Legendary BBC naturalist Sir David Attenborough, unquestionably one of the most beloved broadcasters in television history, celebrates his 95th birthday on Saturday.
Sir David has brought the joy of the natural world to British screens ever since he first fronted Zoo Quest in the mid-1950s, enchanting generations of viewers with his exquisitely shot documentary films, making use of the very latest in cutting-edge camera technology to showcase the birds and beasts who make their homes in some of the most challenging environments on earth, from the Arctic tundra to the burning plains of the Serengeti.
He is known across the world for his respectfully hushed but crisp narration – the tone of a gentleman reluctant to intrude on a private affair, as tactful as Jeeves – his voice ripe for affectionate parody.
Over the course of his incredible career, the veteran presenter narrated all 253 episodes of the BBC’s Wildlife on One between 1977 and 2005 in addition to delivering one remarkable series after another: Life on Earth (1979), The Living Planet (1984), Trials of Life (1990), Life in the Freezer (1993), The Private Life of Plants (1995), The Life of Birds (1998), The Blue Planet (2001), The Life of Mammals (2002), Planet Earth (2006), Frozen Planet (2011), Planet Earth II (2016) and Dynasties (2018).
Our collection above brings you five of his most extraordinary animal encounters from those shows, from the celebrated scenes of Sir David relaxing with gorillas at Dian Fossey’s primate sanctuary in the Virunga Mountains of Rwanda in Life on Earth (one named Poppy attempted to remove his shoes) to his footage of adult polar bears sledging down a snow drift, a lyre bird imitating unnatural sounds it has overheard in the forests of Australia, male hippos battling for dominance in the African mud and the presenter himself struggling to get a reaction by booing a particularly lethargic sloth in the rainforest.
But there are many, many more wonderful examples to choose from, not least his meeting with orangutans in Borneo capable of using tools, the agonisingly tense killer whale pursuit of seal pups in Trials of Life or his crew’s ingenious but unsuccessful attempt to covertly film a pride of lion cubs using a remote camera disguised as a tortoise, which in no way fooled the big cat kittens batting playfully at its lens.
As if Sir David’s contribution as a presenter weren’t enough, his tenure as BBC Two’s controller in the 1960s and early 70s also saw him introduce the country’s first colour broadcasts and commission such seminal programmes as Match of the Day (1964-), Civilisation with Kenneth Clark (1969), Monty Python’s Flying Circus (1969-74), America with Alastair Cooke (1972), The Old Grey Whistle Test (1971-88) and The Ascent of Man with Jacob Bronowski (1973), an often overlooked aspect of his career that reveal how completely he has shaped British television and even the national taste.
Sir David has been such a fixture on our screens for so long that it’s easy to take his presence for granted but, as a body of work, the extraordinary footage he and his hardy production teams have braved the elements to give us deserves to be revisited with fresh eyes, especially in a moment of reckoning with our own responsibility for the destruction wrought upon the environment.
The great-grandfather of nature broadcasting is still hard at work in his tenth decade and seems, if anything, newly energised by the need to address the climate crisis and underline the consequences of man’s actions for the creatures whose habits he has spent a lifetime studying, meeting recently with teenage activist Greta Thunberg to encourage her in her mission to awaken world governments to the urgency of averting calamity.
As reassuringly old school as you would expect a former Navy man to be, Sir David has always been so much more than an exhibitor and never shied away from uncomfortable home truths as evidenced in his interview last month with the BBC’s science editor, David Shukman, to promote his most recent Apple+ special, The Year Earth Changed, in which he said: “Human beings, even with the best will in the world, cannot but restrict the natural world. That’s what we’re doing. We’re pushing it aside. Even the most considerate of us.
“That’s almost inevitable to some degree but let us realise that we are intruders, that we are latecomers and that the natural world, by and large, would do much better if we weren’t there at all.”
In that same exchange, Sir David also reflected on his own fame in characteristically modest fashion, commenting: “The best thing I can do is to keep out of the way. The best thing I can do is keep quiet. People think that the credit in some way belongs to me. It doesn’t. It belongs to the natural world, the wonder, and to the connection which comes from the cameramen. That’s why the programmes are worth watching. Because the natural world is just full of spectacle and wonder.”
He has said he considers his 2020 Netflix documentary, David Attenborough: A Life On Our Planet, his personal witness statement on both his own life and the world’s future.
And his favourite animal?
“I think I like monkeys best, because they’re such fun,” he told Prince Louis, aged three, when he met with the youngest members of the royal family at Kensington Palace in October.
“They can jump all over the place, and they don’t bite, at least… some do, but if you’re a bit careful they don’t bite. And they’re so funny, and I like them a lot. Mind you, you can’t have monkeys sitting around the home because that’s not where they live, they live out in the forest.”