Colombo Telegraph

Celebrating The Diversity Of Our Planet: Doyen Of Nature-TV Is 90 Not Out

By Kumar David

Prof. Kumar David

It takes mastery and achievement to become an icon. In broadcasting in English (the one international language I am fluent in) there are a few. Walter Cronkite (1916-2009), CBS News anchor in the 1960s and 1970s, was called “the most trusted man in America” because he took responsibility for what he said – he, not CBS made decisions at a time of Vietnam-era lies in American officialdom and media. Then there was “Letter from America” by Alistair Cooke which ran from 1946 to 2004 (the longest running speech radio programme in history) on BBC Home Service, Radio 4 and the World Service. It was a 15 minute letter he read on a topical issue, sometimes poignant, sometimes humorous always informative. There were nearly 2900 letters which stopped less than a month before Cooke died at 95. It seems that one must be a nonagenarian to be certified as an institution. David Attenborough made it on 8 March 2016; Queen Elizabeth crossed the touchline on 21 April.

Attenborough, the world’s most influential figure in nature broadcasting, visited Lanka before his January 2003 documentary where he mentions the island (I am not sure of dates and he may have come again after the tsunami), but one thing to vouch for is that not much has changed in the last 10 million years. Wikipedia has this gem: “In Sri Lanka he spent time with a troop of toque macaques – one of the most studied groups of monkeys in the world. It has been discovered that the creatures are born into a class system in which position brings privileges”! It has also been observed that the servile classes squirm for favours before the ruling monkeys.

To commemorate his 90th birthday the BBC is releasing an app that will feature more than 1,000 clips of his work studying the natural world. The Story of Life app, which will be available free worldwide, will include clips from his earliest work Zoo Quest, through Planet Earth, to Frozen Planet. We will discover hundreds of animals and environments and the man himself thinks: “Knowing and understanding the natural world is one of the greatest gifts that humans can possess. If we lose our connection with nature, we lose ourselves”.

Conservation and environmentalism, not evangelism

Attenborough’s ability to share his enthusiasm and love of wildlife with his audience has popularised conservation. Though he is not confident of how much of the world’s wild places, forest cover and exotic species will be left in fifty years, the power of his images and narration builds positive vibes all over the world. “The future of life on earth depends on our ability to take action. Many individuals are doing what they can, but real success can only come if there’s a change in our societies and our economics and in our politics. I’ve been lucky in my lifetime to see some of the greatest spectacles that the natural world has to offer. Surely we have a responsibility to leave for future generations a planet that is healthy and inhabitable by all species”.

Ninety and still not out of the woods

He is an agnostic who says: “It never really occurred to me to believe in God”. He opposes creationism and ‘intelligent design theories’ and in 2002 with leading clerics and scientists opposed their inclusion in the UK school curriculum. They called for “creationism to be banned from school science curricula and for evolution to be taught widely”. In a programme on Darwin he flatly declared “Evolution is as solid a historical fact as you could conceive. What is a theory is whether natural selection is the sole mechanism”. Sexual selection of course was known to Darwin, the full title of whose second great opus was The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex. It is interesting that recent work has shown that sexual preference for blue eyes, blond hair and tallness, and for lactose tolerance motivated by the economic benefits of animal husbandry, have aided the propagation of these traits in Europe in the last 10,000 years, an evolutionary blink of an eye.

A bird in the hand and more in the bush

For a long time he was reticent on climate change because of a BBC obligation and culture that deters partisan politics and he was criticised for not speaking up. But now he is outspoken; he called Bush the “world’s top environmental villain”. During the recent Paris global climate conference he dominated the airwaves for a day asserting unequivocally on Radio 4 “the signs are absolutely clear that the world is warming”. He also linked environmental damage and extinction of species to human overpopulation and warming caused by human activity.

But Attenborough is a scientist not an evangelical; the latter is a subgenus of homo-sapiens that blares out ideological dictums with little regard for how to reach the goalpost. When asked whether China should forthwith stop all new coal fired power stations, he scoffed. He was pleased with China’s commitment to reduce coal over time and noted reductions already underway. Coal power plans for the next 10 years have been cut from 250 GW to 150 GW – partly due to the economic slowdown but the need to slash polluting emissions is the main motive. In recent weeks I have been embroiled in a dispute with a raft of Lankan renewable energy evangelicals, some are engineers amnesic to a goodly part of their basic training, others simpleton amateurs to electricity supply systems who sport letters behind their names in unrelated disciplines. Evangelicals demand instant gratification of an itch for an immediate coal-less future; serious people on the other hand aim for credible doable reduction and planned eventual elimination of polluting energy forms. Attenborough is a classy intellectual; his approach and attitude has nothing in common with evangelicals gibbering in tongues.

Life and times

David’s father Fredrick was a Leicester University College academic, his mother Mary a radical who supported the Republican cause in Spain. From young days David was drawn to creepy-crawlies, fossils and stones; understandably he read natural history at Cambridge. His application to the BBC was first rejected but thankfully the broadcaster had second thoughts and hired him in 1952. In the early 1960s he left to enroll as a postgraduate in social anthropology at LSE but quit and took over as Controller of BBC-2 in 1965. Since then he has been the quintessential BBC man, narrating countless programmes and presenting unforgettable series: Life on Earth (1979), Living Planet (1984), Trials of Life (1990), Life in the Freezer (Antarctica; 1993), Private Life of Plants (1995), Life of Birds (1998), Life of Mammals (2002), Life in the Undergrowth (2005) and Life in Cold Blood (2007). Work on The Hunt for BBC Earth is ongoing. He has pioneered ground breaking presentation and filming techniques but it his distinctive voice that makes him synonymous with wildlife broadcasting.

The appeal of his voice has been called poetic, enticing and “containing a wealth of knowledge, curiosity and humour”. The maestro himself says “Narration is like verbal carpentry – it’s making a sentence the right length and no longer or no shorter“. I am familiar with another master carpenter, quite unlike this cautious Englishman. Colvin’s sentences were a paragraph long, a semicolon or two thrown in, a sub clause in parenthesis, a gigantic gesture, and then all is brought to a logically complete and grammatically perfect finale. Two carpenters, each master of his trade.

I reproduce the quote in full because people speak and write so badly these day; verbose, repetitive and devoid of content.

“Actually, it’s like verbal carpentry – it’s making a sentence the right length and no longer or no shorter, and getting rid of unnecessary adjectives and similes – that sort of thing. I’m relieved if it doesn’t come out as being studied; if it comes out as if I’m speaking normally. Of course, you know that’s not really how people speak”.

His local admirers and students of the maestro will, I am sure, join me (quite selfishly) in wishing Sir David Attenborough many more years of happy broadcasting.

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