Best David Attenborough documentaries to watch
Sir David Attenborough has had a career so prolific, presenting and narrating BBC natural history documentaries across decades and generations, that he has undoubtedly reached legendary status. Here we take a look at some of David Attenborough's best documentaries to watch
Ask anyone if they’re familiar with Sir David Attenborough and his work, and the answer will nearly always be yes. With a prolific presenting and narrating career beginning with Zoo Quest in 1954, Sir David has become something of an institution.
With his familiar face and voice being broadcast across the globe for almost 70 years, he has become known worldwide as the face of BBC natural history documentaries. His passion for the natural world and his desire to protect it has only become ever more evident as Attenborough continues his career with unrelenting enthusiasm and no signs of slowing down.
Here we take a look at his incredibly impressive career presenting and narrating some of the best natural history documentaries to have been made, from 1954, right the way through to 2021.
Best David Attenborough documentaries
Zoo Quest (1954-63)
Zoo Quest launched David Attenborough’s career and brought an obscure West African bird to wider attention.
As Attenborough describes it in his autobiography Life on Air, Zoo Quest came about largely thanks to some rather Machiavellian scheming between himself and London Zoo’s curator of reptiles, Jack Lester. They had just finished making a studio-based programme about animal behaviour and were looking for another project, when they hit on the idea of an animal-collecting expedition. In those days, zoos did that sort of thing.
They decided that Jack would tell his bosses that the BBC was interested in covering an expedition, while Attenborough would tell his that he had discovered such a trip was going ahead and that he “might get permission to accompany it”.
Whatever the slight deception, the bottom line was that both parties said yes, and Sir David, Jack Lester and a young cameraman called Charles Lagus found themselves leaving for Sierra Leone in September 1954.
Life on Earth (1979)
The first true blockbuster wildlife television series, Life on Earth, was broadcast on the BBC in 1979. Across 13 episodes, David Attenborough sought to explain the origins of life on our planet and how that has left us with the species that exist today.
It was a crash course in Earth’s history and biology, even though little of the knowledge imparted was ground-breaking. The series was an ambitious attempt to join the evolutionary dots together, because only by doing this, Attenborough said, could we begin to understand why a lizard is the way it is and how it fits with the community of plants and other animals around it.
Life on Earth gave rise to moments so iconic they have stood the test of time, his encounter with mountain gorillas being the most famous. The short sequence where two young gorillas literally crawled on top of him attracted most attention for its sheer joie de vivre, though as Attenborough pointed out in his autobiography, the cameraman almost missed it because he was waiting for the presenter to start speaking before filming. Thank goodness he caught some of it.
The Living Planet (1984)
While Life on Earth documented the evolution of animals (including humans), its successor, The Living Planet, was intended to depict the situation as David Attenborough saw it in 1984, when the series of 12 episodes was first broadcast.
The central theme is adaptation: how animals evolved to find a niche in distinct parts of the world, from jungles and deserts to the poles.
Like its predecessor, The Living Planet pushed the boundaries of film techniques and styles. Red-breasted geese, for example, were reared by hand from birth so they would become habituated and permit the camera crew to film them from an open-top car as they flew.
The Trials of Life (1990)
The Trials of Life was the third in the Life series and focused on rites of passage in the animal world such as birth, growing up, fighting and mating.
It included some of the most startling wildlife encounters seen by viewers at that time, and some have become iconic. From crabs running riot over a remote Indian Ocean island to chimpanzees hunting monkeys and orcas preying on hapless sealion pups – this was a gripping and sometimes heart-wrenching TV.
Attenborough is said to have travelled 400,000km for this series, though in one piece of footage a journey of just a few centimetres seemed as arduous. In this sequence, he explored the interior of a termite mound. It required several re-takes, and for each he had to crawl gingerly backwards out of the mound. Sir David could never be accused of taking the easy option.
Life in the Freezer (1993)
The opening sequence of this six-part series – beautifully framed as the camera slowly zooms in on an isolated figure in a field of white – is a classic example of what David Attenborough did best: creating drama through his narration.
“I am at the very centre of the great white continent, Antarctica,” says a voice that by 1993, when the series was broadcast, would have been instantly recognisable to millions.
“The South Pole is about half a mile away,” Attenborough continues. “For a thousand miles in all directions, there is nothing but ice. This is the loneliest and the coldest place on earth, the place that is most hostile to life. And yet, in one or two places, it is astonishingly rich.”
It was this last claim that the series was attempting to demonstrate, and it did so handsomely – from humpback whales feasting on krill to battling elephant seals and the epic feat of emperor penguins that spend the Antarctic winter huddled together, incubating their eggs and bringing up their chicks in temperatures as low -40˚C, Attenborough proved that life will always, as they say, find a way.
The Private Life of Plants (1995)
The Private Life of Plants was the fourth in the Life series and arguably the hardest of all to pull off. The other eight all had the luxury of filming animals, and these do something that plants, largely, don’t. They move.
But plants do move – well, grow – Attenborough realised, we just don’t notice, because it happens over days and weeks, not seconds and minutes.
The story goes that three executives from the Natural History Unit met Attenborough to discuss their idea for a series about ecology, but the presenter already had his sights set on something more ambitious.
The time to make such a series had come, not because time-lapse photography was new, but because computer control of cameras meant you could track a plant’s progress millimetre by millimetre over periods of days and weeks.
The Life of Birds (1998)
When most people think about birds, they think about animals that can fly, but this is not what distinguishes them – many insects can fly too, as do bats and as could pterosaurs and pterodactyls. No, what sets birds apart from other living creatures is their feathers.
The Life of Birds takes the viewer along an evolutionary path, from the ‘first bird’, archaeopteryx, 150 million years ago, to the diversity of creatures we see today. And it looks at the challenges they face in their everyday lives, from the demands of flight and getting enough to eat to finding a partner and raising a family.
There’s something else about birds that makes them distinct. They are most people’s strongest link with nature. As Attenborough observes, “Wherever you look, you will see one. If you put down bird food, they’ll start to come. Yet if you clap your hands, they will disappear into their own world. You may wish you could fly and your spirits go with them.”
With this quote in mind, it is perhaps not surprising that when asked what his superpower would be, Attenborough chose flight.
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The Blue Planet (2001) and The Blue Planet II (2017)
Insiders say it was the nine-part Life series that Sir David developed and scripted himself that were most special to him, as opposed to those where he was parachuted in for a narration or presentation role only.
The Blue Planet fits into the latter category, but is included here because it was such a game-changer – the first-ever, comprehensive account of the natural history of our oceans, frequently breaking new territory in terms of animal behaviour.
And without the repeated success of Attenborough’s own creations, would it ever have been any more than an idea pitched to a sceptical BBC executive? It seems doubtful.
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The Life of Mammals (2002)
In many ways, it is odd that The Life of Mammals wasn’t made earlier than 2002 – preceded as it was by series on both plants and birds – because there’s something very compelling about mammals to humans.
As Attenborough makes a point of saying – we like mammals because we are mammals ourselves.
Of course, mammals featured prominently in the first three Life series (while plants did not to the same degree), but this was a subject just crying out to be covered.
In his book of the series, Attenborough wrote: “Our relatedness to mammals makes it easy for us to empathise with them. We can imagine the feelings of a cow suckling her new-born calf, of a lion lazily lording it over a his pride of lionesses, of a couple of chimpanzees grooming one another, even perhaps of a whale when it communicates with another across the vast distances of an ocean basin.”
But, he goes on, that empathy may be misplaced – many mammals are so different to us we cannot imagine what it is like to be them. The series’ aim was to explore the diversity of this much-loved group of animals.
Life in the Undergrowth (2005)
Life in the Undergrowth was the series that put terrestrial invertebrates such as insects, arachnids and even woodlice under the glare of the Natural History Unit’s cameras and David Attenborough’s relentlessly inquisitive mind.
It is a documentary whose time had come, partly because of the greater realisation of the importance of invertebrates to the planet’s ecosystems, but also because recent advances in lens and camera technology had opened up their mini-worlds in a way that would not have been possible before.
Though as Attenborough told BBC Wildlife in an interview at the time, not everybody was going to be entranced by a series featuring creepy-crawlies. “You can count me out,” friends would say to him, “I’m not watching anything on spiders.”
The presenter himself was undeterred by any phobias relating to this notorious group of creatures. “They are unquestionably the source of more wonder, drama and astonishment than almost any category of [animal species] you can think of,” he said.
Planet Earth (2006) and Planet Earth II (2016)
Sequences such as the one on racer snakes ambushing just-hatched Galápagos marine iguanas led some critics to describe Planet Earth II as the greatest wildlife documentary ever.
Back-scratching bears and baby hawksbill turtles being lured to their doom by artificial streetlights were also much loved or hotly debated.
But Springwatch presenter Martin Hughes-Games said the programme had been a disaster for wildlife, because it beguiled the public into believing all was well with the planet.
“[They think], ‘If David Attenborough is still making these shows, then it can’t be that bad, can it?’” he said.
But Attenborough went further than ever before in highlighting the need for humans to take account of nature in the way we live. Planet Earth II did not shy away from the problems that beset us.
Indeed, he described the series as therapy that allowed viewers to reconnect “with a planet whose whose health is failing, because they understand that our own wellbeing is linked to that of the planet’s.”
Life in Cold Blood (2008)
Life in Cold Blood was the ninth and last of Sir David’s Life series. It focuses on reptiles and amphibians, a group of animals frequently ignored by film-makers because of people’s perceived hostility towards them.
Snakes, for example. “They’ve had a bad press since the Book of Genesis,” Attenborough told BBC Wildlife when the programme came out in 2008. “They are so different from everything else, and that, coupled with the fact that some of them are lethal, puts odd things into people’s minds.”
One thing that’s apparent throughout the series is that the usual discipline of keeping yourself hidden from the subjects you are filming did not apply much of the time.
Take the sequences of squabbling flat lizards or the waving golden frogs where Sir David cheerfully commentates on the action while sitting, standing or lying almost in the middle of it.
There was another big difference with other programmes he worked on. “The great thing about reptiles and amphibians is that they live in warm places,” he said. “None of this flogging across the Arctic.”
Natural Curiosities (2013-17)
Natural Curiosities ran for four series between 2013 and 2017, first on the Eden and later the W channel. While the series never had the name recognition of Life on Earth or others in the Life series, they were fascinating programmes that broke the mould of natural history TV – the mould that Attenborough himself created.
Natural Curiosities is deliberately and, indeed, enthusiastically quirky television. The storylines interweave animal behaviour and cutting-edge science with intriguing archive material stretching back centuries.
Each programme has a theme, but they are tantalisingly unexpected – how, for example, do two completely unrelated animals navigate (Finding the Way)? Or can the claims made for the physical prowess of two quite different species be substantiated (Impossible Feats)?
Series producer Stephen Dunleavy says that both the team at Humble Bee Films and Attenborough himself came up with the ideas for the films. The end result is more nuanced and often wryly amusing natural history TV than you will usually find elsewhere.
Seven Worlds, One Planet (2019)
While Planet Earth II didn’t shy away from environmental destruction, Seven Worlds, One Planet went a step further in relaying a strong environmental message to its audience.
The series took place across seven episodes, visiting each of the planet’s seven continents to explore the diversity of the flora, fauna, and geology of each — the first time this had been done by the BBC Natural History Unit.
Instead of simply exploring the wildlife of each continent — which it masterfully does with breathtaking, and sometimes emotionally hard-hitting filmmaking — each episode addresses the challenges faced by animals in a modern world dominated by humans.
Of course, who better to present such a message to the public but Sir David — a face and a voice that has come to be trusted by viewers worldwide over the decades. And in another first from the BBC Natural Unit, Attenborough took to the Pyramid stage at Glastonbury Festival to introduce the new series to a wider audience.
The series’ theme song, Out There, also marked a break with convention from traditional scores featured on BBC natural history documentaries — the piece of music was a collaboration between songwriter Sia and composer Hans Zimmer.
The Perfect Planet (2020)
Following hot on the heels of Seven Worlds, One Planet came A Perfect Planet, which explores the ‘Goldilocks effect’ on planet earth, investigating the factors that conspired to create the only planet that we know of where life has been able to evolve in its many diverse and wonderful ways.
The five-part series focuses on a different force of nature each episode, exploring how each has played its part in shaping and supporting wildlife around the globe. Episodes 1-4 cover volcanoes, sunlight, weather and oceans, while the final episode explores a new force: humanity.
The filmmaking is, as usual, stunning, but production was fraught with challenges, taking place as it did during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Sir David was unable to record the voiceover for the series in the studio at the Natural History Unit in Bristol, so instead made do with converting his dining room into a sound studio by hanging duvets from the walls. In order to record the score, woodwind and brass instrumentalists recorded their parts separately from their homes.
But the resulting series is seamless, and throughout it appears that Attenborough, in true style, maintained a positive outlook on the situation: “This year perhaps more than ever,” he said at the time, “people are finding comfort and solace in the natural world.”
The Green Planet (2021)
David Attenborough’s latest series dives into the lesser-understood, but undeniably fascinating, life of plants.
One of the most amazing and impressive things to take away from this five-part series is that plants behave, often in ways comparable to animal behaviour, and this is only possible to witness due to groundbreaking time-lapse cinematography.
The most savage carnivore and the most committed of vegetarians equally owe their lives to plants. And, once again, we have Attenborough to expound on these wonders. In this relatively brief and inevitably brilliant series, he not only supplies the commentary, in that voice we know as well as our own, but he’s back doing what he does best: popping up all over the world to show and explain, with humour, wit, and charm.
And he’s more than happy to get stuck in — quite literally, at times. In one sequence he demonstrates the brutally effective spines of the cholla cactus, which penetrate the thick gauntlet that he has put on to protect his hand. The sudden pain is plain from his always-expressive face, but in true style, he continues, not only demonstrating the plant’s defences, but also his relentless commitment to his work.
Main image: David Attenborough with a toucan in Costa Rica. © Gavin Thurston/Humble BeeFilms/SeaLight Pictures/BBC