David delivers NHU treat

Mike Gunton and David Attenborough Mike Gunton shares a laugh with David Attenborough at staff event

Christmas came early for the Natural History Unit when David Attenborough took part in an exclusive staff event.

Every seat was taken in the large Bristol church hall as the wildlife programme makers strained to catch a glimpse of the man who inspired so many of their careers.

The presenter and biologist, who was interviewed by creative director Mike Gunton, reflected on his 60 years in television that began - somewhat ignominiously - with a failure to land an interview for a radio producer job.

David Attenborough recording for Zoo Quest in central highlands of New Guinea Attenborough records for Zoo Quest among tribesmen in New Guinea

But two weeks after the rejection he received a letter from the BBC referring to 'this new thing we're starting' and asking 'can we persuade you to join us?'.

He became one of a team of five producers who made all tv non-fiction output - anything from political broadcasts to quizzes as well as one, rather primitive, natural history show.

London Zoo expedition

A keeper from London Zoo would bring in various creatures, empty them from his dark bag onto a table topped with a door mat and share observations about their behaviour, explained Attenborough, admitting it wasn't quite to his taste.

'It made good television because it was live,' he said, but it 'made animals look like oddballs'.

When he caught wind of a London Zoo expedition to west Africa to collect new animals, he felt it would be 'just the thing… I could take a camera and film the chap from the zoo'.

First he had to convince his bosses to let him shoot on 16mm - 'anathema' to the BBC at that time which favoured the more filmic 35mm. 'I knew we couldn't use that,' said Attenborough. 'We couldn't carry it.'

He gained permission as an 'exception', but had to find his own cameraman. 'No BBC cameraman would touch it.'

Zoo Quest was first broadcast in 1954, with Attenborough forced to go in front of the camera from programme two when the 'chap from the zoo' became ill. He was more an observer than a presenter, though, being unable to talk to camera due to the lack of synchronous sound.

David Attenborough on location for Life on Earth in 1979 1979's Life on Earth - the first of Attenborough's landmark series - told natural history's oldest story

It wasn't long, though, before his inimitable style - up close and personal with the animals and often off-script - shone through, as a series of clips illustrated.

Hit by a bat

A trip to Borneo saw him speak to camera from inside a bat cave, calmly assuring viewers that the bats' expert navigational skills meant there was 'no danger whatsoever' of being hit ('within two seconds of turning off the camera, a bat hit me straight in the face').

In Nigeria, he slithered into the ingenious air conditioning system beneath a huge termite mound - five tons of earth suspended on a narrow pillar - and then gamely agreed to a second take due to a sound problem.

While in Antarctica he had to flee an aggressive four ton elephant seal that appears to lunge for him. Actually, he admitted, it was the arrival of a rival seal that provoked the attack.

Most famously, he frolicked with a gang of gorillas in the first of his signature landmark series, Life on Earth.

'I'd written in the script that I wanted a sequence where we could explain about the opposable thumb… the key to tool-making,' he explained. He had chimps in mind, but the producer was fixed on a backdrop of Dian Fossey's gorillas in Rwanda.

Attenborough edged into the foreground of the picture, the gorillas ten metres or so behind, and prepared to wax lyrical on the opposable thumb.

'Suddenly I felt a great finger on my head,' he recalled. 'I turned around and there was a female gorilla - she had her hand up on top of my head and was looking deep into my eyes.'

Two young-uns, meanwhile, busied themselves untying his shoelaces.

'It wasn't in the least bit frightening,' insisted the naturalist. 'You knew that this amazing female was nothing but benevolent.

'I don't know what I thought, but one of the things I didn't think was that this was the time to talk about the opposable thumb.'

David Attenborough with baby black rhino for Africa in 2012 The presenter contemplates the future - both for this three month old blind black rhino and for the planet
Oldest story

Life on Earth came about as Attenborough's foray into senior management came to a close.

As controller of BBC Two he had introduced 'a new format, a new genre' in the 13 part examination of fine art, Civilisation. 'To everyone's surprise it was a huge success,' he said. 'But any mug could see that THE subject that was suitable for these one hour programmes would be natural history.

'I was terrified someone was going to suggest it to me… and I wouldn't have been able to say no.'

Instead, he left administration and returned to programme making, tackling natural history's first and longest - at 450 million years old - tale. 'It had a very strong narrative… it was a natural for tv.'

He went on to travel the globe, telling other stories in The Living Planet, Trials of Life and the Life series. But where, asked one member of staff, did he still want to go?

'The central Gobi desert - it's got fabulous fossils but damn all animals,' quipped the fossil collector. 'I've seen as many jungles as I need.'

And the future?
David Attenborough Attenborough feels the love as he swaps compliments with NHU staff

Now in his ninth decade, he's showing few signs of letting up. He's already been to the north and south pole - within the space of six weeks - as well as to Africa for BBC One.

In both, he conveyed his wider environmental fears - something he'd been wary of doing in the past.

'You can't talk about a rise in temperatures and global climate change unless you're absolutely certain,' he explained, 'and I acknowledge that I kept my private convictions to myself on this score until such a time as it felt to me that it was absolutely, overwhelmingly true.

'We have to talk about it,' he added. 'We would be culpable if we didn't.'

Asked about the future for natural history programmes, he had this thought.

'More and more people will be watching in their own ways and more and more people will be making their own programmes… Whatever we do that's going to happen.

'What I hope we do is go on making the really high quality natural history programmes that can only be made by professionals - you lot. You have great skills, you have great artistry, you have great storytelling abilities.'

The programme makers returned the compliment, rising as one to applaud the most celebrated natural history programme maker of them all.


BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.