Sir David Attenborough. The ‘Sir’ doesn’t really seem to be sufficient, does it? When one thinks of all the bankers and hedge fund managers who have bunged a few grand the way of one political party or another and ended up with a knighthood, it feels like there should be something more for our Dave. Few people can have had as much of an impact on public life as him. Even a peerage wouldn’t really do it. I’d recommend a Dukedom. Duke of the Galapagos Islands (although I imagine Ecuador may have something to say about that…)
Anyway, the Duke’s latest (and – dare one say it – last?) film has just been released on Netflix. David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet is his witness statement for the natural world, described as “a powerful first-hand account of humanity’s impact on nature and a message of hope for future generations.”
To mark this auspicious occasion, we take a look at the most memorable moments from Attenborough’s glittering 68-year television career. Sit back, relax, and tune into the mellifluous tones of the great man as he takes us on a tour of just a handful of the extraordinary wonders of the natural world. Thank you, your grace.
Christmas Island Crabs – The Trials of Life
One of the prerequisites of being a TV naturalist is that you must not be freaked out by animals. That’s easy enough when you’re handling a baby orangutan or a cuddly sloth, but less straightforward when you are on a beach that is swarming with tens of millions of crabs. True pro that he is, in this extraordinary footage David Attenborough appears entirely unruffled by the fact that he is about to be devoured alive by the sheer weight of numbers of these confounded crustaceans, and keeps on calmly addressing the camera even as one starts to walk up his leg.
Criminal Penguin – Frozen Planet
Although our hero does not appear in this sequence, it perfectly showcases what an absolute master of narration he has become over the years. This rather marvellous tale, about a penguin stealing stones from another penguin, is enhanced by an absolutely pitch-perfect narration from Attenborough. The deeply portentous and sinister inflection he gives to the words “a life of crime” is a hoot. All of this is aided, of course, by the fact that penguins are the most ridiculous creatures on earth.
Barnacle Gosling takes flight(-ish) – Life Story
Just as David Attenborough’s documentaries have the ability to make us laugh, they can also pretty much break our hearts (just ask my still-traumatised nine-year-old daughter after watching the demise of a baby flamingo). The sequence where tiny, cute, fluffy barnacle goslings hurl themselves off high rock ledges in pursuit of their parents is one of the best nature sequences ever shot, but also one of the most devastating. Clear the grandchildren out of the room before watching.
That Gorilla sequence – Life on Earth
Well, what did you expect? We can’t not have it just because it’s obvious. It’s famous for a reason. Not least of which is the unforgettable line “There is more meaning and mutual understanding in exchanging a glance with a gorilla than any other animal I know.” And the reason why David Attenborough is grimacing and giggling in the sequence? Two baby gorillas were removing his shoes at the time. Here, he recalls the origins of the series with Kirsty Young on the occasion of his 90th birthday, before we are treated to that magical, familiar footage.
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David makes a friend – Zoo Quest for a Dragon
He’s been such a feature on our screens in his, ah, mature years, it’s easy to believe that David Attenborough appeared direct from the womb as a 65-year-old naturalist. But this early footage, shot in 1956, sees a 29-year-old Attenborough befriending Charlie, a baby Orangutan. Attenborough doesn’t just look different, he sounds almost unrecognisable, with a deeply plummy 1950s BBC voice. But it’s a joyous piece of film, featuring an undeniably cute and huggable youngster. And Charlie the Orangutan.
Baby rhino – Africa
If you liked Charlie, the chances are you’ll absolutely love Nicki. Nicki was a blind baby rhino who wandered into shot at the end of a day’s filming on a rhino sanctuary in Kenya. In an unforgettable sequence, Attenborough got down on his hands and knees and returned Nicki’s inquisitive squeaks with similar sounds of his own. The result is a deeply touching encounter that makes you (a) want to watch more Attenborough (advisable) and (b) get a baby rhino as a house pet (less advisable).
Iguana v Racer Snakes, Planet Earth II
Right, enough of all this namby-pamby, cutesy nonsense. Prepare yourself for arguably the most sinister and terrifying natural history sequence ever committed to celluloid. Even now, I have to watch the footage of a baby iguana attempting to escape the clutches of an army of slithering reptiles while clutching a cushion, my toes curled up in agony. Again, this is a masterclass in narration, with Attenborough adopting a less-is-more approach, and allowing the incredible pictures to speak for themselves.
Meeting the Queen – The Queen’s Green Planet
In 2018 the BBC made a documentary, The Queen’s Green Planet, about the Queen's Commonwealth Canopy, a scheme to create a global network of protected forests in each of the 53 Commonwealth countries. This footage here, of the monarch and Sir David strolling around Buckingham Palace gardens looking at the trees, is quietly affecting. Just two nonagenarians, born 17 days apart in 1926, having a walk and a chat.
Lonesome George – Galapagos 3D
The Queen isn’t the only venerable celebrity whose meeting with Attenborough makes our list. In his 2013 series Galapagos 3D, Sir David got to spend half an hour with what he called “the rarest living animal in all the world.” Lonesome George was the last living giant Pinta tortoise, discovered in the 1970s when his kind was considered extinct. A creature probably even more ancient than Attenborough himself, he died only a fortnight after this clip was filmed, and his kind was lost forever.
The lyrebird chainsaw - The Life of Birds
There is no such thing as a boring animal. Any Attenborough devotee will tell you that his television programmes about insects or fish are every bit as riveting as the ones about lions or Komodo dragons or cuddly monkeys. But perhaps his best ever piece of film comes from an unlikely source – a bird. The Lyre bird woos its mate by mimicking the calls of other birds. But it also mimics the everyday sounds it hears in the jungle. In this incredible sequence, the Lyre bird recreates, to absolute perfection, the noise of an electric camera, a car alarm, and a chainsaw. Quite simply breath-taking.