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David Attenborough

Memoirs of a Broadcaster

Book review by Anthony Campbell. Copyright © Anthony Campbell (2003).

For the past half-century David Attenborough has been familiar to television viewers in Britain and many other countries as the producer and presenter of wildlife programmes of the very highest quality. More than this, he has played an important role in shaping the development of British television since its early years. And yet, as he tells us in these memoirs, all this came about almost by chance, for when at the age of 26 he applied for a job in the BBC —which then meant radio—he was turned down. But someone saw his rejected application and suggested that he might like to try television.

Television in 1950 was a small affair, with few viewers and equally few resources. Many staff members, like Attenborough himself, seemed to have drifted into it almost accidentally, and they were a colourful and sometimes eccentric bunch. Attenborough describes all this vividly and with humour.

The cameras and other equipment available at the time were heavy, cumbersome, and limited in capability. Animal programmes were studio-based but Attenborough persuaded his masters that it would be a good idea for him to spend part of each year abroad, finding and filming exotic animals. This was the origin of Zoo Quest. As the title implies, not only did the team find the animals, they tried to capture them and bring them back for the London Zoo; this was a less eco-conscious age than ours. The series ran for several years and was very popular, though technical shortcomings would make the programmes appear very dated today.

In 1965 Attenborough was asked to become a senior BBC administrator in charge of the new channel BBC2. While holding this position he encountered many prominent people, including Montgomery, Anthony Eden, the Queen, and Benjamin Britten, while still managing to make occasional journeys to film in out-of-the way places such as New Guinea and the Australian outback. In 1967 came a further promotion with his appointment as Director of Programmes for the whole BBC. A lesser man might have been content to remain where he was, secure and exercising power, for the rest of his career, but not Attenborough. By 1972 he had had enough of sitting behind a desk, and so he resigned to become a freelance, writing and producing his own films. The first of these was Life On Earth, which was succeeded by a string of others; each has been different but all have been marked but the same excellence and professionalism. It is no doubt by this remarkable series of productions that Attenborough will be remembered. Although now in his seventies he shows no inclination to avoid undertaking physically demanding roles as a presenter, climbing mountains, descending into caves, and being hauled up into high trees in various kinds of improvised apparatus.

In a postscript, Attenborough tells of the death of his wife Jane on the eve of their forty-seventh wedding anniversary. This sad event aside, however, he has written an upbeat book. Inevitably, many of the places in which he filmed are no longer the pristine wildernesses they once were, but none of the animals he filmed has become extinct and he is cautiously optimistic about their chances of surviving into the future. If they do not, at least these films will be there to show later generations what they are missing.

The book is written with great verve and charm and the illustrations, as one might expect, are superb.

14 May 2003

%T Life on Air
%S Memoirs of a Broadcaster
%A David Attenborough
%I BBC Books
%C London
%D 2002
%G ISBN 0563-53461-3
%P 384 pp
%K biography, travel
%O illustrated