As the preeminent godfather of the contemporary television nature documentary, who not only carved out an audience niche for such programs but laid down the basic structural framework for much of the current science material on The Discovery Channel, The Learning Channel, and PBS, Sir David Attenborough has built much of his career around the conviction that the natural world is a beautiful and complex place, and the admonition that humankind is in danger of being severed from its natural environs by technology and civilization. Attenborough perceives it as his role to reunite the two spheres via filmmaking, and spent the preponderance of his life doing so -- with limitless success.
Born May 8, 1926, in Isleworth, England -- as the son of the head of University College in Leicester; the younger brother of soon-to-be stage and cinema actor, film director, and film producer Lord Richard Attenborough; and the older brother of John Attenborough (read: middle child) -- David Attenborough first cultivated his fascination with nature as a young man via reptile and bird-watching trips to the local marshes and fields. Attenborough won an open scholarship to the coveted natural science tripos at Cambridge, then attended Clare College as a young man, and after graduation signed on to work full time for a publisher of educational materials. In the early '50s, he completed a training program at the then-fledgling BBC television network, where he worked his way, over the course of a decade, up through positions as writer, editor, director, producer, and ultimately controller of BBC-2 in the early '60s. From the beginning, Attenborough had to forge his own path. Nature programs were virtually nonexistent, so that in his early years, the young tyro came closest to his true passion with contributions to the BBC quiz show Animal, Vegetable, Mineral (1952-1953), not exactly anyone's idea of a groundbreaking nature documentary. More pointedly, Attenborough later became involved with Zoo Quest -- a program that carried Attenborough and his crew to exotic reaches of the world and watched, cameras rolling, as London Zoo personnel collected species for that institution. One of Attenborough's running complaints in the early years of British television centered around the studio format for presenting animals -- wherein exotic specimens were dragged out in front of studio lights on talk programs (much as Johnny Carson would do later in his career), presumably after being tossed into a sack or a crate "in the middle of the night." Noting the animals' tendencies to behave oddly in this unfamiliar environment, Attenborough championed new cinematographic technologies that enabled nature documentarians to film animals, unobtrusively, in their natural habitats -- a current that became increasingly widespread and commonplace as the years passed.