David Attenborough: A Fossil of Our Time

A week ago, I sat in an audience waiting for the arrival of a British icon in Chiswick Business Park. The place was packed out, the air fizzing with anticipation – for who? Sir David Attenborough.

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Funny how a man of 87 years could create such an excitement – the only other time I’ve witnessed such a thing was at a guitar show where people queued for an autograph from Jim Marshall, the famous guitar amp creator. It’s strange how a crowd buzzes over such an old person, something that doesn’t often occur in this Western world obsessed with the young. But let’s face it: Jim Marshall is a music legend and therefore automatically eternally cool. David Attenborough on the other hand…works with animals. Okay, maybe he’s done a little bit more than that.

As soon as he bounded in, waving at the audience and bouncing onto the stage to be interviewed, I got it: I understood why people like him rise from the crowd and do great things. It’s his positive energy, his enthusiasm. The chair was stationed so that his back was turned to the side of the audience where I sat, but like a true professional, he directed every answer to the entire audience – actively turning around to speak to us all. And though his voice – instantly recognisable from his career of voice-overs – has its iconic, husky tone, he nevertheless spoke so vibrantly, he barely needed his microphone. I felt like I was having a personal audience with him. And so enthusiastic – as enthusiastic in his mannerisms as Jack Black – gesticulating with his arms like one of the many primates he’s filmed in his life.

His interview took us on a journey back in time. He actually began his career with a degree in natural sciences at Cambridge University. In 1952, he started work at the BBC after applying for a job as a radio talk producer, which he didn’t get, before his CV was noticed by Mary Adams who was head of the Talks department – basically the factual TV department. He became producer for the department, and eventually landed his first role as a presenter when Jack Lester, the then presenter for Zoo Quest an animal collecting programme – became ill and David was made to stand in at short notice. The rest is, of course, history.

His stories of TV in the old days fascinated me the most, as a worker in the industry, and with parents who also once worked at the BBC in the 60s and 70s. When Attenborough first began presenting, everything went out live. There was no technology back then to pre-record anything. The schedule itself was a very interesting concept, as back then not many people had TV sets (until the Queen’s coronation in 1953 when many people rushed to buy televisions just to watch the televised ceremony). He explained that around 6pm, BBC television broadcasting shut down for a couple of hours, for fear that housewives would be so locked into watching it they would forget to put their children to bed!

Attenborough has many titles and awards, and is the only person to have won a BAFTA in black and white, colour, HD and 3D formats (bring on 4K). He was asked what he felt was the biggest change in the industry. His response was when cameras became electronic during the 80s. Before then, cameras (especially  studio cameras) were huge – giant things that need a group of people to wheel them around. But the technological advances in cameras meant they became more stable and reliable, smaller, and easier to manage. To him, this was a major evolution in technology.

His legacy lasts because he plays a part in so many fields – the natural world and TV. What of the future? He believes that his style of nature presenting, what is known as traditional “blue-chip” programming, is on the edge of extinction. Nowadays, nature programmes have more of an adventure feel: the presenters are Indiana Jones-esque, getting into the thick of it – like Attenborough does himself, but there’s more of a hands-on and not to mention wild and dangerous value. Attenborough himself said that animals are relatively easy to read (with their emotions like aggression and calmness readable by any human’s sixth sense), and that he has always found animals to be calm. The scariest creature he has ever faced is a human being wielding a gun.

And the future of the planet?

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We need to stop overpopulating. In his words,

“Either humans need to control the population, or nature will end up doing it for us.”

How does Attenborough propose we curb overpopulation? He said that people like him are part of the problem – old people are living longer these days. But more than that, the countries where overpopulation is a problem are the countries where women are not educated and have little control over their own bodies. If we educate women in these countries, it’s likely that the population levels will fall, as women in countries that encourage them to be educated and have more control over their bodies are less likely to have so many children.

His interest in nature began as a child, when he collected fossils and specimens. Just as this inspiration has carried on well into adulthood, where he is still so fascinated by breaking open a fossil, like an ancient tomb, and being the first human to set eyes on a creature that hasn’t been seen since it became fossilized millions of years ago, so we too will continue to look upon the museum of his life and career in awe. So many of us in Britain have grown up with David Attenborough. He’s so warm and friendly on television, he’s like an old family friend. No doubt that one day the country will inevitably be in mourning over him, but he will be cherished and continue to live on as a fossil of our time. Such is life.