Attenborough, David (Frederick) 1926-

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ATTENBOROUGH, David (Frederick) 1926-

PERSONAL: Born May 8, 1926, in London, England; son of Frederick Levi and Mary (Clegg) Attenborough; married Jane Elizabeth Oriel, 1950; children: Robert, Susan. Education: Clare College, Cambridge, M.A., 1947. Hobbies and other interests: Music, tribal art.

ADDRESSES: Home—5 Park Rd., Richmond, Surrey TW10 6NS, England.

CAREER: Editorial assistant in British publishing house, 1949-52; British Broadcasting Corp., London, England, producer, 1952-62, controller of programs for BBC-2, 1965-68, director of programs and member of board of management, 1969-72; independent producer and television series host, 1972—, shows include Life on Earth, 1979, The Living Planet, 1984, and The First Eden: The Mediterranean World and Man, 1987. Member of Nature Conservancy Council, 1973—; trustee of British Museum, 1980—, World Wildlife Fund, 1981—, and Science Museum, 1984—. Has undertaken numerous zoological, geological, and ethnographic filming expeditions, including Sierra Leone, 1954, New Guinea, 1957, Zambesi, 1964, Borneo, 1973, Solomon Islands, 1975, and the Mediterranean region, 1986. Military service: Royal Navy, 1947-49; became lieutenant.

MEMBER: Society of Film and Television Arts (fellow, 1980—).

AWARDS, HONORS: Society of Film and Television Arts special award, 1961; silver medals from Zoological Society of London and Royal Television Society, both 1966; Desmond Davis Award, 1970; Cherry Kearton Award from Royal Geographical Society, 1972; Commander of the Order of the British Empire, 1974; Kalinga Prize from UNESCO and medal from Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia, both 1982; W.H. Smith Book awards, both 2003, in biography/autobiography genre, for Life on Air, and in general knowledge genre, for The Life of Mammals. Honorary degrees include D.Litt., University of Leicester, 1970, City University (London), 1972, and Birmingham University; D.Sc., University of Liverpool, 1974, Heriot-Watt University, 1978, University of Ulster, Sussex University, University of Bath, Durham University, and Keele University; honorary fellow, Manchester Polytechnic, 1976; LL.D., University of Bristol and University of Glasgow, both 1977; D.Univ., Open University, 1980.


Zoo Quest to Guiana (also see below), Lutterworth (Cambridge, England), 1956, Crowell, 1957, abridged edition, University of London Press (London, England), 1962.

Zoo Quest for a Dragon (also see below), Lutterworth (Cambridge, England), 1957.

Zoo Quest in Paraguay (also see below), Lutterworth (Cambridge, England), 1959.

Quest in Paradise, Lutterworth (Cambridge, England), 1960.

People of Paradise, Harper (New York, NY), 1961.

Zoo Quest to Madagascar, Lutterworth (Cambridge, England), 1961, published as Bridge to the Past: Animals and People of Madagascar, Harper (New York, NY), 1962.

Quest under Capricorn, Lutterworth (Cambridge, England), 1963.

(Editor) My Favorite Stories of Exploration, Lutterworth (Cambridge, England), 1964.

(With Molly Cox) David Attenborough's Fabulous Animals, BBC Publications (London, England), 1975.

The Tribal Eye, Norton (New York, NY), 1976.

Life on Earth: A Natural History, BBC Publications (London, England), 1979, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1980.

Journeys to the Past: Travels in New Guinea, Madagascar, and the Northern Territory of Australia, Lutterworth (Cambridge, England), 1981.

Tribal Encounters: An Exhibition of Ethnic Objects Collected by David Attenborough (exhibition catalog), Leicester Museums, Art Galleries, and Records Service, 1981.

Discovering Life on Earth: A Natural History (juvenile), Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1981.

The Zoo Quest Expeditions: Travels in Guyana, Indonesia, and Paraguay (contains Zoo Quest to Guiana, Zoo Quest for a Dragon, and Zoo Quest in Paraguay), Penguin (New York, NY), 1982.

The Living Planet: A Portrait of the Earth, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1984.

(Author of introduction) Wildlife through the Camera, Parkwest Publications (Jersey City, NJ), 1985.

(Author of foreword) Andrew Langley, The Making of "The Living Planet," Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1985.

The First Eden: The Mediterranean World and Man, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1987.

The Atlas of the Living World, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1989.

The Trials of Life, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1990.

The Private Life of Plants: A Natural History of Plant Behaviour, Princeton University Press (Princeton, NJ), 1995.

The Life of Birds, Princeton University Press (Princeton, NJ), 1998.

The Life of Mammals, Princeton University Press (Princeton, NJ), 2002.

Life on Air: Memoirs of a Broadcaster, Princeton University Press (Princeton, NJ), 2002.

General editor of "New Generation Guide" series, University of Texas Press (Austin, TX), 1987-1989. Also narrator of Wildlife on One: The Birdman of Afikim (video cassette), produced by George Inger, series produced by Dilys Breese, written by Peter France, BBC-1, 1989.

SIDELIGHTS: David Attenborough has spent most of his career explaining the wonders of the natural world to public television audiences. As producer and host of such popular series as "Zoo Quest," "Life on Earth," "The Living Planet," and "The First Eden: The Mediterranean World and Man," Attenborough has traveled around the world, and—striding through marshes or cuddling baby mountain gorillas—has communicated his personal enthusiasm for natural phenomena. Attenborough has two aims in his award-winning work: to entertain and to inform. His productions find a balance between the "believe-it-or-not" approach of some animal shows and the complex theoretical approach associated with strict schooling. Newsweek contributor Harry F. Waters wrote: "Attenborough, schooled in geology, zoology and biology, possesses a remarkably eclectic scientific range as well as the sensibilities of a poet." According to Timothy S. Green in Smithsonian, the naturalist "has a rare talent for describing with great simplicity the complexities of evolution," while he "never underrates the intelligence of his audience." In addition to his television series, Attenborough has authored lavishly illustrated companion volumes that cover the same topics as his films. New York Times Book Review correspondent Clifford D. May noted that these books add up to "an outstanding introduction to natural history and a sobering reminder that the works of man don't amount to a hill of bat guano beside the miracles of nature."

Attenborough was born and raised in London, the son of scholar Frederick Levi Attenborough and the younger brother of actor-director Richard Attenborough. The spirit of intellectual curiosity was paramount in the Attenborough household, and young David was encouraged to pursue his interest in fossils and in the live animals he extracted from the ponds near his home. He admired his father's academic colleagues, and he has praised his father for the educational role he played. He told Smithsonian: "My father . . . believed that the way you teach children is to allow them to discover for themselves. . . . I'd find a fossil and show it to my father and he'd say, 'Good, good, tell me all about it.' So I responded and became my own expert." Attenborough attended Clare College, Cambridge, where he majored in geology and zoology and earned a master's degree in 1947. After completing his military service in the Royal Navy, he became an editorial assistant at an educational publishing house. In 1952 he joined the British Broadcasting Corporation, where he was trained to produce television programs.

At first, Attenborough produced BBC shows on a variety of topics, from politics to ballet. In 1954 he and Jack Lester, a curator of the London Zoo, proposed an animal collecting expedition. Attenborough would film what happened for the BBC and Lester would bring back animals for the London Zoo. The resulting series of programs was called "Zoo Quest." Attenborough told Smithsonian that his idea was to "combine the benefits" of an up-close studio look at an animal and a field trip to its natural environment. He thought it would be interesting to see an animal in the wild and then show it live in the studio. The first trip, to Sierra Leone in West Africa, resulted in the capture of a great variety of animals, the most famous of which was the bald-headed rock crow (Picathartes gymnocephalus). Thereafter Attenborough went to British Guiana, Indonesia, New Guinea, Paraguay, Madagascar, and northern Australia, always in search of largely unknown species of wild animals. Lester was stricken with a fatal illness in 1955, and Attenborough took over as show host as well as producer. Green described Attenborough's unexpected success in front of the cameras: "Clad in shorts and hiking boots, he . . . trekked through jungles and waded across swamps in search of orangutans, birds of paradise, or a spectacular [Indonesian] lizard known as the Komodo dragon. His infectious enthusiasm . . . for every kind of animal he found appealed to armchair travelers who felt that here was a real explorer taking them along and sharing wildlife secrets, gamely brushing discomfort aside." Attenborough's adventures were collected in a series of "Zoo Quest" books, reprinted together in two volumes as The Zoo Quest Expeditions (1980) and Journeys to the Past (1981).

In 1965 Attenborough was named controller of a second BBC channel that became the first in Europe to offer color programming. The station was established to provide a planned alternative to the BBC's first channel, but Attenborough set out to capture most if not all of Great Britain's nightly audience. He was soon attracting five million viewers with dramatic series such as "Henry the Eighth" and "The Forsyte Saga," and he earned critical acclaim by commissioning Jacob Bronowski's "The Ascent of Man" and Kenneth Clark's "Civilization." Attenborough told Smithsonian that his idea for the latter series was to use color television to show "all the loveliest things of this civilization over the last 2,000 years," and do it in a historical sequence. On the strength of his programming capabilities, Attenborough was promoted to director of programs for both BBC channels in 1968. He held the position for four years, then resigned in order to return to the creative work of producing and directing shows. He wanted to do an epic series on natural history in the same style as Clark's "Civilization," but first he produced and hosted a series on art in primitive societies. His seven-part work, "The Tribal Eye," aired in 1975 and drew four million viewers.

The series "Life on Earth" began as a six-page outline tracing life from its origins in the sea to the advent of the human race. Attenborough wanted to produce "not just a natural history but a history of nature," he told CA. He did so by exploring the fossil record and by showing footage of living species of animals and plants. The series required a team of more than fifty wildlife photographers, more than a million miles of travel to thirty countries, and the cooperation of major zoos, museums, and universities worldwide. First broadcast in England in 1979, "Life on Earth" quickly became the most popular science series ever put on the air, with twelve million regular viewers each week. It was received with equal enthusiasm when it ran in America early in 1982. Washington Post contributor Bruce Brown called the work "a tour de force: fresh and vivid with incredible variety married to the clear exposition of the mechanisms of evolution." Waters offered a similar opinion in Newsweek: "By coupling lyrical rhythms and evocative images, ['Life on Earth'] achieves the emotional power of a cinematic poem." Attenborough also wrote a companion book, Life on Earth: A Natural History, that has likewise drawn praise from reviewers. In the Washington Post Book World, Joseph Kastner wrote that the volume "is the best kind of spin-off—literate, witty, full of earthly marvels presented without any of the orotund self-consciousness of some cosmic TV guides." Elisabeth Whipp elaborated in Spectator: "With a pleasant enthusiasm [Attenborough] effortlessly encompasses 3000 million years in 300 pages, from the very start of life to its most bizarre and intricate manifestations. Using the historical framework of the gradually evolving species, he juxtaposes fossil evidence and comparative anatomy to give a vivid picture of our present understanding of how life came about."

If "Life on Earth" examined the overall history of evolution, "The Living Planet," first broadcast in America in 1984, showed how plants and animals adapt to extreme environments. Once again Attenborough traveled the length and breadth of the globe, filming sequences from the rim of an active volcano, in a mangrove swamp, and in the sweltering heat of Death Valley, among others. Brown wrote of the series: "Natural adaptations are compared and contrasted until—almost by surprise—the reader has acquired a pretty good idea of how life is shaped on the [global] anvil." Another illustrated companion volume, The Living Planet: Portrait of the Earth, appeared at the same time the series aired. In his Newsweek review, Jim Miller contended that the reader first notices "the arresting images: a hairy sloth hanging upside down, an ocean of brightly tasseled foxtail grass, two albatrosses courting, a beach blanketed with breeding sea turtles, an uncanny ghost crab looking quite like its name. The text almost seems an afterthought—until you begin to read it. Like Attenborough's on-air scripts, it has the lilt and texture of the spoken word and something of the offhand appeal of a face-to-face conversation. The real pleasure of the book, though, lies in Attenborough's old-fashioned skill as a prose stylist."

Attenborough's next series, "The First Eden: The Mediterranean World and Man," focused on the Mediterranean region from the Ice Age to the present. Aired in 1987, the series showed how various sophisticated human cultures developed around the inland sea, some holding nature in reverence and others exploiting it until forests turned into deserts. Earth Science contributor Louise J. Fisher noted that the point of "The First Eden" is that nature "has never failed to support people, but people have failed to support nature." The short series and its book of the same title helped to counter a complaint formerly leveled at Attenborough; namely, that he has tended to underplay the devastation humankind is wreaking on the global environment. Attenborough himself told Earth Science: "My television programs are just for the wonder of it all. I don't start with a message or preach to people, but try to enrich their lives by showing them our fascinating and delightful planet." He did state, however: "I hope my work has helped people become more aware of nature and the Earth. Understanding the geosciences gives us a sense of time and evolution. . . . I have always thought an education in the natural sciences illuminates your life forever. You can't be a natural scientist without acquiring a profound reverence for nature." Everyone starts with that reverence, he said, "it's just that some of us lose sight of it. We can't let that happen. We would be deprived of so much." Attenborough told Fred Hauptfuhrer of People magazine that his unusual career has been a source of constant pleasure for him, no matter what conditions he confronted in his travels. "I'm the luckiest man," he said. "I go to the most marvelous places in the world, and I'm paid for it."

Despite his reputation, Attenborough's proposal for another big project, "The Life of Birds," took a little convincing before BBC would agree to produce it. As he explained to Los Angeles Times reporter David Gritten, "I was told birds aren't furry or cuddly. . . . Might ten episodes not be boring? What would they be about? I said, 'Well, we might do one program entirely on the egg.' They said, 'The egg? You must be joking!'" He wasn't, and ultimately he won over the BBC, which aired the ten-part series in 1998. In addition to the egg and the complex mechanics of flight, Attenborough covered the diverse sex lives, migratory patterns, and survival strategies of an amazing variety of birds. His search took him to forty-two countries and every continent, and he uncovered a number of surprises, such as the female hedge sparrows that take a secret lover in addition to their mate, just in case they need extra food in hard times, and the Japanese crows that have learned to let cars smash open particularly hard nuts, timing their feeding according to the traffic lights. As New York Times reviewer Andrew Revkin noted, "The documentary series is a primer in basic bird biology, but rises beyond rote because of the extraordinarily colorful lives of its subjects. . . . It also draws energy from Sir David, who served as the writer and narrator and who crawls, hikes, peers and probes to get at his subjects in dozens of scenes." Reviewing the companion book of the same title, Boston Globe reporter Mark Wilson concluded, "For a sharp kid, this book could foster a lifelong passion. For a jaded adult, The Life of Birds might provide fresh eyes. And for anyone, the book proves how watchable birds are."

Attenborough followed up with another in-depth look at an entire class of animals, this time the one that includes our own species, and of course many others. His "Life of Mammals," which aired in 2002, "is six wondrous hours with an astonishing number of the species that thrive today in every corner of the world. The infinite variety of them will amaze you. And wherever they are, Attenborough's right there with them," reported Ann Hodges in the Houston Chronicle. At age seventy-seven, Attenborough can be seen swimming with sea otters, climbing rocks with baboons, or watching a leopard slink past his hut in an Indian village. Once again, "the host's curiosity is boundless and infectious, and one is repeatedly reminded that once teeming and scheming humanity is left behind, the Earth can still be a magically amazing place," according to Washington Post television critic Tom Shales. The companion book, also titled The Life of Mammals, was similarly well received. Booklist reviewer Nancy Bent found it "a terrific introduction to the wonders of our hairy, milk-producing relatives."



Langley, Andrew, The Making of "The Living Planet," Little, Brown, 1985.


Booklist, April 15, 2003, Nancy Bent, review of Life of Mammals, p. 1435.

Boston Globe, December 6, 1998, Mark Wilson, review of Life of Birds, p. 17.

Earth Science, fall, 1987, Louise J. Fisher, "Sir David Attenborough," p. 11.

Houston Chronicle, May 8, 2003, Ann Hodges, "Animal Magnetism," p. D6.

Los Angeles Times, July 27, 1999, David Gritten, "This Guy Isn't Just Winging It," p. 3.

Newsweek, February 4, 1985, Harry F. Waters, review of "The Living Planet," p. 69; February 11, 1985, Jim Miller, review of The Living Planet: Portrait of the Earth.

New York Times, July 18, 1999, Andrew Revkin, "The Things Birds Do after They Fly Away," p. 4.

New York Times Book Review, January 3, 1982, Clifford D. May, review of Life on Earth, p. 10.

People, February 8, 1982, Fred Hauptfuhrer, "David Attenborough Stalks Flora and Fauna Worldwide for His Stunning 'Life on Earth,'" p. 105.

Smithsonian, November, 1981, Timothy S. Green, "Stalking the World of Nature with BBC's Super-guide," p. 134.

Spectator, March 31, 1979, Elisabeth Whipp, review of Life on Earth: A Natural History.

Washington Post, January 12, 1982, Bruce Brown, review of "Life on Earth"; May 8, 2003, Tom Shales, "On Discovery, the Animal Kingdom in All Its Glory," p. C1.

Washington Post Book World, November 8, 1981, Joseph Kastner, review of Life on Earth: A Natural History.


Life of Birds Web site, (November 17, 2003), "Meet Sir David."*