In praise of David Attenborough

OK — hands up how many of you thought that by ‘storytellers’ I meant fiction novelists? That would be a sorely deficient definition of the various ways we weave together meaningful narratives about our world. 

Meerkats at Taronga Zoo (April 2008)

Meerkats at Taronga Zoo (April 2008)

Other than the Lord Jesus, David Attenborough is as close as I get to a hero. While other children of my generation watched Disney movies on repeat, Ed and I watched taped copies (on Beta) of Life on Earth and Trials of Life. This is a man so committed to narrative that he recounts how, while producing The Living Planet (1)

Together we had taken the project through all its stages — debating the shape of initial scripts, selecting the species to use as examples and then zig-zagging in separate groups around the world … Sometimes I came back having been filmed speaking the first half of a sentence that fitted neatly on to a second half that we had filmed on another continent two years earlier.

One of the things I’ve always found delightful is how easily my emotions are manipulated by the way he tells the story. For example, when the film focusses on a mother cheetah, and Sir David tells me how her cubs will die if they don’t eat soon, I cheer on the cheetah in the hunt: “Catch the wildebeest — go cheetah go!” The urgency is dire. If the cheetah embarks on the chase and doesn’t catch anything, she will have expended so much precious energy that each successive hunt becomes more difficult. 

However, Sir David can tell me the other side of the story to equal effect. Using almost the exact same footage, he tells me about the way the wildebeest cluster together to protect the weak, the music soars and I find myself chanting at the television: “Run, wildebeest, run!”

(1) Life on Air, David Attenborough 2002, BBC Books London, p294.


  1. I can’t stand him. Show us your anthropomorphism, David. It severely grates on me how he provokes compassion in us for the poor, sodden little penguins in Life in the Freezer. They’re penguins. It’s normal.

  2. I grew up on the David Attenborough programs — mostly live telecast, rather than taped, so I’m showing my age here. He is very good with narrative, as you say. As for Life in the Freezer and the other later programs: I’ve missed these, and can’t really comment.

  3. Ben – I’m the first to admit he’s not perfect! I’m particularly frustrated by the way he makes it sound like creatures choose to evolve. And when he talks about God it breaks my heart. But I’m not sure it’s a bad thing that he provokes compassion in us for creatures… I think it’s a pretty fine line between wonder and compassion, and I’m glad he taught me to marvel at creation.

    Michael – I think I’ve watched about 1 Seinfeld episode in my entire life, which definitely makes me GenY rather than an Xer! I would have quoted some dialogue from the episode if I’d known it existed (is it in an episode or from his stand-up?) — Seinfeld probably made the point in a much more entertaining fashion and I’m sure I could have used that…

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