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The Attenborough Collection: Working with Sir David

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Sandra Gorel Sandra Gorel | 15:33 UK time, Friday, 9 November 2012

If you had been in our office a few months ago you may have been slightly bewildered by the excitement that greeted our postman.

Never before has the delivery of a letter caused such a stir.

The letter he brought was swiftly passed round everyone and drew many admiring glances.

You would think we had never received a letter in a handwritten envelope before, and for most of us in a work capacity these days that is true.

But it wasn't a celebration of days gone by that caused this excitement, but that Sir David Attenborough was the writer.

Sir David Attenborough on the phone, not email in 1972

Sir David Attenborough on the phone, not email, in 1972

Sir David doesn't use email so working with him to develop BBC Four's collection David Attenborough - The Early Years involved the unique experience of receiving his letter at my office desk.

As the editor of BBC Four's Collections it's my role to find hidden gems in the BBC archive.

Programmes contained in these collections are permanently available to watch in full in BBC iPlayer as part of the BBC Four Collections. They never expire.

We've already launched four collections: Army, Talk, All American and London.

With Attenborough's Early Years, you'll see it's not just full length archive programmes, but also letters, internal memos and photographs which make up this unique collection.

So how did I go about selecting what to finally include?

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David meets a frill lizard in Quest Under Capricorn, Bush Walkabout from 1963

BBC archive programmes are searchable in an online database. You order DVD copies of everything that sounds promising and start viewing.

With a wealth of material to choose from, we arrived at a list of 30 programmes.

They range from 1955 to 1969 and beautifully illustrate Sir David's early career including his first explorations abroad and first time presenting live in a studio.

The earliest programme in the collection is Zoo Quest To West Africa.

It was during the making of this series that David stepped in front of the camera, thus starting a hugely prolific and successful broadcasting career.

It was quite a bumpy start.

As I read in his book Life On Air, David came across a note from a BBC executive at the time who said of him: "David Attenborough is intelligent and promising and may well be producer material, but he is not to be used again as an interviewer. His teeth are too big."

The collection also captures the evolution of natural history programming and filming practices.

These programmes are amongst the first to be predominantly set on location, which was a significant turning point in the filming of animals.

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David gets hands on with a python on Zoo Quest from 1956

As Sir David explains in a personal introduction that accompanies the programmes, animal programmes used to be entirely filmed in a studio and "consisted of an expert from London Zoo who brought animals from Regent's Park and exhibited them live in the studio, usually on a table covered by a doormat.

"He talked about them while they struggled to escape from the glare of the studio lights, occasionally wet down his front, bit him - or even escaped."

Attitudes to wildlife were so very different in the 50s that the premise of some of the early programmes can seem a little unsettling now.

Once captured, the animals would have to accompany David on his travels, so feeding and caring duties became part of the editorial of the programme.

Creating the collection made me nostalgic for a time I've never experienced.

In the 1950s much of the wildlife of the planet was un-filmed, even unknown. Trips were largely exploratory and communication back to London was via letters and telegrams.

This led to some treacherous journeys, as David recalls in this Zoo Quest For A Dragon clip.

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"We got involved in the most frightful whirlpools" - David recalls a treacherous journey

Having received a beautifully written letter from Sir David myself, I decided that the best way to capture these behind-the-scenes trials and tribulations is through his own communications from that time.

And so I went to the BBC Written Archive in Reading, a fascinating place with four and a half miles of shelving containing millions of documents created as part of the BBC's daily operations.

I spent a few days immersed in old production files selecting documents for inclusion in the collection.

I mentioned to the archivists that it was quite ironic sitting here reading letters from Sir David whilst I myself had also received a letter from him.

I made a joke about framing my letter and was swiftly told that any letters David wrote to me are property of the BBC too, and should be handed over to the archive.

So as I wait for my next Attenborough letter to arrive I wonder whether I could still frame it and give the archive a photocopy. Probably not.

Sandra Gorel is the editorial executive for BBC Four Collections.

David Attenborough - The Early Years is available to watch in BBC iPlayer as part of the BBC Four Collections.

Alongside the Collection, Attenborough: 60 Years In The Wild is a three-part series on BBC Two in which Sir David looks back over his career in natural history. Episode one is available in iPlayer until Friday, 7 December.

More on David Attenborough:
About The BBC blog: Marking David Attenborough's 60 years in broadcasting
Guardian interview: David Attenborough: Force Of Nature

Comments made by writers on the BBC TV blog are their own opinions and not necessarily those of the BBC.


  • Comment number 1.

    Sir David Attenborough what a fantastic, wonderful, charismatic, intelligent and brilliant man, he has brought the world into our living rooms for 60 years, and left us wanting more need I go on?

    Well done sir.

    Such a shame that on the commercial side of things, science is being corrupted by entertainment and the sort of quality programming that Sir David Attenborough has brought us no longer seems to be made all that often these days.

    No I am not a fuddy duddy either, I am only 32 years old, and I am already bored stiff, with the Discovery Channel which lets face facts is “science’s answer to MTV”, due to programmes like “Mythbusters” sorry guys at M5 I like you, but we get it you like explosives and guns state side, bring the science back now please.

    As for National Geographic, well its lost its direction, after all programmes like “Doompreppers” another US focused programme I may add, are a little too close to reality TV for comfort. Yes there are other channels; some of them are our own, like ITV, CH4 and Five but they do little in the way of documentaries on any of the Sciences.

    Thank God or Darwin whoever you prefer for the BBC, and before you say it; Yes the BEEB has lost the public confidence lately, because of other non-related issues, but in its defence the BEEB seems to be the only network that consistently goes out of its way to maintain education, and Yes this is probably because of the way it is funded.

    Once more thank you Sir David Attenborough for being part of this, by bringing us UK produced global knowledge which is inclusive of the entire world seen through your eyes and that of your cameras.

  • Comment number 2.

    Working with Sir David? .... all I can say is you lucky, lucky people. Everything that DA is involved in is magical. The man has a talent far beyond that of most other presenters and is a joy to watch and hear. Long many he continue to broadcast, educate and entertain us. Thank you David.

  • Comment number 3.

    It is a pity that people living in the continent cannot watch Sir David´s unique, wonderfully instructive Presentations on Internet TV streams. There are a large number of Fans here too I am sure. I have never seen anybody presenting and scientifically explaining the interconnections between living beings on earth better than he does. It is always so thrilling to watch him present and explain nature in such a lucid way that even the most uninterested layman is able to grasp what in going on in nature. A great credit to him and the BBC. In my opinion the British should not keep all this to themselves. In Germany where I live we get some broadcasts of his dubbed in certain German Channels or in Franco-German Chanel "Arte" I hope that BBC will soon make it possible to buy his presentations as DVDs
    G.Chacko, Kassel, Germany

  • Comment number 4.

    I do like to watch all Sir David's docos BUT he is sofely spoken and the "background" music drowns out his voice Please cut out the "music" let us enjoy the presentation

  • Comment number 5.

    I've seen Sir David Attenborough's works for the first time in 2005 when I moved to England, and I couldn't believe how such masterpieces never reached home.

    I've seen him going to the most remote and exotic places of the planet. But the more I saw his programs, the more intrigued I became about something. He never talked about anything related to my distant little country, which I'm sure was far, isolated and exotic enough for him to go and do some (any) of his works. Well, perhaps he doesn't even know we exist, I thought.

    But, (gladly) he proved me wrong. Just by chance, a couple of years ago, I bumped into a short Youtube video about one of his programs. He didn't only knew about my country. He had been there, even before I was born. He made a program about it, one of his first ones. It was called "Zoo Quest in Paraguay". He wrote a book about it, which bears the same name, in 1958. And I have it!

    I just thought I would share this little experience with you all.

    PS: I just wonder if Zoo Quest in Paraguay will ever be broadcasted again? Thanks.

  • Comment number 6.

    Hi all

    Thank you so much for your comments, it’s great to know that Sir David Attenborough is as popular abroad as he is in the UK.

    geechacko - The David Attenborough: The Early Years collection is a free online offer for UK licence fee payers, so we wouldn’t be able to make it available outside of the UK. As you probably know most of his programmes are available to buy from online retailers. Sadly not all of his very early work is available on DVD, but I have seen some of these programmes contained as bonus material on other DVDs. For example, The Tribal Eye: The Complete BBC Series [1975] contains The Miracle of Bali [1969]. There are some clips from the online Collection on our YouTube channel ( https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL23548129EA9AE258 ) that are available to view outside of the UK, so I hope you will enjoy those.

    Diego - Zoo Quest in Paraguay is a great series. It was originally broadcast in 1959 so it may be a bit too old to be broadcast again. There was so much brilliant material to choose from for the Collection that we couldn’t include it all, but hopefully in the future we will be able to add some more series to the Collection.

    VJMCV – I have passed your comment about the background music to the production team within the BBC Natural History Unit who are working on his new series. Meanwhile you may find this blog post interesting, ‘Is the background music too loud’ ( https://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/tv/2011/03/is-the-background-music-too-loud.shtml ). Danny Cohen (controller of BBC One) wrote the post on this blog a while ago, presenting the findings of research that the BBC did into the common audience complaint that dialogue was hard to distinguish.

    Thank you all for your comments.

  • Comment number 7.

    @Diego..... David Attenborough has done some wonderful work throughout his long career and I am so glad that your 'distant little country' got a mention.... I hope that they do show the Zoo Quest progamme about Paraguay again. Having the book must be quite a find.

    All the best.

  • Comment number 8.

    I have just been watching some of the archive David Attenborough films on Africa and Australia. How refreshing NOT to have relentless background music spoiling my enjoyment. Just the natural sounds around the people or animals that we are watching. There is too much background music these days. The luckiest people now are the camera men and sound recordists working in the field. They are the only ones who see it "as it is". We even have to put up with background music during the commentaries. Please, Sir David, think about it and get rid of it.

  • Comment number 9.

    As a kid during the socialist era in Croatia ( in late 1970s), the first Western nature I watched was Sir David Attenborough's series "Exploerers". It was so interesting that 3 decades latter I still fondly remeber this series.

    The last couple years I have in vain searched various possible sources trying to buy the DVD set of this exceptional series. Therefore I was delighted when I came across your web page and learned about efforts to make older series of Sir David available for viewing.

    Therefore, Ms. Gorel I would greatly appreciate if you could inform me if there are plans on BBC 4 also to put up the Explorers series with all the other great programmes you have already set up?

    Best regards,


  • Comment number 10.

    Sandra, thank you SOOO much for putting this together! I can't tell you how happy I'm going to be to see these programmes once again. I watched them the first time round and was entranced by seeing the animals, excitement, photography and of course Sir David himself (what a handsome chap!). I've searched in vain for DVDs of the Zoo Quest series but have always received negative replies, such as 'there are only a few clips left' or that they've been lost altogether. I can't wait to start watching this collection!

    Also, it took me a long time to find them but I do now have all the original Quest books among my most cherished possessions - and they are an enthralling read; well worth tracking down.

    I have written to him on more than one occasion and received kindly courteous replies every time; I also met him when he came to open Maidstone Museum's Dinosaur exhibition a few years ago. A lovely, humorous, gentle man - and a gentleman. He is my all-time favourite presenter and hero!


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