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David Attenborough and the didactic documentary

Robert Weedon | Television | Sunday 8th May 2016

Sir David Attenborough celebrates his 90th birthday today as perhaps the most lauded television figure of our time, perhaps of all time.

When a well-meaning but misguided scheme to let a £200 million research ship be named by the internet inevitably ended up with Boaty McBoatface, nobody seems to mind too much the compromise of naming it after Sir David; indeed, it was a government noted for its open hostility to the BBC that made the decision to name their ship after him.

For the BBC during these dark days of charter renewal and budget cuts, he’s become a sortof second John Reith; an iconic figure embodying everything that is perceived to be good about the Corporation, everything they should aspire to be and do.
Attenborough and a hedgehog
Attenborough is constantly asked to get involved with debates about the direction of the BBC, and when he does it’s with a voice of common sense and experience. Attenborough was there as a young producer and presenter during the very early days of the revived BBC Television Service in the 1950s. As controller of BBC Two he turned the new channel around from a failing experiment and he later led BBC Television during its golden age in the late 1960s and early 70s when there were only three channels, two of which were under his control.

He turned down the chance to be Director General, and instead went back to making natural history documentaries, which he still does to this day.

However, despite the BBC’s adulation of Attenborough, looking through the schedules, I sometimes wonder how much the BBC has learnt from David Attenborough and his programmes. If Attenborough’s nature documentaries are so highly regarded, why are there not more programmes like them? I don’t mean nature documentaries, but ambitious, even monumental television documentary series about other topics.

The thing that defines Attenborough’s nature documentaries is that they are knowingly old-fashioned. Not in terms of technology - in fact they are usually chosen to showcase the latest advances; stereo, widescreen, CGI, HD, 3D, 4K, etc.

No, what makes them old fashioned is that they are ultimately, quite patrician. I say that not as a criticism but as praise. The reason people find them educational is because they’re very didactic - a well-educated expert giving an accessible lecture on a topic he knows lots about. Essentially illustrated university lectures.

Attenborough’s father was a lecturer at Leicester University and one can only assume that having joined the BBC shortly after leaving university himself, Attenborough moulded his presentation style from the distinctly academic background he was from. Television was a young medium, so he was able to mould it to his own tastes and design the way he felt things should be done.

When he was controller of BBC Two, Attenborough commissioned Civilisation: A Personal View by Kenneth Clark (1969), an outstanding look at Western art and culture, presented by a High Tory art historian. It’s sometimes criticised as being patrician today, but never criticised for its quality. It was repeated in high definition on BBC Four a year or so ago. It still looks beautiful, and stands up as a personal view of artistic endeavour.

Likewise Attenborough commissioned a scientific equivalent; The Ascent of Man (1973) presented by Professor Jacob Bronowski. Some segments of this, in particular the apparently unscripted segment where Bronowski stepped into a pond at Auschwitz are astonishingly powerful television.

Attenborough saw the completed results of those epic, expensive and ambitious documentary series he had personally commissioned and wanted to make a series like that, knowing that the BBC was the only place that would make them, although Thames Television’s The World at War (1973) showed that commercial television was also capable of taking risks.

Life on Earth (1979) was the result, often cited as his masterpiece, or at least the programme that put the BBC Natural History Unit in Bristol on the map.

They say that the sign of somebody who really knows his/her subject is to be able to explain it to a six year old. I watched Life on Earth in its entirety recently and having not studied biology since I was about 14, I went away from it feeling I had learnt a lot about Darwin, evolution and the history of...life on Earth. Even if I don’t remember the science as much as this bit:
Attenborough meets the gorillas


Life on Earth is essentially a television lecture on natural history; the first three episodes are mainly about primordial swamps and early plant life. It’s in thirteen parts, and while some of the footage is wonderful, a lot of it is devoted to diagrams and demonstrations - even the memorable encounter with mountain gorillas was not recorded in its entirety because the cameraman was saving 16mm film for a planned discussion of their opposable thumbs.

If described in that way, Life on Earth sounds like television for only a select few, yet through making it accessible but not talking down, he makes the audience feel clever for watching and understanding it. 17 million people watched that series in 1979.

Even in the multichannel, multiplatform media landscape of 2016 his latest television film, Attenborough and the Giant Dinosaur gained 7m viewers, almost unheard of for a TV documentary, and he still wasn’t talking down to his audience, but gave that infectious sense of wonderment he does so well.

Attenborough’s raison d’être is playing the role of a passionate lecturer or teacher, the sort who imbues his pupils with enthusiasm for something they might not have cared about.

If this is a formula that´s been so successful for Attenborough, why is it that we see so few passionate lecturers on television making ambitious series? Attenborough himself has said that he doubts Life on Earth would be commissioned today due to the cost and risk of devoting 13 episodes to one subject. And yet must-see "box set" dramas these days are getting longer and longer. People like long-form content.

John Reith, as well as the well-worn "inform educate entertain" also said that the BBC should be a "guide, philosopher and friend". And because his avuncular presence (and blue shirt) has been on our screens since 1952, that’s exactly what Attenborough has become. RW



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