Sir David Attenborough: 5 magic moments on film
Picking our five greatest moments from David Attenborough's documentaries was no easy task, but we gave it a go - do you agree with our choices?
We celebrate David Attenborough by choosing our favourite five moments from his illustrious career
David Attenborough best moments
Red crabs on Christmas Island
The Trials of Life, 1990
Midnight on the coast of Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean – the November moon is in its third quarter and the tide is coming in. On a vertical cliff of coral rock are a million female red land crabs jammed together to create the impression that the rock is actually crimson. In programme one, Arriving, Sir David Attenborough, torch in hand, tiptoes between these crabs and then nonchalantly sits on a rock as they swarm past and over him.
The crabs are about to spawn – each female will lay 100,000 eggs – and the eggs must be deposited in the sea if they are to hatch. Of course, a huge number will not, becoming food for fish and moray eels, but even the small percentage that do survive still amount to countless numbers of the next generation.
Life in the Freezer, 1993
Putting himself in the shot and speaking directly to the camera was something Attenborough quickly perfected, but he and the producers of this series also understood how placing him among the creatures he was talking about could be even more effective.
For programme one, The Bountiful Sea, they filmed him sitting casually amid a colony of 600,000 king penguins and a crèche of some 50,000 chicks. Because the penguins have no predators (that would approach them on land, anyway), they are completely undisturbed by his presence; indeed – as he points out – they are intensely curious.
If Sir David doesn’t quite become a penguin chick by inserting himself into this throng, it gives an immediacy to his narration that would otherwise be absent. The sequence begins with stunning footage of the penguins porpoising gracefully through the waters off South Georgia, then surfing back into the shore and, finally, standing up to once again become the comical, waddling creatures viewers are perhaps most familiar with.
David catches a Burmese python
Zoo Quest, 1956
If you want to get an idea of how much the making of natural history documentaries has progressed since the 1950s, take a look at some clips of Zoo Quest, the first series on which Attenborough worked as a presenter.
One, especially, stands out. In it, a young Sir David (it was 1956, so he would have been 30) is tasked with catching a 3.5 metre Burmese python, because – bizarre as it may seem today – the object of Zoo Quest was to take animals alive and bring them back to Britain. Well, the clue is in the name.
“It looked enormous,” Attenborough tells the viewer, “and from its size and markings, I was quite sure it was a python and therefore non-poisonous, which was something of a relief.”
With no obvious reluctance (he must have been positive it was a python), he climbs a short distance up the tree where it can be seen and hacks down a branch. Then, rather inexpertly, he throws a sack over the python’s head before grabbing it and handing the snake to a local man who is clearly more confident and expert at this business than he is.
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Now try to imagine Planet Earth II filming something similar.
Iguanas vs Racer snakes
Planet Earth II, 2016
It just seemed so unfair. No sooner had the marine iguanas in programme one, Islands, poked their heads above the sand where they had hatched than they were running for their lives.
And not from a single predator. But from half a dozen Galápagos racer snakes that were ambushing the new-borns from the rocks like Indian braves setting on their cowboy foes in a Western.
It’s a classic predator versus prey moment – albeit on a smaller scale than usual – which asks the audience, “Whose side are you on?” Most were with the iguanas, though as Attenborough pointed out: “This is the best feeding opportunity the snakes will get all year.”
The sequence later caused some controversy after producer Elizabeth White said the story had been stitched together from a number of takes of different iguanas. This is a quite standard practice for a natural history documentary, and it’s unlikely – had it been known at the time – that it would have detracted from anyone’s enjoyment.
Life on Earth, 1979
The first true blockbuster wildlife television series, Life on Earth offered a crash course in evolution, delivered by Sir David across 13 episodes. His encounter with mountain gorillas in Rwanda (episode 12) remains one of his best-known moments. But the short sequence with the young gorillas crawling on top of Attenborough was almost missed because the cameraman was worried about using up all his film. In the event, it made both Attenborough and the gorillas famous.
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