The wild life of a born bushman

Life on Air
October 31, 2003

Since this is the autobiography of the best-known presenter of natural history on television, one might expect it to be all about the wonders of the natural world. All that is included, but there is also much more about the many interests of David Attenborough and about the development of UK television. It is good for the world that the young Attenborough soon became bored of being a junior editor for a publisher and moved to become a trainee producer of, what was then, embryonic television.

This book takes us from black-and-white, low-resolution TV to present-day digital colour and from Attenborough's first series, Zoo Quest , to his recently aired series on mammals.

After his early work as a producer and, when permitted, as the presenter of some natural history programmes, Attenborough was promoted to controller of BBC2 and later director of programmes for BBC TV. His wide interests and experience were of great benefit to programming and he brought to the viewer such greats as Sir Kenneth Clark's Civilisation series. His love of music brought to the screen everything from Stravinsky and Berlioz to jazz and Balinese gamelan music. He also introduced series on art and, another of his interests, archaeology. The administrative phase of his career achieved much for the BBC and for the development of colour programmes.

However, the book portrays a growing internal conflict of someone enjoying the opportunity to influence television yet frustrated at not being able to get back into the bush to study and film his beloved wildlife.

Attenborough gives many insights into the politics, conflicts and development of the BBC on which he obviously had considerable influence through a close working relationship with his superior, Huw Weldon. Even during his time as an administrator, Attenborough managed to flee to the field a few times for what he calls his "exotic interludes" to such remote places as Papua New Guinea and to Bali to film the komodo dragon. Finally in December 1972, after eight years as a senior administrator in the BBC, he resigned his job to return to programme-making on a freelance basis.

While to some people this change was regarded as a demotion, to a passionate naturalist it was a step in the right direction.

Attenborough is most famous for his natural history series such as Life on Earth , The Living Planet and The Trials of Life , but he had many other successful programmes on other subjects. His training in anthropology and archaeology led to the very successful Tribal Eye programmes. It also led to his interest in collecting tribal artefacts such as bead aprons, masks and wood carvings. His account here, and his programme about his search for the history of a wood carving from Easter Island in his collection, reads like a detective story. It illustrates both his curiosity and the meticulous personal research behind every Attenborough programme. He is not just a presenter: before any programme is made he carries out extensive research to make sure that accurate information is portrayed. Sometimes the facts of nature he revealed were so unbelievable that he was falsely accused of setting up scenes in the laboratory. Some of the few scenes that were done outside the wild are also described with amusing detail, such as the filming of some of my research on Amazon waterlilies in an Oxford cowshed. An obvious feature of Attenborough films is how little set-ups in the laboratory were necessary. Instead his long-suffering, but long-term, film crew spent many hours and faced many deprivations filming in hostile environments all over the world.

In person, Attenborough is as exciting as he is on the screen. There are riveting descriptions of natural history scattered throughout the text: of tortoises copulating, Wilson's bird of paradise displaying, the behaviour of the wonderful Sifaka lemur of Madagascar or of the way in which whales used to be butchered.

Perhaps the saddest moment in this book details the loss of Jane, Attenborough's beloved wife of 47 years, whom he calls his anchor and the focus of life. Even at 70, he was still being hauled up to the top of rainforest trees to make his comments from the appropriate place. So many episodes in this book caused me to laugh since it is full of his humour.

His humility also shines through as he deferred to experts in many different fields. The boyish enthusiasm of the young Leicestershire schoolboy who had his own museum, and collected fossils, butterflies, skulls and eggs, remains with Attenborough today after 50 years of experience with the media. During this time, the fate of many plants and animals has become uncertain as so many natural habitats have been destroyed. He has done a great deal for their preservation through the interest and concern that he has stimulated in so many people, including this reviewer.

Sir Ghillean Prance is scientific director of the Eden Project and was formerly director, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

Life on Air: David Attenborough

Publisher - BBC Books
Pages - 384
Price - £18.99
ISBN - 0 563 53461 3

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