Chasing emus, cormorants, and moles, BBC's Attenborough puts nature on TV
SIR David Attenborough has the knack of bringing living things to life. Whether it's striding alongside an anteater or relaxing in the foliage at an informal gathering of gorillas, Sir David -- naturalist, writer, and broadcaster -- conveys a sturdy sort of Dr. Doolittle enthusiasm that has made his television nature films into international classics of their kind.
Attenborough -- recently knighted by Queen Elizabeth II -- has been making wildlife films for 30 years. His two major series, ``Life on Earth'' and ``The Living Planet,'' brought the nature series to a new level of comprehensiveness and artistic presentation, taking full advantage of innovative photographic techniques.
But despite the array of incredible creatures that Attenborough has brought to the screen, it is the Attenborough presence -- that of a good-natured professor who has managed to retain a child's enthusiasm for the natural world -- that remains the star attraction.
At the moment, Attenborough is hard at work on his latest venture, a series about man's relationship to the natural world during the development of civilization around the Mediterranean. The series is tentatively entitled ``The First Eden.''
An immensely energetic man, he shrugs off the practical difficulties of tromping around the planet in search of the evasive emu or the camera-shy cormorant, insisting that animals provide the perfect material for making television films that everyone can enjoy.
``They're easy things to make programs about, because they have everything going for them,'' Attenborough says. ``They are amazingly beautiful; they are amazingly unpredictable -- they're always doing things that you couldn't conceive that they would want to do, or be physically capable of doing -- and there's always something new. They are not about economics, trade unionism, politics, or war, which seem to dominate the screen everywhere else. If you make the programs well, a child of 5 will watch them
and a zoology professor of 80 will watch them; they are multilayered programs.''
``Life on Earth,'' made in conjunction with the British Broadcasting Corporation's Natural History Unit and first shown on British television in 1979, recounted the evolution of life forms from the simplest single-cell creatures to mammals. Advanced camera technology enabled viewers to see, for the first time, such phenomena as the progress of a mole actually in its tunnel, and the minute movements of a fly, revealing how it manages to get lift on both the up and down movement of its wings.
The book Attenborough wrote in conjunction with the series sold over a million copies. As a tribute to an on-screen presence that captivated even those turned off by the thought of yet another nature film, Attenborough received a special award from the prestigious British Academy of Film and Television Arts for the best ``on-screen performance in a non-acting role.''
His most recent series, ``The Living Planet,'' recently aired on American television, examined the ecosystems that exist across the globe: from the grasslands, to the deserts, to the mountains, to the oceans, to the air. As ``Life on Earth'' explored competition among species, ``The Living Planet'' studied their interdependence -- and within it Attenborough found more opportunity to give voice to his concerns about conservation.
``If these series appear to be different, then it's because they're prepared in quite a different way from normal animal documentaries,'' Attenborough explains. ``The usual way to make a program about the natural world is to say, `Let's make a program about anteaters.' You then go and film them and see what they do, and if something splendid happens, that's great.''
The organization and preparation for ``Life on Earth'' and ``The Living Planet'' was radically different.
For each part of the series, Attenborough wrote a detailed 30- to 40-page script before an inch of film was shot. He decided exactly what he wanted to film and how he wanted it to be filmed, much as the scriptwriter and director of a feature film visualize precisely what they want to do before beginning to shoot.
``You set it all down with extreme detail, even to the extent of whether you're going to pan left or pan right. You write down the exact words you're going to say in front of the camera. But this doesn't mean you can't be flexible once you get into the field,'' Attenborough says.
The result is a film with an artistic continuity and consistent delivery of peak moments which would be impossible to achieve with the old-fashioned, rather hit-or-miss method of making nature films.
``Because you organize your materials beforehand, it's possible to ask a question in the Himalayas and answer it in the Amazon,'' Attenborough remarks, and that's precisely what the viewer sees him doing, although the whole series is shot completely out of sequence.
Attenborough freely admits he can't take all the credit. ``It's a very well-organized team, of which I am by no means the most important part. There's me, the cameraman, the recordist, the director, and so on. I write the script, and then a researcher checks it. He or she then gets in touch with experts in the area.
``I work with and for the BBC Natural History Unit, which has no equivalent anywhere in the world. It has been going for 25 years; it has a large staff of specialists who have been making films and radio programs for all that time; it has contacts worldwide; it has a huge library; it has a library of recorded sounds and it has a special laboratory of filming techniques.''
At a time when news of financial problems and consequent cuts at the BBC are an occupational hazard for British broadcasters, Attenborough explains that thus far the Natural History Unit is safe.
``At one stage, during `The Living Planet,' it was the most popular program the BBC put out. It brings financial profit and so doesn't cost the bureau anything. If the BBC stopped putting out these kinds of things, it would lose its raison d'^etre.''
It was the creative emphasis on education in his home while he was growing up which Attenborough believes helped him to become first a naturalist and then the broadcaster he is today. ``I was very fond of my parents; they were both great educationalists. My father was a lecturer and principal at a university, and my mother had been a teacher. Being teachers and understanding education, they understood about bringing up children. I think one of the key things my father did to help me was to ask me questi ons.''
Sir David was not the only success story to come out of that education-oriented family. His older brother, Richard Attenborough, was the first in the family to become well known, initially as an actor on the West End stage in London, then in movies, and most recently as director and producer of the feature film ``Gandhi.''
Although Sir David emphasizes that he and his brother found their way in widely different fields that seldom overlap -- he is a scientist, while his brother is an artist -- he observes that at heart they are both teachers: ``Teaching requires a degree of acting skill. The great teacher gives a performance before his class. He has that skill of holding attention .. . .''
Attenborough brings to his private conversation the same animation he displays on screen. He finds it difficult to keep still, always looking over his shoulder out of the window, and changing position in his armchair. His natural habitat is not among the teacups in London living rooms, but in the wild, where he has spent at least three months a year filming for most of his adult life.
This is not to say he eschews the comforts of home. He has been married for 35 years to his wife, Jane, and they have two grown children who are teachers. Their home is near his brother, Richard, and his family in the London suburb of Richmond.
Two decades ago Attenborough got a taste of what life was like in the corporate jungle, when he was named controller of BBC 2, the BBC arts and special-interest channel. He stayed seven years in the executive suite, but decided that a life of meetings, administrative decisions, and paper work was not for him. He resigned to pursue a degree in social anthropology, but soon ended up back in program-making with the genesis of ``Life on Earth.''
He had successfully completed the sort of career shift contemplated by many in mid-life but attempted by relatively few. ``I couldn't go back to being a producer as I had been before: You can't go down the same ladder you came up. So I decided to become a performer.''
Though he is a consummate performer, the Attenborough image is backed by a substance that makes him the equal of those who have rescued broadcasting from its tendency toward the trivial: Kenneth Clark, who was perhaps the first with his colossal series, ``Civilisation,'' Jacob Bronowski with ``The Ascent of Man,'' and Carl Sagan with ``Cosmos.''
His broadcasting fame has placed him well to be of great service to the conservation movement. He is an international trustee of the World Wildlife Fund, vice-president of the Royal Society of Nature Conservation, and a trustee of World Wildlife, U.K. He is also helping to launch the British Wildlife Appeal, which he heads.
Despite this high visibility, Attenborough doesn't like being recognized in public, which is perhaps why he wore glasses as he emerged from the London Underground.
But should anyone fail to notice the well-known face, he still might get a clue to Sir David Attenborough's obsession with wildlife: Not everyone wears a duckbill-platypus necktie.