To He Who Set the Golden Standard: Andrew Billen Notes a Landmark of a Distinguished Life in Broadcasting. (Television)

By Billen, Andrew | New Statesman (1996), November 25, 2002 | Go to article overview

To He Who Set the Golden Standard: Andrew Billen Notes a Landmark of a Distinguished Life in Broadcasting. (Television)


Billen, Andrew, New Statesman (1996)


I don't know where Sir David Attenborough stands on cloning, but he is his own best argument for it. With The Life of Mammals, he must surely have reached the twilight of his 50 years as TV's chief purveyor of fauna and flora, and I bet that not a single viewer would wish to see his shoes filled with anything less than a perfect replica. However, two documentaries that accompanied the start of the ten-parter reminded us of his extraordinary mid-career period as a television controller. Had he cloned himself, we would have had not only Life of Earth and the rest, but also a BBC director general whose legacy to public service broadcasting might have been even greater.

To start with the main attraction: a major Attenborough series now comes with as much self-reference as a Bond movie. The opening shot of BBC1's The Life of Mammals (Wednesdays, 9pm -- why so late?) was of a distant Eskimo on a motorised sled speeding across icy tundra. The Inuit eventually pulled up and, from beneath the furry anorak, revealed himself to be Attenborough, David Attenborough. This was the High Arctic, "one of the coldest places on earth" -- and, of course it was, James, because wherever he goes he pursues superlatives: the biggest, hottest, coldest and, in this first episode, the duckbilled platypus, simply the "most extraordinary animal alive on earth".

The series-plugging over, we finally got down to it in Australia, where, confusingly, platypuses lay eggs and marsupials gestate their young outside their bodies. Naturally, the pictures were fantastic, although not so fantastic as to justify Sir David taking ten minutes at the end telling us how he got them. He had already boasted about the microcamera that had burrowed into a platypus nest. This tic in the BBC's natural history output is there to fill out the space between the American running time and the old-fashioned BBC hour. With a series costing [pounds sterling]8m, you would have thought there would be cash left for a rounded-out British edit.

It is a minor point, but this little concession to commercial considerations gave added poignancy to BBC4's A Life on Air (shown 20 November, 10pm, but repeated on Sunday 1 December, 8pm, BBC1) and Attenborough: the controller years, which followed it. A Life on Air, presented chummily by Michael Palm, the BBC's other great adventurer, concentrated on how Attenborough had developed from an effeminate, blinky stand-in to a wildlife presenter who epitomised the BBC's values. But it reminded us also of the degree to which Attenborough, as an early BBC2 controller, invented much of the television we know today: not just the prestige stuff you would expect such as Civilisation and The Ascent of Man (which established the tradition of major documentary series that was to keep him in work), but Match of the Day, Pot Black, The Likely Lads, Not Only. …

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