David Attenborough: A Voice You Know, And A Man You Don't (His Life Story)

By Grace Taylor

TV presenter David Attenborough walking to work on a snowy morning the day after his appointment as controller of BBC2, March 4, 1965. (Ron Burton/Mirrorpix/Getty Images)

Before Steve Irwin and Bear Grylls, there was David Attenborough, a soft-spoken, jovial British man who captured the heart of the world during his decades-long career in natural history broadcasting at the B.B.C. Born in West London on May 8, 1926, Attenborough discovered his love of all things nature early on in life, as he was endlessly fascinated by the local wildlife and even spent a good portion of his teenage years biking around England in search of fossils. It seemed natural, then, that when it came time to attend university, he should opt for a degree in natural science with a focus on zoology.  

After two years of service in the Navy, Attenborough took a sharp turn in his career path and went into the world of broadcasting, even though he'd only ever seen one television show before. In 1952, he joined the B.B.C. and began writing scripts and working behind the scenes for their documentary department but was told that he was too dentally well endowed to ever go in front of the camera. As fate would have it, Attenborough quickly found himself on screen when the planned host of a show called Zoo Quest, zoologist Jack Lester, fell ill just before the first episode was set to film. Stuck in Sierra Leone with a skeleton crew and a looming deadline, Attenborough was the only person available to take the helm, and so a natural history star was born.  

Sir David Attenborough in conversation with Australian Ecologist Peter Stanton at Undara Volcanic National Park, Queensland, Australia in the early '90s. (Mamieisblue/Wikimedia Commons)

The show was well received, and over time, Attenborough became so skilled at development and production that he was promoted to controller of B.B.C. Two, where he made one of his greatest contributions to T.V. history: introducing color to Great Britain. Despite the money, success. and soon a promotion to director general, he became bored of the day-to-day job and hung up his hat after eight years in favor of going back into the wild (with a camera, that is). 

Throughout the 1970s, Attenborough developed and hosted several natural history television shows like The Explorers and Life On Earth, which garnered a massive viewership of 14 million.  Attenborough amazed fans by getting up close with wildlife, exploring jungles, and even meeting with tribes so remote they'd never actually met a European before. The success of shows like Life On Earth basically gave Attenborough a golden ticket to produce whatever he wanted for the next several decades, using his charm and growing expertise to explore not only animal behavior but also the environment and its relationship with humanity.

In rooting out the challenges many animals faced for survival, Attenborough discovered that their greatest challenge was often us, but he feared that talking too much about environmental decline would put off viewers who just wanted to see cool, rare animals, not confront subjects like deforestation, pollution, or animal extinction. In his later years, as the world grew more aware of environmental concerns, Attenborough found more opportunities to talk about subjects formerly considered "preachy" with his 2000s documentaries State Of The Planet, The Truth About Climate Change, and Saving Planet Earth.

Attenborough at a special screening of Great Barrier Reef in 2015. (Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade/Wikimedia Commons)

At 95 years old, Attenborough remains active in documentary writing, producing, and hosting, with Blue Planet II appearing on Netflix in 2017 and his newest work, A Perfect Planet, debuting in 2021. With such a long career, it's impossible to know how many people his work has touched, but it's estimated that Life On Earth alone has garnered over 500 million views since its release. In fact, Attenborough is the only person who has won a B.A.F.T.A. for black-and-white, color, H.D., 3-D, and V.R. television programming. When asked how he developed such an enduring reverence for nature, he responded, "Kids understand the natural world and are fascinated by it ... the question is [not how I gained it], it's how did you lose it?"

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Grace Taylor