This browser is supported only in Windows 10 and above.
David Attenborough (Photo: Oli Scarff / Getty Images)

No one has ever had a career quite like that of Sir David Attenborough, and it’s extremely unlikely that anyone ever will. He may have wandered into television because his application for a job in radio was unsuccessful, but he has spent the past 64 years at the prow of the boat delivering the very latest innovations in television broadcasting, just so that he can reflect his childhood passion for natural history in as blistering a light as is possible to achieve.

Along the way, he has consorted with gorillas, met with pop stars and held generation after generation in thrall to his quietly authoritative voice. He’s the friendly science schoolmaster for an entire nation, one whose voice can be heard all over the world, welcome in the most unexpected of places.

So, to celebrate his 90th birthday, here are just 10 examples of his uncanny ability to do the right thing in the right place at the right time (with the right animal not too far away):

• Even before he began his career, David was driven by both a fascination for nature and an inherited work ethic that prohibited him from resting on his laurels. For example, his time studying zoology and geology at Cambridge was supported by a scholarship, because, as he explained to the Independent, his father believed “if you didn’t get a scholarship, you didn’t deserve to go to university. You had to pay in those days, and as the principal of a small red-brick college it would have been a great sacrifice. I got an open scholarship to Clare. The course was only two years. I would like to think that the two-year intensive degree course didn’t cut too many corners. You worked in the vacations. If you read science, you didn’t laze around on the river with girls—like people reading English and philosophy—but it was a paradisiacal time.”

• When he joined the BBC as a trainee in 1952, he had only ever seen one television program. But he very quickly developed a knack for showing things that television viewers would not have had a chance to see before. His pioneering show Zoo Quest not only showed snakes and apes to viewers who would never have seen such creatures outside of Tarzan movies before, it also showed natural history footage on location for the first time. And it was hugely popular.

• He has traveled well over 250,000 miles across the planet (10 times around the planet and counting), in search of any form of flora or fauna that interested him, and there are barely any that do not. In fact, his explorations have been so thorough that it is said that throughout human history, only astronauts have covered more distance than he has.

• As Controller of BBC Two (a position he took up in 1965), he entered into a kind of space race to be the first European channel to broadcast in color, beating a rival German attempt, with a broadcast from the 1967 Wimbledon tennis tournament, by three weeks. He also developed landmark documentary series about the development of human societies: Civilisation, presented by art historian Kenneth Clark, and The Ascent of Man, presented by scientist Jacob Bronowski.

• He took up the post of BBC Director of Programmes in 1969, commissioning (among other things) serious rock music show The Old Grey Whistle Test, the global comedy behemoth Monty Python’s Flying Circus and, erm, televised snooker (which will have looked much better in color).

• Having been offered the chance to be the Director General of the BBC in 1972, he turned it down in order to focus on making natural history films. One of his first was People of Paradise, a series about lost tribes of humanity, some of whom hadn’t seen Europeans before the camera crew arrived. He spent some time in a loin cloth, in order to fit in and gain the trust of one tribe in the Solomon Islands.

• He then went on to create Life on Earth, one of the biggest and most brilliantly realized series of nature documentaries that pushed the boundaries of television. In order to show animals within their normal habitats, his crew had to develop a new approach to filming, using hidden cameras, slow motion footage and cinematography techniques to allow viewers—some 500 million of them worldwide—to fully immerse themselves in the natural world. Speaking of immersion, it was shortly after the filming of Life on Earth that Sir David’s most celebrated clip was shot, this footage of him buried underneath a colony of gorillas:

• He’s still innovating and finding new things to film. Last year, at the age of 89, he took a submersible down 1,000 ft. to the Great Barrier Reef in Australia—the deepest anyone has dived on the reef—to film some of the unexplored areas. The year before, he collaborated with the singer Bj&oml;rk in her interactive album app Biophilia and worked on a virtual reality project with the Natural History Museum in London. His next series, a sequel to his hugely popular Planet Earth entitled Planet Earth II, is being filmed in Ultra HD.

And being game for a challenge when he was recently asked to narrate the lyrics to Adele‘s “Hello,” he naturally jumped at the chance:

• His influence on the naming of species has been profound. For example, when seeking out the world’s largest flowering plant, his team came across the graphically named Amorphophallus Titanum. He opted to call it “titum arum” on screen, which has since become the common name for the plant. His name has been used for a species of flightless beetle, a species of Welsh hawkweed, and a five-meter-long genus of plesiosaur, found in the Early Jurassic rocks in Dorset, England called Attenborosaurus conybeari.

• And just this week his name was used to settle what could have been a nasty argument. The U.K. has a new polar research ship, and modern times being what they are, there was a poll to find out what the public thought the ship should be called. Former BBC presenter James Hand jovially suggested the name “Boaty McBoatface,” and modern times still being what they are, this was seized upon by social media as a perfectly irreverent (but rather glorious) choice, and the name soon became a runaway favorite.

This put government ministers in a quandry. Either to bow to public pressure and potentially humiliate a boatful of scientists, or ignore the will of the people and appear humorless and out of touch. Thankfully, an elegant solution presented itself. The ship will now be called the RSS Sir David Attenborough (a suggestion that came fourth in the public vote, but which appears to have been warmly received), and it will carry a remotely-operated sub-sea vehicle that will be named Boaty, as a tip of the hat to popular opinion.

Professor Jane Francis, director of the British Antarctic Survey, told BBC News: “We are delighted with the name RRS David Attenborough. He is an important public figure who has engaged and inspired the public over generations with his passion for the natural world. This new ship will be at the forefront of polar science and deliver world-leading capability for U.K. research in both Antarctica and the Arctic.”

Ever the broadcaster, Sir David said that he hoped “everyone who suggested a name will feel just as inspired to follow the ship’s progress as it explores our polar regions”.

And he signed off with something approaching a mission statement for his own career, past, present and future: “I have been privileged to explore the world’s deepest oceans alongside amazing teams of researchers, and with this new polar research ship they will be able to go further and discover more than ever before.”

Read More
Filed Under: Sir David Attenborough
By Fraser McAlpine