Friday, June 29, 2012

David Attenborough - Natural History Hero

When it comes to natural history heroes, they don't come more iconic than David Attenborough. His autobiography, 'Life on Air' should probably be required reading in schools, giving such an insight as it does into his lifelong passion for animals, plants, wild nature in all its glory, and the culture of indigeneous populations from all over the world.

Attenborough's background in BBC programming provides fascinating insight into the beginnings of that institution. When he started out in 1952, his position in the Talks Department involved organising any non-fiction programming. Attenborough recounts the story of trying to get hold of a particular Irish traveller-woman - who was a famous fiddler - for a series on folk music. He is told that the only way to get hold of her, as she had no fixed address, was to send a telegram to Garda stations all along the west coast, leaving the message that the next time she was picked up for being drunk and disorderly, she should be informed that there was a ticket to London there for her if she would be prepared to perform on television.

His first series of zoological programmes, 'Zoo Quest', introduced viewers to the thrills of seeing animals perform unique and amazing behaviours in the wilds of Africa, South America, Indonesia, and Australia. These first expeditions seem perfect examples of a flying-by-the-seat-of-your-pants type of exploring which gave way to a bit more organisation as more and more were undertaken. His programmes were among the first to show many spectacular species in the wild, such as Komodo dragons and Birds of Paradise. Attenborough's enthusiasm is never more apparent than when he is remembering the journeys and landscapes of his adventures.

A 1950s trip to Paraguay involved a meeting with his naturalist contemporary, Gerald Durrell. A recent reading of Durrell's fascinating 1970s commentary on the meaning and purpose of zoos in modern society, 'The Stationary Ark', was illuminating. While zoos have undoubtedly come a long way since that time, it is a testament to his vision that he proposes here the modern view of a zoo as a place both of education and for the conservation and captive breeding of endangered species. His trademark levity and wit is evident even in a more serious treatise of this sort, as opposed to his classic memoirs.

Attenborough's present status as a British 'national treasure' is clearly well-deserved. His ability to engage an audience with the natural world and its inhabitants is unparalleled, on the page as much as on the screen. His involvement in the development of natural history programming has resulted in some of the television classics of the modern era such as Planet Earth, one of the fastest selling non-fiction DVDs of all time. His legacy will be generations of people engaged in and enthusiastic about the world around them and its conservation.