As a child in the 1970s and 1980s Sir David Attenborough’s series were my most eagerly-awaited TV programmes. At school my friends and I discussed Life on Earth and The Trials of Life the way kids today discuss soap operas. We marvelled at the images, but we were hooked by the stories.
The art of a brilliant wildlife documentary is in the storytelling, and Attenborough is the supreme narrator. When I was a child, his wildlife documentaries had more than 20m British viewers, figures Simon Cowell can only dream of. His shows were broadcast in the USSR and China, even during the cold war. At the time, he may have been the most recognised person in the world.
Of course, as a young undergraduate biologist he was my idol. I remember once filling in a competition form that asked which living person would you most to like have dinner with. I answered Sir David. I didn’t win that competition, but I did have dinner with him many years later, when I worked on the filming of the Life of Mammals in Brazil. The three days I spent with Sir David showed him to be a humble, empathetic and educated person.
The overriding memory I have is of him sitting reading scientific papers in a deckchair, in the field, waiting to film. Mistakenly I believed that the great Sir David Attenborough had research assistants who wrote his script and provided him with information. But then he is not really a presenter acting on camera, but rather a wildlife enthusiast sharing his authentic wonderment with the viewing public.
In modern, celebrity-driven TV, image is everything. Presenters parade in front of the cameras like gaudy peacocks: all show and no substance. They may not be reading from a teleprompter, but the lack of spontaneity in their words makes many of them sound as sincere as a second-hand car salesman. Then there is Sir David, he looks unremarkable, like everyone’s favourite old uncle or grandfather, but his talent is extraordinary.
It is easy to tell a story about the rock stars of the animal world: tigers, polar bears or giant pandas. But what makes Sir David a great storyteller is his ability to make the humble British dormouse as interesting as a mountain gorilla. It may not come and sit on him, but it nonetheless has a life less ordinary. Conveying the magic in the lives of apparently mundane creatures is a rare gift. But not one without precedent in UK television. Think about Britain’s most famous soap operas: Coronation Street and Eastenders – they succeed by using storylines that show the fascinating lives of ordinary people.
I suspect the global appeal of wildlife TV is that all humans share with animals the struggles to find shelter, food, a mate and to rear their offspring. In documentaries of the animal world we see that our everyday existence is worthy of attention, even if we are only celebrities in the eyes of those who know the tale of our existence. Thus, the chronicling of animal lives is very much like the soap opera of our own existence. But animal lives are more timeless, free from fashion, which as I tell my students means Sir David’s back catalogue will always be interesting unlike old episodes of soap operas.
If it were not for Sir David’s mesmeric storytelling I would probably have become an accountant. I am sure that people from all walks of life around our planet will join me in wishing him a very a happy birthday.