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Sir David Attenborough - A wonderful story, well told.
on 9 January 2011
What can you say about the great man? I have been listening to "Life on Air" in the car throughout the Christmas period on a variety of long journeys and having Sir David Attenborough as your travelling companion is frankly as good as it gets since the world is a better place with this man around. Some reviewers have pointed out that with 16 CDs this is somewhat of a labour of love and could be viewed as a bit of a slog, that said I have found myself rationing this wonderful set of audio memoirs and trying to savour its narrative by treating it as a guilty pleasure.
On reflection the the part of the audio book I enjoyed the most was Attenborough's account of the early days of the BBC, how he stumbled into a job in the "Talks dept of Auntie". Its difficult now to visualise those early days of TV and quite how haphazard and prone to breakdown it was. The early deals at Alexander Palace would see programmes massively over run, a diet of home economics programmes shown in the afternoon "for women" and cameras so primitive that the heat from them would give you a suntan. Attenborough arrived at the right time in this embryo organisation despite his early failure as an interviewer when it was concluded by the feisty BBC executive Mary Adams that "his teeth were to big for television" but he was soon producing the programmes and I loved his hilarious reminiscences about the Sir Mortimer Wheeler and one of the first BBC quizes "Animal, Vegetable, Mineral"?. Indeed what this book reveals fully is that Attenborough is not only the BBCs greatest asset and a national treasure but someone who in addition is a brilliant raconteur and also has a very masterful line in dry and jocular humour. The anecdotes littered throughout this book are too numerous to quote here and would spoil Attenborough's telling if put into a review. Suffice it to say that "Life on Air" does contain real laugh out loud moments so be careful if listening in the car since you should of course should be concentrating on the road and avoiding the potholes!
Inevitably as the world's leading Natural History programme maker a fair old slice of the book deals with the establishment of the BBC Natural history unit in Bristol during 1957 and of course those sprawling and magisterial trilogy and landmark series namely 1979's "Life on earth", 1984's The Living Planet" and 1990's "The Trials of Life". They have been preceded by even greater glories in subsequent years with the epic "Blue Planet" and other great works of TV. They have also been accompanied by Attenborough becoming more outspoken on issues like climate change, vigorous championing of Darwin's evolutionary theory and of course linking back to one of his primary sources for programmes openly supporting the WWF's campaign to have 22 million hectares of Borneo's rainforest designated a protected area. He also described former President George W Bush as the worlds foremost "environmental villain" proving again another skill in political judgement.
I wrote a review in 2009 of Attenborough's series "Life" which I recently re-watched in stunning Blu Ray quality. At the end of that review I concluded that "this is the only programme that my children will actively leave various X Boxes and Play stations to sit down and watch. They will also not complain if it clashes with some celebrity nonsense or trivia on another channel. Attenborough's programmes challenge, stimulate, provoke and most importantly make you think. They are also populist, intelligent, hugely watchable and thus viewed by millions across the the world. He has done broadcasting a massive service and we all owe him the most profound debt". After listening to the wonderful "Life on air" it gives me great pleasure to restate this judgement.