A perfect presenter for A Perfect Planet

Highlights 05 February 2021

Sir David Attenborough has become our “protect at all costs” nature presenter – this is how he got there

“This year, perhaps more than ever, people are finding comfort and solace in the natural world. Whilst we may not be able to travel, we can take a few moments to enjoy our wonderful and diverse planet in this incredible footage,” says one of the most trusted voices in television, Sir David Attenborough. He was introducing the new BBC documentary series, A Perfect Planet, which is coming to BBC Earth (DStv 184) exclusively on DStv Premium on Sunday, 14 February, at 16:00.

This 6-episode series is an overview of how 4 essential systems – weather, ocean currents, solar energy and volcanoes – drive, shape and support all life on Earth. The 5th episode focuses on the human impact on the natural world, and how we can restore its balance. Four years in the making, A Perfect Planet features beautifully shot scenes of animals and nature, backed up with natural history and earth sciences, as explained by Sir David.

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It’s an instantly recognisable voice, thanks to 94-year-old Sir David Attenborough’s 67 years on screen, talking to us about the beauties and wonders of our natural world. It’s gentle, authoritative, filled with quiet awe, yet never sensationalist.

“If I’m a household name, it’s only because I’ve been doing it forever and fairly regularly. I keep popping up, and that’s the only reason. We know a lot about the psychology of people. If you keep hearing a particular voice, it’s bound to mean something in your subconscious,” he insists.

To audiences though, Sir David represents integrity. On the Internet, he has become one of those rare, passionately adored, “protect at all costs” figures. But how did this junior fossil enthusiast, natural history lover and newt collector (for cash) grow to become a household name? Welcome to the life of Sir David Attenborough…

A Perfect match

Some actors become documentary presenters thanks to an enthusiasm for the subject, some because they have a desirable quality of voice – and no shame to them.

Sir David’s background, however, is authentic to the core. He studied zoology and geology at Clare College, Cambridge, on a scholarship and graduated with a degree in natural sciences in 1947.

“I thought I was going to be a palaeontologist originally. I loved fossils and I collected them as a kid. There wasn’t any television in 1944, and I thought I would be an oil geologist, which would get me to exciting places. I went to Cambridge and read zoology and geology and to my fury, mineralogy – a mind-bendingly, stupefyingly boring subject, but mainly because I was incompetent. I can’t think mathematically and I certainly can’t think in 3 dimensions,” he admits.

From there, Sir David went into compulsory national service in the Navy, just missing the tail of WWII. And after answering an advertisement in The Times newspaper, Sir David joined the BBC in 1952. “I got this letter on BBC notepaper saying: ‘We’ve got this funny thing going on in north London. It involves pictures’,” he reveals. For reference, the BBC’s television service began broadcasting in 1930 but was closed between 1939 and 1946 because of the war.

Meanwhile, South Africa only got TV in 1976.

Sir David’s very first programme as a producer in 1951 was titled Coelacanth, about the discovery of this “living fossil” fish in 1938. His first natural history series, The Pattern of Animals (1953), concerned animal camouflage, warning signals and courtship displays. And it was in 1954 that he first appeared on screen as a presenter in the 6-episode Zoo Quest series. “I feel almost guilty because I started when nobody wanted to do it. I didn’t have to compete. I just put up an idea, and they said if that’s what you want to do, go and do it. How on earth I would get started now, I have no idea,” he says.

While the young David Attenborough might have been on a solid footing in the natural world, he was flying by the seat of his pants as a TV presenter and producer in those days.

“When I started making natural history programmes with Zoo Quest (a series about finding and capturing animals on behalf of zoos) in 1954, we didn’t have the money and the long-focus lenses that would allow us to go to Africa and get a close-up of a bird in a tree. Not only that, the film was so insensitive that you couldn’t get enough exposure and the batteries you had to carry around to power your cameras were enormous and really held you down. So we became the first to shoot in 16mm and had to fight the head of BBC television film about it as he felt it represented an amateurish drop in standards,” he admits.

Even getting an up-close shot with an animal often meant catching hold of it and showing it to the camera – where modern camera technology allows something far less intrusive. But the shows were popular enough for the BBC to allow David to establish the Travel And Exploration unit in 1957. And he rose through the ranks to become BBC Director of Programmes in 1969, resigning from the position again in 1973 so he could focus on the far more enjoyable documentary-making.

In 1979, he wrote and presented Life On Earth, which took 3 years to make and featured ground-breaking footage of animal behaviour and a holistic view of the environment. An enormous investment of time and research, Life On Earth demonstrated the dedication to quality both behind the scenes and on-screen that would become the hallmark of his work at the BBC. It led to series like The Living Planet (1984), Life In The Freezer (1993), The Private Life Of Plants (1995) and more.

As a result, by the mid-1990s, when Sir David was looking for researchers for The Life of Birds (1998), his team received over 3 000 applications for the position of researcher. From there, more familiar titles followed. These are shows that, thanks to their in-depth, long-term research and supreme storytelling, are still enjoyable and hold up today. They include The Blue Planet and The Life of Mammals (2001), Planet Earth (2005), Life In Cold Blood (2008) Planet Earth II (2016), all the way to Seven Worlds, One Planet (2019).

“I think for a naturalist, you might say that my title for my career would be A Perfect Career. I’ve been fantastically lucky – it’s nothing to do with merit, but being there at the right time. Having spent all my life trotting around the world and getting other people to pay for it in order to see the most wonderful things you could ever wish to see… how could I not but say that was a perfect career? It was just incredibly fortunate,” says Sir David.

He adds, “I think the best commentary is almost the least commentary, and fortunately one of the ways in which natural history editors work is that they make the story vivid in images, and you can watch the story without any words at all. If you can see it in the picture, you shouldn’t spend your time saying, ‘This is a glorious sight!’ So by and large, I eschew adjectives and metaphors and high-flown language and just try and produce the facts that are required to make sense of the pictures.”

Get in the mood

In the run-up to A Perfect Planet, BBC Earth (DStv 184) is rebroadcasting the dazzling Seven Worlds, One Planet series, also narrated by Sir David Attenborough, which you can also see on the Catch Up service.

Read more Watch Seven Worlds, One Planet  Watch BBC Earth

Get a sneak peek

BBC Earth (DStv 184) will air an early look at A Perfect Planet at midnight on Sunday, 7 February, when it broadcasts the first episode of the season, Volcanos, on Catch Up.

The episode includes a behind-the-scenes section, which will take us inside how complex it can be to shoot animals out in the field, and all the ingenious ways that the camera crews and producers come up with to work around these issues.

The series itself launches on Sunday, 14 February, on BBC Earth (DStv 184) at 16:00

Watch A Perfect Planet S1 from Sunday, 14 February, on BBC Earth (DStv 184) at 16:00. The series is available on Catch Up.

Read about Catch Up

Watch and Win!

DStv, in association with BBC Earth, will be hosting a Watch & Win Competition offering viewers the chance to win A Perfect Planet book. To be eligible to enter, participants must watch BBC Earth (DStv channel 184) on Sundays at 16:00 or on Catch Up, then answer the questions posted weekly on this webpage.

BBC Earth is also giving one lucky couple the opportunity to experience the beauty of Tanzania! Simply sign up for DStv Rewards via the MyDStv app or the DStv website and enter the BBC Earth competition. Click here for more information.

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