There’s not a single person I know who doesn’t love David Attenborough. This may say something about the people I choose to spend time with, but still, there’s a general consensus – David Attenborough is the science teacher, grandfather, mentor, and in the case of one young woman I know, the MUCH older partner you wish you had. For many of us, David Attenborough has been one of the few reliable constants in life, his quiet soothing tones relaying astonishing facts about the natural world. I think of him, ever-tanned and blue-shirted, crouching beside amazing creatures, creating intimacy with these ‘others’ whilst maintaining a respectful distance and allowing them to go about their business. No cavorting and leaping and catching critters by the tail, hoisting them up for some close-range eyeballing.
At 88 years of age, David Attenborough is still well and truly alive, and continuing to educate with his most recent program showing us wonders from London’s Natural History Museum. Who hasn’t fantasized about wandering through this grand collection of nature’s treasures at night when the doors are closed and the throngs have all gone home…alone with Sir David? And that’s the funny thing. When people talk about David Attenborough, it’s with a sort of ownership, as if he’s family and he understands you better than anyone else in the world.
One day David Attenborough will pass on and there’ll be universal grieving. All things change and I can’t help but wonder who could possibly fill his shoes. It seems that many nature docos today try to create a sense of imminent danger, with ‘deadly’ creatures ready to leap out and devour the presenter at any moment. We hear about their razor-sharp teeth and malevolent predatory natures – and learn very little about their true lifestyles and ecology.
I saw a TV documentary where the brash and obnoxious presenter stood protected in a clear plastic box in lion habitat. He held one end of a rope and taunted the wild lions with suspended meat that he continually pulled out of their reach. The lions launched themselves into the air for some great action shots, but landed back to earth clumsily with hind legs twisted in unnatural looking postures – as I don’t think they’ve evolved to pursue prey that shoots suddenly high into the air.
Perhaps TV producers and programmers have decided we all have such short attention spans that we need nature packaged up and hurled at us full-throttle before we switch off. Perhaps they think the Attenborough approach to documentary making is no longer relevant, with the long slow camera pans and the story of each creature or plant unfolding gradually like a time-lapse flower, so that the wonder in us builds.
I’m not saying that I’d like to see some replica of David Attenborough try to play his role exactly when the great man is done with it, but I desperately want to see his tradition continue. He conveys his respect and awe for nature without needing to ham it up or sensationalize. It would be more like Doctor Who, where we accept that the old Doctor is gone and there’s a new Doctor, but there’s continuity because we know what the Doctor stands for in any of his (or her?) manifestations.
So I’m putting the challenge out there to all would-be science communicators to step up and save us from the action heroes of the documentary world…will the next ‘David Attenborough’ please stand up!