No other individual is held in such awe by as broad a group of people as Sir David Attenborough. On seeing him, one eloquent friend felt he must say something, and so he bounded up, blurted out “Thank you”, then scarpered. I have seen people held in high regard reduced to gibbering fan-kids on finding themselves in the same room as him. After 60 years in broadcasting, a career that has included commissioning Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation and Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man, as well as astounding investigations into the varieties of life on this planet, he continues to work every day of the year with the occasional exception of Christmas Day.
The landmark series Life on Earth was my introduction to the theory of evolution and the work of Charles Darwin, a man who increasingly fascinates me the older I become. The writings of Darwin convey a mind restlessly attempting to understand the life he sees before him and driven to explain why it seems to be as it is. David Attenborough has allowed us to stay in our armchair and dwell on the complexity of living things on this small but densely populated planet. Contemplating the seeming rarity of life in the known universe, he once described the earth as “a meadow in the sky”.
Whenever the case against television is brought up, the work of Attenborough is called by the defence. In the television world, where so much is required to be fake, from the smiles to the feigned interest of the interviewer, Attenborough conveys passion, a wish to communicate not defined by pay packet or celebrity. He is not making a film about tribal art or bowerbirds or environmental crisis because it’s a job; he is doing it to share ideas, convey wonder and to learn for himself. This is not a tired academic going through the rigmarole of explaining life one more time; this is someone able to capture the excitement of the adventure because he is still on it. Where cynicism and ironic distance can seem the way of the 21st century, here is an unashamed enthusiast. As he leaned forward during this interview and told us of seeing the hasty and flamboyant mating ritual of a hummingbird slowed down so each intricate detail could be examined, he reminded me that it is criminal to feel bored in a world so rich.
Of walking in the Brazilian jungle, Darwin wrote: “The delight one experiences in such times bewilders the mind. If the eye attempts to follow the flight of a gaudy butterfly, it is arrested by some strange tree or fruit; if watching an insect, one forgets it in the stranger flower it is crawling over … The mind is a chaos of delight …” David Attenborough has helped stimulate minds into that state of chaotic delight.