PROFILE/Natural treasures of Britain's Sir David Attenborough
London — SIR David Attenborough has the knack of bringing living things to life. Whether it's striding alongside an anteater or relaxing in the foliage at an informal gathering of gorillas, Sir David Attenborough -- naturalist, writer, and broadcaster -- emanates a sturdy sort of Dr. Doolittle enthusiasm which has made his television nature films into international classics of their kind.
Attenborough -- recently knighted by Queen Elizabeth II -- has been making wildlife films for 30 years. His two major series, ``Life on Earth'' and ``The Living Planet,'' brought the nature series to a new level of comprehensiveness and artistic presentation, making full advantage of innovative photographic techniques.
But despite the array of incredible creatures that Attenborough has brought to the screen, it is the Attenborough presence -- that of a good-natured professor who has managed to retain a child's enthusiasm for the natural world -- that remains the star attraction.
At the moment, Attenborough is hard at work on his latest venture, a series about man's relationship to the natural world during the development of civilization around the Mediterranean. The series is tentatively entitled ``The First Eden.''
An immensely energetic man, he shrugs off the practical difficulties of tromping around the planet in search of the evasive emu or the camera-shy cormorant, and insists that animals provide the perfect material for making television films that everyone can enjoy.
``They're easy things to make programs about because they have everything going for them,'' Sir David says. ``They are amazingly beautiful; they are amazingly unpredictable -- they're always doing things that you couldn't conceive that they would want to do, or be physically capable of doing -- and there's always something new. They are not about economics, trade unionism, politics, or war, which seem to dominate the screen everywhere else. If you make the programs well, a child of five will watch them and a zoology professor of 80 will watch them; they are multilayered programs.''
``Life on Earth,'' made in conjunction with the BBC Natural History Unit and first shown on British television in 1979, recounted the evolution of life forms from the simplest single-cell creatures to mammals. Advanced camera technology enabled viewers to see, for the first time, such phenomenon as the progress of a mole actually in its tunnel, and the minute movements of a fly, revealing how it manages to get lift on both the up and down movement of its wings.
The book which Attenborough wrote in conjunction with the series sold over a million copies. As a tribute to an on-screen presence which captivated even those who would normally roll their eyes slowly upwards at the mere thought of yet another nature film, Attenborough received a special award from the prestigious British Academy of Film and Television Arts for the best ``on-screen performance in a non-acting role.''
His more recent series, ``The Living Planet,'' which not long ago completed its first showing on American television, had as its theme the examination of the ecosystems that exist across the globe: from the grasslands, to the deserts, to the mountains, to the oceans, to the air. If ``Life on Earth'' explored the competition between species, ``The Living Planet'' examined their interdependence -- and within it Attenborough found more opportunity to give voice to his concerns about conservation.
``If these series appear to be different then it's because they're prepared in quite a different way from normal animal documentaries,'' Attenborough explains.
``The usual way to make a program about the natural world is to say, `Let's make a program about anteaters.' You then go and film them and see what they do and if something splendid happens, that's great.''
The organization and preparation for ``Life on Earth'' and `` The Living Planet'' was radically different.
For each part of the series, Attenborough wrote a detailed 30-40 page script before an inch of film was shot.
He decided exactly what he wanted to film and how he wanted it to be filmed, much as the script writer and director of a feature film visualizes precisely what he wants to do before he begins to shoot.
``You set it all down with extreme detail, even to the extent of whether you're going to pan left or pan right. You write down the exact words you're going to say in front of the camera. But this doesn't mean you can't be flexible once you get into the field,'' Attenborough says.
The result is a film with an artistic continuity and consistent delivery of peak moments of interest which would be impossible to achieve with the old-fashioned, rather hit-or-miss method of making nature films.
``Because you organize your material beforehand, it's possible to ask a question in the Himalayas and answer it in the Amazon,'' Attenborough remarks, and that's precisely what the viewer sees him doing, although the whole series is shot completely out of sequence.
Attenborough freely admits he can't take all the credit. ``It's a very well-organized team of which I am by no means the most important part. There's me, the cameraman, the recordist, the director, and so on. I write the script and then a researcher checks it. He or she then gets in touch with experts in the area.
``I work with and for the BBC Natural History Unit, which has no equivalent anywhere in the world. It has been going for 25 years; it has a large staff of specialists who have been making films and radio programs for all that time; it has contacts worldwide; it has a huge library; it has a library of recorded sounds, and it has a special laboratory of filming techniques.''
At a time when news of financial problems and consequent cuts at the BBC are an occupational hazard for British broadcasters, Attenborough explains that, thus far, the Natural History Unit is safe. ``At one stage, during `The Living Planet,' it was the most popular program the BBC put out. It brings financial profit and so doesn't cost the bureau anything. If the BBC stopped putting out these kinds of things, it would lose its raison d'^etre.''
It was the creative emphasis on education in his home while he was growing up that Attenborough believes helped him to become first a naturalist and then the broadcaster he is today.
``I was very fond of my parents; they were both great educationalists. My father was a lecturer and principal at a university and my mother had been a teacher. Being teachers and understanding education, they understood about bringing up children.
``I think one of the key things my father did to help me was to ask me questions. He knew very well that the way to teach children is not when they turn and say, `Look what I've found in the garden' to tell them `Well, actually that's extremely common and anybody who had the faintest idea would know that that was actually such and such.'
``Instead, my father would express a great deal of interest and send me away to find out more about whatever I'd found. He encouraged me to make my own discoveries.''
Sir David was not the only success story to come out of that educationally oriented family. His older brother Richard Attenborough was the first in the family to become well-known, initially as an actor on the West End stage in London, then in movies, and most recently as director and producer of the feature film ``Gandhi.''
Although Sir David emphasizes that he and his brother found their way in widely different fields that seldom overlap -- he is a scientist while his brother is an artist -- he observes that, at heart, they are both teachers: ``Teaching requires a degree of acting skill. The great teacher gives a performance before his class. He has that skill of holding attention and so although it may seem that my brother is not actually in the line of education, he absolutely is.''
Attenborough brings to his conversation in private, the same animation he displays on screen. Indeed, he finds it difficult to keep still, always looking over his shoulder out of the window, and changing position in his armchair.
His natural habitat is not among the teacups in London living rooms, but in the wild where he has spent at least three months a year filming for most of his adult life.
This is not to say he eschews the comforts of home. He has been married for 35 years to his wife Jane and they have two grown children, both of whom are teachers. He lives in a house laden with souvenirs of his travels, near his brother Richard and his family in the London suburb of Richmond.
Two decades ago David Attenborough had a taste of what life was like in the corporate jungle, when he was named Controller of BBC 2, the BBC arts and special interest channel.
He stayed seven years in the executive suite but decided that a life of meetings, administrative decisions, and paperwork was not for him. He resigned to pursue a degree in social anthropology but soon ended up back in program-making with the genesis of ``Life on Earth.''
He had successfully completed the sort of career shift contemplated by many in mid-life but attempted by relatively few.
``I couldn't go back to being a producer as I had been before: you can't go down the same ladder you came up. So I decided to become a performer.''
Though he is a consummate performer, the Attenborough image is backed by a substance which makes him the equal of those who have rescued broadcasting from its tendency toward the trivial: Kenneth Clark who was perhaps the first with his colossal series, ``Civilization,'' Jacob Bronowski with ``The Ascent of Man,'' and Carl Sagan with ``Cosmos.''
And being the well-known broadcaster he is has placed him well to be of great service to the conservation movement.
He is an international trustee of the World Wildlife Fund, vice-president of the Royal Society of Nature Conservation, a trustee of World Wildlife, U.K., and this autumn is helping to launch the British Wildlife Appeal, of which he is chairman.
``I always thought I would be an academic,'' Attenborough says, ``but I ended up in broadcasting.'' But he still considers himself to be a teacher, and his audience his class.
At this point, as at other intervals in the conversation, he becomes slightly stern and scientific:
``The business of communication and the satisfaction that comes from communication is as fundamental to human beings as the sex drive or anything else. We are compulsive communicators and we get an enormous thrill, passion, and excitement out of communicating. It is a quintessentially human activity.''
So of course Sir David enjoys being on television: ``I like to think that somebody saw something which I was responsible for bringing to the screen which he enjoyed.''
Still, he doesn't like being recognized, which is perhaps why he was wearing his glasses when he emerged from the London Underground, his preferred form of urban transportation.
But should anyone fail to notice the well-known face, they still might get a clue to Sir David Attenborough's obsession with wildlife: not everyone wears a duckbill platypus necktie.