Life on Air by David Attenborough

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Life on Air by David Attenborough

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Category: Autobiography
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: The third, newly revised edition of the memoirs of Sir David Attenborough, former controller of BBC2, best remembered for his natural history documentaries
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 448 Date: October 2014
Publisher: BBC
ISBN: 9781849908528

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I was one of the generation who grew up when David Attenborough was a giant among presenters of wildlife programmes on television, and anything with his name attached was a must-watch. At the time, I had no idea that he was also one of the pivotal characters in the development of broadcasting, having been controller of BBC2 and director of programming for BBC TV for several years. These days, he is probably best remembered for writing and presenting the nine ‘Life’ series, a comprehensive survey of all life on the planet.

This volume of memoirs is a revised and enlarged third edition of a work which previously appeared in 2002 and then 2009. There is no lengthy or even brief Foreword, as Attenborough eschews the all-too-common approach of reminiscing about his early life from cradle and schooldays. Instead, Chapter 1 opens with the day in 1950 that a young graduate from Cambridge in natural sciences, now a bored and unfulfilled assistant editor in a publishing house responsible for children’s science textbooks, applied for a post as a radio producer with the BBC. Although he was unsuccessful, it led to an offer of a three-month training course for working in television.

This proved to be the start of a literally glittering career. Five years after the end of the war, TV was just beginning to come into its own as new technologies were developing and the fledgling medium was being built up from scratch. Attenborough’s ‘life on air’ is as fascinating a tale as we could wish for, from our knowledge of his achievements and programmes. He is evidently a born storyteller, possessed of a delightful sense of humour that goes well with the soothing, reassuring voice that has become so familiar over the years. There is much to be said on his visits to all corners of the earth, making the best use of new technologies in filming wildlife in order to share everything on the small screen with us all. Sometimes his missions could be potentially dangerous – monkeys do not always react well to being filmed at close range - at other times downright funny. Pity the renowned, Nobel Prize-winning zoologist Dr Konrad Lorenz, who once appeared on a live programme with a grey-lag goose. Somewhat disconcerted by the bright studio lights, it literally got into a flap, squirted a jet of dung all over him, leaving him to wipe his trousers clean with a handkerchief, blow his nose on it, and complete the interview with a green smear down the side of his face. (At least this was before the days of colour TV). Or spare a thought for the broadcasting staff who were in charge when they presented a live appearance from London rat-catcher Bill Dalton. In cheerfully demonstrating his craft with the aid of a cage full of Rattus Norwegicus, he treated his audience to probably the first-ever use of the word ‘bugger’ on TV. Fortunately heads did not roll.

From the various series of ‘Zoo Quest’ to ‘The Life Of…’ and ‘Planet Earth’, Attenborough has done it all, been there, and as one of the masters of the film documentary he has experienced it close at hand, visiting all climates and terrains, from the jungle to the sea. His style of writing is warm, friendly, and passionate all at once. While he is clearly a lifelong conservationist and protector if not guardian of the wonders of the natural world and of native cultures, he puts his knowledge across clearly and non-judgementally, without ever giving the impression of being a crusader of a polemicist, letting the facts speak for themselves.

One of the most moving sections of the book was the sad story of Joy and George Adamson, the naturalists who were based in Kenya and who were identified with Elsa the lioness, whose life story was told in several books and a feature film. Elsa succumbed to tick fever, but several of the other characters involved, animal and human, including the Adamsons themselves, died by violent means. Yet there are more amusing stories, perhaps none more so than that of the Queen’s Christmas message one year which had to be recorded twice, the reason being that after the first time Her Majesty faced the camera and delivered her address, it was found that Khartoum the horse was peering over her shoulder and waggling his upper lip. It gave the impression that he was doing the talking and she was merely miming.

In a life packed with trailblazing achievements, about which he is unfailingly modest, there is little room for more than a fleeting reference to his personal life. One might have expected a little more about his family, and perhaps more than a fleeting reference to the sudden illness and death of his wife Jane on the eve of their forty-seventh wedding anniversary. Yet this need be no more than a minor criticism. This is a packed, marvellously-written volume from the man long regarded and rightly so as arguably the best-loved and most respected broadcaster in his field.

For an older volume of memoirs from another giant of natural history broadcasting, may we also recommend My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell

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Booklists.jpg Life on Air by David Attenborough is in the Top Ten Autobiographies 2014.


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