In our age of flash celebrity, reality TV and short attention spans, finding enduring and honourable role models can be like trying to find a needle in a haystack. Readers may be familiar with our Golden Age campaign to bring back some of the wonderful things from days gone by, as well as our slight obsession to big it up for utterly inspiring characters that live among us now (like Aaron Biber and Iris Apfel). When this moves from slight obsession to major monkey, is when it comes to Sir David Attenborough.
Here is a man who has done a couple of things with his life. He joined television in 1952 when “everyone did everything”, so he has performed roles including starring, producing, directing and sewing (yes, you read that right), and everything in between. Famously, he has led dozens of successful documentary series over the years – from Life (1979 – 2007) to The Blue Planet (2005) to Planet Earth (2006), the biggest nature documentary ever made for television, and numerous other magical moments. Not to mention his many environmental campaigns. In my journey from childhood to adulthood, he has been a figure that represents adventure, new frontiers, human curiosity and the wonders that exist all around us.
What has pushed him into the forefront of my mind once again is his phenomenal new series for BBC Television, Frozen Planet (those in the UK can currently watch it on the BBC iPlayer and in Australia it’s airing on the Nine Network). This series unveils the wonders and seasonal fluctuations of the Arctic and Antarctic – from the incredible transformation of the landscape across the course of one year, to the individual struggles for survival of the species that manage to inhabit the poles. At 84 years of age, David Attenborough personally visited these extreme polar regions for the making of the show, making him the oldest person ever to visit the North Pole. While you might think the dangers are obvious, the brilliant “frozen frame” sections at the end of each episode reveal some of the technical and logistical nightmares the expedition crew encountered.
Frozen Planet contains genuinely fascinating subject matter, beyond a normal documentary. It is a privilege to view sights that humans have never seen before and, as the BBC rightly states, we may never see again: the hunting tactics of the killer whales, the mischievous behaviour of the Adelie penguins when building nests for their females and the 13-year transformation of the wooly bear caterpillar. If you’re one for cute animals and their even cuter babies, this show has that attraction wrapped up too (is there anything more adorable than a polar bear cub?).
The UK viewer numbers jumping from 6.8 million for the first episode to almost 8 million for the second gives you some idea of the Frozen Planet hysteria rightfully sweeping parts of the planet. But would it be so were the one-and-only D.A. not leading the charge? I think not.
Sir David’s appearance on the long-running BBC Radio programme Desert Island Discs (this episode first broadcast in December 1998) is a must-hear if you want some further insight into the man behind the documentary. He details the music that has accompanied him on his travels and during his life, and the tracks that he would take to a desert island should he be stranded (this is the concept of the programme), and in doing so reveals nuggets about his life, beliefs and journey.
So make sure you tune into this latest epic tale and then get out there and explore the natural environment around you, whether that’s foraging in your local park, picnicking in the garden or committing to do a big trek some time in the future. As in the words of our modern hero:
“An understanding of the natural world and what’s in it is a source of not only great curiosity but great fulfillment.” David Attenborough