Pop Culture Rewind: Sir David Attenborough

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Words | Gabby Edwards

There seems to be few things as universally loved as everyone’s favourite English broadcaster, Sir David Attenborough. Whether it be the captivating visuals or soothing voice overs, there’s truly something for everyone in each of his series and documentaries that keep us coming back. A 2018 poll even revealed Sir Attenborough to be Britain’s most trusted celebrity. So how did this zoologist rise in notoriety and become the beloved pop culture icon he is today?

After achieving a degree in natural sciences, David Attenborough first rose to notoriety during a training program with the BBC in 1950. While executives initially thought his teeth were too big to be featured on television, he was still assigned as producer for the factual broadcasting department. As the BBC had minimal programming covering the natural sciences at the time, his influence began with producing quiz shows such as Animal, Vegetale, Mineral, before eventually working his way to co-presenting. This included the series Animal Patterns, in which animals from London Zoo were brought into a studio. Though, he was dissatisfied with the format of these shows, for taking animals out of their natural habitat and potentially making them uncomfortable. 

In 1954 Attenborough attempted to rectify this through Zoo Quest, where he earned his first main presenter credit. The series followed David with London Zoo staff, capturing animals for their collection, filmed in combination at the zoo and in the wild. While these practices obviously wouldn’t be accepted today, the show’s intimate yet respectfully distant approach to filming wildlife established this new genre, redefining the standards for nature documentaries. The series’s influence and appeal was so prominent it led to the establishment of the BBC Natural History Unit in 1957. In the following years, the content Attenborough produced and commissioned evolved and increased as he gained a higher role within the organisation. Though, by 1972, he ultimately decided to quit his job to pursue freelance broadcasting and begin working on a natural history epic. 

Life on Earth was released in 1979, redefining documentary filmmaking and cementing David Attenborough as a household name. The program explored the influence of evolution on nature around the globe, taking hours to shoot, using advanced and unique filming techniques to capture the action. This included camera operators often spending hours on end following specific subjects. By treating his subjects and research seriously, Attenborough and his production team gained the trust of many scientists and ecologists, who responded by allowing him to feature their subjects in his program exclusively. All in all, the show was a great success, gaining an estimated audience of more than 500 million and launching a recurring franchise known as The Life Collection. Across the collection he covered a wide variety of topics from animal behaviour at different stages of life (The Trials of Life), the natural history of Antarctica (Life in the Freezer) and even plants and their growth (The Private Life of Plants). 

Outside of this collection, he of course worked on an extensive list of natural history documentaries. This includes Planet Earth, the biggest nature documentary ever made and the first BBC wildlife series to be shot in HD in 2006. The sequel Planet Earth II subsequently came out ten years later, scored by none other than Hans Zimmer. He also narrated the BBC show Wildlife on One, which ran for 250 episodes over 28 years and popular documentary The Blue Planet and The Blue Planet II. Working with Netflix in 2019 he narrated the series Our Planet, and in 2020 began filming for his upcoming series, Green Planet.

Beyond his work in documentary filmmaking and presenting, he is a renown environmental activist, particularly regarding climate change and environmental emergencies. For sixty years he has advocated for issues including environmental sustainability and animal welfare across his platforms, both within and outside his documentaries. Even some of his early work such as The Living Planet dedicated time to sharing the impact of human society in the destruction of the environment and ways this could be addressed. Despite this, a few environmentalists criticised him for not further acknowledging this impact but instead portraying a false idealistic picture of nature.  

Over the years, his advocacy and responses have grown more prominent. For example, he has supported and organised a variety of campaigns and initiatives including work with The World Wide Fund for Nature, The Conservation Volunteers, Wildscreen, World Land Trust, Population Matters and many more. His documentaries State of the Planet in 2000 and Saving Planet Earth in 2007 also directly addressed these issues.

In 2020, the release of David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet on Netflix acted as a ‘witness statement’ for him to share his biggest concerns about the current state of the planet and the impacts this will have in future. This included an overview of his life and career and the observations he’s made about the environment and the attitudes of humans toward it. He also outlined some steps individuals, organisations and governments can take to address these issues and begin to solve them. These include promoting more plant-based diets and switching to reusable energy. On a larger scale, he advocates for universal healthcare, increased education for girls and bringing countries out of poverty, all as steps toward stabilising the growing population. While providing a bleak and honest presentation of the state of our Earth, holding us all accountable for our actions, he still provides a hopeful tone that has, and continues to inspire us to care about the world around us and work to protect and save it.

And perhaps this is why Sir David Attenborough has been able to hold our attention and interest over all this time. After working in the field for almost seventy years, his passion and enthusiasm for the world and sharing its wonders with us all could not be clearer. With his continual commitment to educating viewers and advocating for a brighter future for the planet, his influence and legacy will long be admired.