He has met cannibals in Papua New Guinea, played with mountain gorillas in Rwanda and has several flower and animal species named after him. In a career of more than sixty years, naturalist and broadcaster Sir David Attenborough’s name is synonymous with utterly absorbing wildlife documentaries, including 1979’s Life on Earth, which became a yardstick for quality wildlife show production.
Sir David returned to our screens at the end of last year with the much-anticipated Planet Earth II – and the nation fell in love with him all over again. To mark his birthday on May 8, we celebrate the career of one of Britain’s best-loved personalities and one of the most travelled people in human history. Just don’t call him a "national treasure"...word on the street is it’s not his thing.
In a Twitter Q&A in last year, Sir David confessed he'd love to be a sloth for a day. This half-blind, half-deaf, slow-moving creature endeared itself to the broadcaster during filming of BBC's Life of Mammals, with its relaxed eating technique and regular napping.
Sir David began his career in 1952 as a BBC Television trainee at the BBC studios at Alexandra Palace in north London – he didn’t even own a TV himself then. He worked his way up to a senior manager and in the 1960s and 1970s, worked as controller for BBC Two and director of programming at BBC Television before resigning in 1973 to make documentaries again.
From the extinct ‘Materpiscis attenboroughi’ fossil fish in Western Australia, which Attenborough highlighted in his 2008 Life on Earth series, to the newly discovered Madagascan ghost shrimp, Ctenocheloides attenboroughi, several species bear his name.
In 2015, the first living species native to the UK was named after him; the Attenborough’s hawkweed or Hieracium attenboroughianum is a wildflower discovered in the Brecon Beacons by plant taxonomist Dr Tim Rich.
In an interview with BBC Wildlife magazine in 2005, Attenborough named George W Bush as the era's top "environmental villain". While he’s not usually political, he is vocal and passionate about environmental issues.
At a fundraiser at London’s Science Museum in 2015, he expressed his concern about people’s lack of contact with the natural world. “Over half the world’s population is urbanised and the thought that some children may grow up not looking at a pond or knowing how plants grow is a terrible thing.”
“Bliss,” is how Sir David describes one of his most memorable moments in wildlife broadcasting. Filming baby gorillas in Rwanda for the Life on Earth series in 1979, he recalls how two baby gorillas try to take off his shoes. The footage is truly heartwarming.
Not many people are, to be fair, but he’s really scared. In his book, New Life Stories, he writes: “I don’t mean that I mildly dislike them as I dislike, let us say, maggots. I mean that if a rat appears in a room, I have to work hard to prevent myself from jumping on the nearest table.”
During filming for BBC's 2002 Life of Mammals documentary series, David Attenborough shows his aptitude for impressions with a remarkable howl. It’s spot-on.
He manages to communicate with a pack of wolves who assume it’s one of their kind and proceed to congregate in full view of the cameras, before they begin the long and arduous winter hunt for tasty elk.
Sir David is the only person who has won BAFTA awards for programmes made in black and white, colour, HD and 3D – testament to an enduring career. In fact, his Flying Monsters documentary all about the pterosaurs (flying reptiles), was the first 3D programme ever to win a BAFTA.
With more honorary degrees from British universities than any other person – 32 at last count – he tops a list which beats Nobel Prize winners, Olympians and world leaders. These degrees are awarded by universities to recognise the work carried out by an individual – no exams or coursework required…
“I’ve always loved fossils,” he told the Radio Times in January 2016 after a trip to Patagonia to film the newly discovered 8ft thigh bone of a dinosaur species, believed to have weighed 70 tons (it was as tall as two African elephants and possessed a 40ft-long neck).
The young David grew up in Leicestershire where iron limestone contains prehistoric sea creatures. He’d often cycle up to twenty miles to the quarries and smash boulders to discover the fossils. “It’s the first time it’s seen the sunshine in 150 million years and you’re the first human being ever to have seen it. I think that’s pretty exciting.”
At the age of 91, with seven continents, multiple awards and countless programmes under his belt, his enthusiasm, curiosity, and desire to connect humans to the natural world remain unabated. When asked about retirement, he’s often replied, “It would be boring, wouldn’t it?”
Yes, sir, it would. Happy birthday David Attenborough.
Top image © Denis Tabler/Shutterstock