David Attenborough and Life on Planet Earth

Photograph of Sir David Attenborough seated at the Great Barrier Reef, taken for his Great Barrier Reef series

Photograph of Sir David Attenborough seated at the Great Barrier Reef, taken for his Great Barrier Reef series, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade website – www.dfat.gov.au, CC BY 3.0 AU, via Wikimedia Commons

On May 8, 1926, English broadcaster and naturalist Sir David Frederick Attenborough was born. He is best known for writing and presenting the nine Life series, in conjunction with the BBC Natural History Unit, which collectively form a comprehensive survey of all life on the planet.

“If we [humans] disappeared overnight, the world would probably be better off [making the point that the reverse is not true].”
– Sir David Attenborough, The Daily Telegraph (12 November 2005)

David Attenborough – Early Years

David Attenborough grew up in College House on the campus of the University College, Leicester, as his father was the principal. During his childhood, Attenborough collected fossils as well as stones and natural specimens. British archaeologist and writer Jacquetta Hawkes is believed to have visited Attenborough’s private museum and encouraged him in his work. Around 1936, David Attenborough and his brother Richard attended a lecture by Grey Owl (Archibald Belaney) which highly influenced them. As Grey Owl gained recognition in working with National Parks and his activities as a conservationist grew, he also managed to convince Attenborough with his “profound knowledge of the flora and fauna of the Canadian wilderness and by his warnings of ecological disaster should the delicate balance between them be destroyed”. David Attenborough pursued his education at Clare College at Cambridge University where he studied geology and zoology, obtaining a degree in natural sciences. In 1947 he was called up for national service in the Royal Navy and spent two years stationed in North Wales and the Firth of Forth.

From Children’s Science Textbooks to BBC

David Attenborough continued his career at a company editing children’s science textbooks, but applied for a job as a radio talk producer with the BBC in 1950. He was rejected for this particular position by BBC, but attracted the interest by BBC’s television service. back then, Attenborough did not have a television at home and did not have any experiencewith the format but was offered a three month training before joining the BBC full-time in 1952. In the beginning, Attenborough became a producer for the Talks department in the field of non-fiction broadcasts and later started his association with natural history programs through the production of the three-part series The Pattern of Animals.

From the London Zoo to Social Anthropology

The program visited London Zoo and featured many of its animals including their use of camouflage, aposematism and courtship displays. After meeting Jack Lester who was back then the curator of the zoo’s reptile house, they decided to make a series about an animal-collecting expedition. Zoo Quest aired first in 1954 and Attenborough became its presenter. In the early 1960s, David Attenborough resigned from the permanent staff of the BBC to study for a postgraduate degree in social anthropology at the London School of Economics, interweaving his study with further filming.

Return to BBC

Even though David Attenborough returned to BBC as the controller of BBC Two, he continued filmic in Tanzania, Bali, as well as New Guinea on various purposes. At BBC Two, Attenborough is known to have changed much to make the program more diverse and he managed to re-define the channel’s identity for years to come. Programmes he commissioned included Man Alive, Call My Bluff, Chronicle, Life, One Pair of Eyes, The Old Grey Whistle TestMonty Python’s Flying Circus [5] and The Money Programme. With color television, Attenborough also made some significant decisions including the introduction of a 13-part series on the history of Western art. It seems that David Attenborough was successful with every task he started and it is assumed that he was even in talks for the Director-General of the BBC in 1972. However, his current position was already very far away from the actual filming process so he decided to leave his post to return to full-time programme-making.

Life on Earth

“Right now we are facing a man-made disaster of global scale, our greatest threat in thousands of years: climate change. If we don’t take action, the collapse of our civilisations and the extinction of much of the natural world is on the horizon.”
– Sir David Attenborough, Speech at the Katowice Climate Change Conference, “David Attenborough: collapse of civilisation is on the horizon”, The Guardian, 3 December 2018.

The success of Life on Earth was due to the show’s accuracy and creativity, becoming a benchmark of quality in wildlife film-making and influenced a generation of documentary film-makers. Through the great effort, Attenborough and his team put into current research, they managed to gain scientist’s trust and received exclusive filming access including the filming of Dian Fossey’s research group of mountain gorillas in Rwanda.[6] With the success of the show, BBC decided to create a follow-up – The Living Planet. The new show focused more on ecology and the adaptations of living things to their environment. Another really successful program was The Trials of Life, which completed the Life trilogy, which focused on animal behaviour through the different stages of life.


Throughout his career at BBC, David Attenborough was always eager to try out new camera techniques and new technology to create a fascinating watching experience for the public. The Life of Mammals made use of low-light and infrared cameras in order to reveal the behaviour of nocturnal mammals and also macro photography was used to capture natural behaviour of very small creatures. David Attenborough brought together a DVD encyclopaedia showing the life on planet earth called Life on Land, which also turned out to be a major success.David Attenborough continued his career to this day and has several TV projects in development. He continues his long-running collaboration with the BBC Natural History Unit, introducing and narrating the Unit’s first 4K production Life Story, which debuted on BBC One in October 2014. In 2016 he documented the excavation and reconstruction according to the original findings of a titanosaur of the genus Notocolossus.

Sir David Attenborough and Professor Johan Rockstrom | WWF Living Planet Lecture 2016, [10]

References and Further Reading:

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