I spent most of today at the Wildscreen film festival being held at the British Council Colombo. Naturalist and broadcaster Sir David Attenborough featured prominently in two films screened: Can We Save Planet Earth? (2006) and Life in Cold Blood: Armoured Giants (2008).
For me, it was more than a fascinating journey to far corners of our endangered planet in the company of the world’s best known broadcaster, and Britain’s most trusted public figure. I recalled how in this very venue, as an eager teenager growing up in the simpler, pre-web days of the 1980s, I watched his pioneering series Life on Earth (1979) and The Living Planet (1984). These path-breaking series redefined how natural history documentaries were made, and inspired a whole new generation of film-makers and nature lovers. A quarter century later, I’m still hooked.
Over the last 25 years, Attenborough has established himself as the world’s leading natural history programme maker with more landmark series: The Trials of Life (1990), The Private Life of Plants (1995), The Life of Birds (1998), The Life of Mammals (2002) and Life in the Undergrowth (2005). The final chapter in the ‘Life’ series is Life in Cold Blood (2008).
As fellow broadcaster Jeremy Paxman noted in a Time magazine tribute to Attenborough: “Life After Death is almost the only natural-history series yet to be made by Attenborough. In a career that has taken him to every corner of the world, he has explored life in all its richness — from mammals and birds to plants and reptiles. No living person has done more to make the people of Planet Earth aware of the world around them.”But as I wrote in May 2007, “like all creatures big and small in the great Circle of Life that Sir David has so avidly told us about, he too is mortal. At 81, it’s time for the world to look for the next David Attenborough.”
In his Time tribute, Paxman noted that what distinguishes Attenborough is “that boundless, schoolboyish enthusiasm, the infectious joy of discovering the infinite variety of life”. Yet as the popular song goes, dragons live forever, but not so little boys – so the quest for the next Attenborough has quietly preoccupied the minds of many practising or following the world of natural history and environmental film making.
I’m not obsessed with this question (and I wish Sir David many more years of life on Earth and life on the airwaves), but I today popped it to Jeremy Bristow, a producer of environmental programmes at BBC Television, at the end of his fascinating master class on The role of films in Environmental Conservation. Jeremy’s most recent project has been two films hard-hitting films on Climate Change with Sir David Attenborough for BBC1 and the Discovery Channel.
The bad news is that despite searching far and wide – even some competitions – the David Attenborough has yet to be discovered.
“There are many talented, passionate natural history film makers and some of them also have good screen presence — but none to match Sir David,” said Jeremy Bristow. “I know many in the natural history film world have kept their eyes open for a potential successor.”
Perhaps Sir David is a unique product of his time and circumstances, Jeremy speculated. Certainly, there weren’t too many getting into this business in the early days of television broadcasting. The first major programme series to feature Sir David was BBC’s Zooquest, which ran from 1954 to 1963. And then, one thing led to another…and more than 50 years later, he’s still in the business.
To me, it’s the voice – authoritative without at all being pompous or pontificating – that gives Sir David enduring and endearing appeal. Time called it ‘the voice of the environment’.
Now is the time when that voice of reason, moderation and passion is needed more than ever. A time when the natural world is under siege from human-induced accelerated climate change even as the world of science takes daily beatings from assorted fundamentalist forces.
At 82, Sir David still remains not just our most versatile ambassador to the natural world, but also one of the best spokespersons for the rigors of science and intellectual curiosity.
Here’s a recent example of Sir David – taking us on a quick, animated guide to evolution of life on Earth, in a 2009 documentary called Charles Darwin and the Tree of Life to mark 150 years since Charles Darwin published his famous Origin of the Species: