A love of life in all its varieties

15th November 2002 at 00:00
Sir David Attenborough's career in broadcasting has brought 250 programmes to our television screens - and still counting. Yolanda Brooks takes a look at his latest series

Two national institutions are celebrating their golden jubilees this year - Queen Elizabeth II and Sir David Attenborough. While HRH celebrated with dancing in the streets and power chords on top of Buckingham Palace, Sir David will mark his durability with another epic series on the BBC.

Attenborough's name has been synonymous with natural history for several decades, but his zoology degree was put to little use at the beginning of his career. Like every other BBC producer in the 1950s he had to spread his talents across many subjects. "I produced one or two programmes a week on anything - knitting, cooking, heraldry, archaeology, quizzes, news, current affairs, ballet and short stories. My first in-front-of-camera-experience was an interview with an Olympic runner, which I thought was pretty hopeless. The next appearance was as an ethnographic specimen. We were doing a scientific programme about race and we wanted an example of a caucasian, so I did a mugshot."

His first real foray in natural history was a documentary following London Zoo on a specimen gathering trip to Sierra Leone. The reptile curator from the zoo who was supposed to present the live programme - Zoo Quest - was seriously ill and Attenborough was his replacement. Zoo Quest ran from 1954 to 1964, after which Attenborough moved behind the scenes. Between 1965 and 1969 he was first the controller of BBC2, before becoming director of programmes. In 1973, fed up with the desk job, he finally returned to natural history and front of camera duties.

Since then he has been involved in dozens of wildlife programmes ranging from Eastwards with Attenborough and Life on Earth to The First Eden and Blue Planet. He has presented or narrated 250 programmes for the BBC. His latest, The Life of Mammals, covers the most successful and adaptable animals on Earth. But before you think you have seen enough lions, tigers, wildebeest and dolphins to last a lifetime, Attenborough promises a few surprises. "In it, you'll see things that you've never seen before," he declares. "There is a whole host of mammals that you never see on television and the virtue of doing a series like Mammals, is that you can't leave bits out."

"It is easy to make an exciting programme about lions killing wildebeests - we do it all the time. In Mammals, we've done a programme about rodents, which deals with mice and rats, and squirrels and kangaroo rats, and you'd think that a whole 50 minutes on things that just gnaw nuts would be rather boring. But we've had to put a lot of energy and imagination into making it interesting. This is a comprehensive survey of a major section of the natural world."

From improv to high-tech

In early wildlife programmes, camera technology was limited and there were no long lenses or cameras that could cope with low lighting, so film crews used to improvise. While filming in Sierra Leone, for example, they would take wide angle shots of the rainforest and show the curator climbing up trees to catch his prey before cutting to a studio shot of the animal.

Today's technology ensures that even the most illusive of animals can be captured on film. One of the highlights of The Life of Mammals is the footage of a duck-billed platypus nursing her young. "The interesting thing about a duck-billed platypus is that not only does it lay eggs but the young, when they hatch, drink milk. It has only been bred in one occasion in zoos and this most significant development in the evolution of mammals has never been seen," he says. The Life of Mammals crew managed to fit a radio tag to a female platypus and once they worked out where her burrow was, were able to feed a fibre-optic light down into the nest. "It was pretty much what we expected, but it was a thrill none the less, to see something that no other human being had seen before," he says.

Other spectaculars include a fruit bat roost with several million inhabitants, a giant mongoose, the waterproofed pouch of a South American yapok, blue whales, golden moles in the Namib desert, subterranean elephants and, bizarrely, orang-utans rowing boats and washing clothes.

Each episode covers a different section of mammal life, with the first episode focusing on the adaptations that have made mammals so successful. Future episodes group animals according to the food they eat or natural habitat. The final episode looks at how humans have changed the planet.

Beyond the television set

The founding principles of the BBC were to inform, educate and entertain, so it's a surprise to discover that it has taken the corporation so long to produce its first set of teaching materials linked to natural history programme.

The Life of Mammals Teacher's Activity Pack uses content featured in the series and has been written by Penny Coltman, a lecturer in education at Cambridge University. Aimed at key stage 2 pupils, the pack features five A2 colour posters, 32 information cards on some of the featured mammals, and photocopiable worksheets with activity ideas and curriculum links. The pack costs pound;19.99 and will be available from December 2 (tel: 0870 830 8000).

As with other major documentary series, the BBC has created related digital content under the BBCi banner, which go beyond what is shown on terrestrial television. Fact files, articles, games, streamed video links and web chats will be featured on The Life of Mammals website, and television viewers with digital services can access extra material and viewing options.

If that's not enough, The Life of Mammals Tour will be travelling around the UK from January 8 to March 16.

Michael Stevenson, joint director of BBC Factual and Learning says: "The Life of Mammals is a great example of how mainstream programming can offer many learning opportunities, through television, BBCi, touring exhibitions, teacher activity packs and the Open University short course - and extend each viewers' breadth of knowledge, just as far as they want to go".

www.bbc.co.uknature

Attenborough on:

Birds of paradise"For various romantic reasons I am fascinated by birds of paradise. They're magical, they're full of legends and they're fantastically beautiful. A couple of years ago I was able to make a programme about the whole group and I loved that programme. If you said to me, 'you can look at one natural history programme and that's it,' I would pick Attenborough in Paradise."

The environment

"The environment wasn't an issue in the 1950s, but today people are much better informed," he says. "I believe all natural history programmes have changed perceptions. It would be shameful if the amount of natural history programmes we pumped out had no effect on changing people's perceptions."

His finest moment"I made a series called Life on Earth, about 20 years ago, and it was the first natural history programme that said: 'Look, I'm going to show you the range of life from the very simplest, and I am going to show you how it developed, how it emerged from the sea, how it went onto land, and how it diversified. The cumulative effect of doing 13, one-hour programmes had a huge effect on viewers and, because no one had ever given that kind of synoptic view, there's no doubt it had an effect that you couldn't repeat. I am proud that it is still being shown in university zoology courses."

The disappearing world

"I know I'm chronicling the disappearing world in an intellectual sense, but in practice it doesn't hit me the way it hits others. I have filmed quite a lot of very rare animals, but they are all still there. And for most of them, there are more than when I filmed them."

TV life

"I used to think that the presenter figure would wither away on the vine and I perhaps was a part of television prehistory."

The Life of Mammals is a 10-part series, starting on BBC1 on Wednesday, November 20 at 9pm. Life on Air, a one-off programme that looks at Attenborough's career, will be shown on Sunday, December 1.

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