The fascinating thing about pulling together a rundown of British cultural heroes whose international profile does not match the huge affection in which they are held at home, is that you simply can’t make a big enough list. Having run down numbers 10 to 2 yesterday, and left a cliffhanger ending, the comments we had all contained suggestions it is hard to argue against. Michael Parkinson, Ellen Macarthur, Professor Brian Cox, all magnificent people, and well worth investigating if you’re not sure who they are.
However, there can be only one winner, and it’s Sir David Attenborough, a man who deserves to be a household name all over the world. Aside from his career as a TV executive, commissioning such eternal delights as Monty Python’s Flying Circus, The Old Grey Whistle Test, The Ascent of Man and Civilisation, he is best known, and best loved, as the voice and face of superlative BBC natural history documentaries such as Life On Earth, The Living Planet, Frozen Planet, Life In Cold Blood… among many, many others.
To British television viewers he is the kind uncle with a passion for the natural world and the infinite patience to show you everything. His serene, whispered tones (very similar to those of his elder brother Richard in Jurassic Park, just a lot less pretend-Scottish) being akin to the greatest teacher you ever had, speaking about their most passionately-loved topic, for as long as you want. He’s also the voice on Bjork’s Biophilia app. She later claimed meeting him was her rock star moment.
He is among the elite of broadcasters whose passing will genuinely leave British cultural life feeling bruised and impoverished, even though he shows no signs of stopping just yet..
Here are just five examples of his work:
Sloths (Life Of Mammals, 2002):
You could show this clip to anyone interested in the natural world, of any age, and they would get it. The facts come fast and fascinating but never dry and scientific, and he says “boo!” to the sloth. As we would all love to.
Insect-Killing Plant Life (The Private Life Of Plants, 1995)
Dramatic music, grotesque sound effects, mesmeric narrator…this is like The Shawshank Redemption for flies.
Elephant Seals (Frozen Planet, 2011)
If I was on that beach, in amongst that lot, I’d carry a big stick too.
The Lyre Bird (The Life Of Birds, 1998)
In which a bird attempts to impress a mate by doing impressions of anything from other animals to machinery. If this worked in real life, Michael Winslow from Police Academy would be as popular as Colin Firth.
Gorillas (Life On Earth, 1979)
This is his greatest hit, the very close encounter with gorillas in Rwanda, in which David is welcomed (largely, it seems. as an interesting toy) into a gorilla family. This clip is taken from a documentary about the making of Life On Earth which serves to illustrate just how important David’s voice is in the doling out of information. Other TV shows have tackled the history of evolution, but few have been so gripping, so wide-ranging, or so hands-on.
Speaking of hands on, GET OFF MY BLOODY SHOES!
And to see and hear more of David in action, you can watch his epic documentary series Planet Earth on BBC America this Saturday, in great big elephant-sized chunks, starting at 6am/5c.