. Susan was a primary school headmistress.


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Top 5 David Attenborough Moments | BBC Earth


Is Sir David Attenborough an animal lover?

During an interview Sir David said he was 'not an animal lover' as animal lover implies sentiment and anthropomorphising. He went on to say that he finds animals rivetingly interesting and gives him intellectual pleasure.


What is Sir David Attenborough's favourite animal?

When asked by Prince Louis what animal does he like, Sir David replied "I think I like monkeys best. Because they're such fun".


What is Sir David Attenborough's least favourite animal?

The one animal Sir David really hates is ... RATS. He has said he would be the first to run on seeing a rat.


What BAFTAs has Sir David Attenborough won?

David Attenborough poses with his Specialist Factual British Academy Television Award (BAFTA) for 'Life in Cold Blood'
David Attenborough poses with his Specialist Factual British Academy Television Award (BAFTA) for 'Life in Cold Blood' in Central London on April 26, 2009. © BEN STANSALL/AFP via Getty Images

Sir David is the only person to win BAFTAs for programmes made in black and white, colour, 3D, 4K and VR.

He won his first BAFTA in 1961, since then he has won a total of 8 BAFTAs, and had numerous nominations.

  • 1961: Television | Special Award
  • 1971: Television | Desmond Davis Award
  • 1980: Television | Fellowship
  • 2009: Television | Specialist Factual : Life In Cold Blood
  • 2011: Television | Specialist Factual : Flying Monsters 3D
  • 2014: Television | Specialist Factual : David Attenborough’s Natural History Museum Alive
  • 2017: Television Craft | Digital Creativity : David Attenborough's Great Barrier Reef Dive
  • 2017: Television | Specialist Factual : Planet Earth II

Sir David has also won three Primetime Emmy Awards for Outstanding Narrator, plus many other awards and nominations around the world.


When was Sir David Attenborough knighted?

David Attenborough at the Reception for the Order of Merit at Windsor Castle
David Attenborough at the Reception for the Order of Merit at Windsor Castle, UK, April 19th 2011. © WPA Pool/Pool /Getty

Sir David has received two knighthoods, in 1985 and 2020, he has also received other awards in the Queens New Year Honours List.

  • 1974: Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) for services to nature conservation
  • 1983: Elected a Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS)
  • 1985: Knight Bachelor for services to broadcasting
  • 1991: Commander of the Royal Victorian Order (CVO) for producing Queen Elizabeth II's Christmas broadcast
  • 1996: Companion of Honour (CH) for services to nature broadcasting
  • 2005: Order of Merit (OM)
  • 2020: Knight Grand Cross of the Order of St Michael and St George (GCMG) for services to television broadcasting and to conservation

How many honorary degrees does David Attenborough have?

David and Richard Attenborough awarded honorary degree at Leicester University
David and Richard Attenborough awarded honorary degree at Leicester University, July 13 2006.. © Matthew Lewis/Stringer/Getty

Sir David holds an amazing 32 honorary degrees from universities throughout the UK, this is more than anyone else.

Amongst them are...

  • Durham University Doctor of Science
  • University of Cambridge Doctor of Science
  • University of Oxford Doctor of Philosophy
  • Queen’s University Belfast for services to science

What does David Attenborough say about extinction?

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We need IMMEDIATE action to stop extinction crisis, David Attenborough - BBC


Species named after Sir David Attenborough

A red and yellow-green semislug (partial shell)
Living specimen of Attenborougharion rubicundus from Forestier Peninsula, Tasmania, Australia. © Simon Grove, TMAG.

There are over 40 animal and plant species named after Sir David Attenborough, including the burgundy snail (Attenborougharion rubicundus), an extinct pygmy grasshopper (Electrotettix attenboroughi), a weevil (Trigonopterus attenboroughi), a frog (Pristimantis attenboroughi), and a pitcher plant (Nepenthes attenboroughii).


Other things named after Sir David Attenborough

Not only has Sir David Attenborough had numerous animal and plant species named after him, from polar research vessels to a constellation also carry his name:

RRS Sir David Attenborough

The Duke & Duchess Of Cambridge join Sir David Attenborough for the naming ceremony for The RSS Sir David Attenborough
The Duke & Duchess Of Cambridge join Sir David Attenborough for the naming ceremony for The RSS Sir David Attenborough. © WPA Pool/Pool/Getty

The RRS Sir David Attenborough, which was commissioned by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) for operation by the British Antarctic Survey (BAS), is one of the worlds most advanced polar research vessels.

It is a multidisciplinary research vessel and will allow scientist to study the oceans, seabed, ice and atmosphere in the polar regions.

It was handed over to NERC and BAS on the 27th Nov 2020, its maiden voyage to Antarctica was on the 16th November 2021.

For more information on the RRS Sir David Attenborough can be found go BAS.

Attenborough Nature Reserve, Nottinghamshire

A lake surrounded by trees, clouds in the sky are reflected in the water.
Attenborough Nature Reserve in Nottinghamshire. © Vladimir Korolkov/ 500px/Getty

Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust acquired their first nature reserve in 1966, it was opened by David Attenborough who at the time was the controller of BBC2, the trust awarded him a honorary lifetime membership. In March of 2005 the trust opened the Attenborough Nature Centre.

Sir David Attenborough constellation

A constellation was named after Sir David Attenborough as part of the University of Birmingham’s Astronomy Society as part of the ‘Look Up To Stars’ project. The project was aimed at getting younger people interested in astronomy.

The constellation is represented by the shape of a blue whale, some of the stars are also found in Ursa Minor.


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Main image: Sir David Attenborough addresses the crowd on The Pyramid Stage during day five of Glastonbury Festival at Worthy Farm, Pilton on June 30, 2019 in Glastonbury, England. © Shirlaine Forrest/WireImage/Getty

Authors

James FairWildlife journalist
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