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David Attenborough profile: the man who has brought wonder to millions

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David Attenborough has inspired generations to learn more about the natural world, bringing adventure and wonder, dinosaurs and polar bears, into the homes of millions of television viewers.

The reassuring, hushed and reverential whisper has narrated every journey, as he surveys almost every aspect of life on earth.

He sometimes seems barely able to contain his excitement as he watches incredible behaviour in the animal kingdom.

Born on May 8 1926, his interest in nature started as a child when he collected fossils. He went on to gain a natural sciences degree from Clare College, Cambridge after attending Wyggeston Grammar School for Boys in Leicester.

He served in the Royal Navy from 1947 to 1949 before joining the BBC but was initially discouraged from appearing on screen because his bosses thought his teeth were too big.

Despite their dental misgivings, he launched his Zoo Quest series in 1954.

Now one of the world’s most famous naturalists, he has proved to be as brave and imaginative as he is warm and conscientious.

He writes all his own scripts, and although he says he dislikes writing, he won a major literary prize for his book The Life of Birds before the series even screened.

A committed Londoner, he is equally at home in the wildest and most remote parts of the world.

His combination of charm and an ability to put across his wide knowledge in an attractive and compelling way has been much-imitated but rarely replicated.

David Attenborough in pursuit of a giant anteater in the Rupununi Savannah, British Guiana in 1955 (BBC)
David Attenborough in pursuit of a giant anteater in the Rupununi Savannah, British Guiana in 1955 (BBC)

Long before environmental issues were making daily headlines, he was a fervent eco campaigner both on and off screen.

His 2000 series State of the Planet and Are We Changing Planet Earth? in 2006 dealt heavily with environmental issues such as global warming.

As a younger man, he famously often travelled in economy class on flights, only accepting upgrades if they were extended to his crew as well.

When he turned 75, the BBC reportedly told him he should fly in business class.

He still frequently diverts praise about his work to the people behind the camera.

He has shown a lack of fear in alarming situations, including being attacked by an army of ants and an amorous capercaillie.

Having studied life in all its various forms for more than 70 years, his attitude to the natural world has changed.

When his career began, wild creatures were seen as curiosities to be tracked, captured and brought back to British zoos to be stared at, and Zoo Quest reinforced that Victorian notion.

In the series he would travel with staff from London Zoo to a tropical country to capture an animal for the zoo’s collection.

In his much later series Attenborough: 60 Years in the Wild, the transition to a more respectful attitude towards animals and the natural world was a dominant theme.

The brother of the actor Lord (Richard) Attenborough, who died in 2014, David’s pioneering efforts on screen have been matched by those off camera, as the man responsible for introducing colour television into Britain after he became controller of BBC Two in 1965.

Four years later, he was appointed director of programmes with editorial responsibility for both of the BBC’s TV networks. He introduced popular sports like snooker to TV as well as the hit series The Forsyte Saga.

But he could not spend too long behind a desk and even though he was tipped for the post of director general, he quit management in 1973 to resume programme-making, declaring: “I haven’t even seen the Galapagos Islands.”

A stream of spectacular series soon followed, starting with Eastwards with Attenborough, exploring South East Asia, and followed by The Tribal Eye which examined tribal art.

It is estimated that 500 million people worldwide watched his amazingly successful 13-part series Life on Earth, which was regarded as the most ambitious series ever produced by the BBC Natural History Unit.

Five years later came the sequel The Living Planet in 1984 followed by the final part of this trilogy, The Trials of Life.

David also wrote and presented two shorter series, The First Eden on the long history of mankind’s relationship with the natural world in the lands around the Mediterranean, and Lost Worlds, Vanished Lives, about fossils.

In 1993 he presented the spectacular Life in the Freezer, which was a celebration of Antarctica, and two years later the epic The Private Life of Plants.

It was in 1996 that he fulfilled a lifelong ambition to make a special film about the elusive birds of paradise, entitled, appropriately, Attenborough in Paradise.

In 1997, he narrated the award-winning Wildlife Specials, to mark 40 years of the BBC Natural History Unit, and the following year he completed an epic, 10-part series for the BBC, The Life of Birds.

In 2001 he narrated The Blue Planet, followed by The Life of Mammals in 2002.

Sir David Attenborough

Life in the Undergrowth came in 2005, followed by the groundbreaking Planet Earth in 2006, a series five years in the making, the most expensive nature documentary series ever commissioned by the BBC, and the first to be filmed in high definition.

Life in Cold Blood followed in 2008, while Frozen Planet arrived in 2011, and in 2013 he brought the six-part series Africa to our screens.

Even as he approached his 90th year, David continued at a prodigious pace, bringing more about the wonders of planet Earth to the masses.

Earlier this year he returned to the Great Barrier Reef for a three-part series and he told the story of the fossil discovery and reconstruction in Argentina of the largest known dinosaur, a new species of titanosaur, in Attenborough And The Giant Dinosaur.

His programmes have earned him awards from all over the world. In April, 2005, he was awarded the Order of Merit by the Queen, in recognition of exceptional distinction in the arts, sciences and other areas.

He was knighted in 1985. Over the years he has received numerous honorary degrees and a number of prestigious awards, including Fellowship of the Royal Society.

He is a trustee of the British Museum, and the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and president of the Royal Society for Nature Conservation.

In 1950 he married Jane Elizabeth Ebsworth Oriel, who died in 1997, and the couple had a son and a daughter.

David Attenborough Crick & Watson’s DNA replica model (BBC)
David Attenborough Crick & Watson’s DNA replica model (BBC)

Having made shows for black and white TV, colour TV, HD and 3D, Sir David travels a little less now, but shows no signs of stopping.

He has been confirmed as the presenter of Planet Earth 2, a series of six one-hour natural history programmes that will air later this year.

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