A Sunday Lie-In with Uncle Dave: David Attenborough Is a Perfect Successor to the Late, Great Alistair Cooke

By Mullen, Lisa | New Statesman (1996), August 17, 2009 | Go to article overview

A Sunday Lie-In with Uncle Dave: David Attenborough Is a Perfect Successor to the Late, Great Alistair Cooke


Mullen, Lisa, New Statesman (1996)


The radio can't go on too early on Sunday mornings for fear of stumbling across the unspeakably irritating wishy-washyness of Something Understood (6.05am, Radio 4) or, worse still, a burst of churchy warbling. But listening comfortably in bed to David Attenborough's Life Stories (8,50am, Radio 4) has become the definition of a proper lie-in. Those warm tones are as familiar and soothing as a favourite uncle's, and what wouldn't we give to have lovely Uncle Dave as a real-life relative?

But something else has happened as this series has bedded in: with little fanfare, and in a remarkably short time, Attenborough seems to have slipped into the empty tasselled loafers of Alistair Cooke. Like Humphrey Lyttelton's jazz spats, these once looked impossible to fill, but if the jury is still out on the quartet of sub-Humphs who presided over the last series of I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue, David Attenborough manages to be even better than his predecessor.

This past week we pondered the bird of paradise and a fable about the persistence of ignorance. Attenborough relished every moment of the telling, explaining how 16th-century European explorers were presented with the magnificently feathered skin of a dead specimen, which had had its feet and wings severed to show off the prized plumage. Puzzled, they asked the Spice Islanders of modern Indonesia how on earth this bizarre creature could perch or fly. The islanders, who traded the skins but had never seen the live version either, assured the gullible foreigners that the birds floated in the firmament and lived off dew, and this information was duly passed on to the Spanish scholars tasked with cataloguing the exotic finds the explorers had brought back with them.

Instead of pooh-poohing the obvious lie, they accepted it--somewhat nervously--and it accrued extra layers of wild speculation. …

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