Non-Fiction Reviews

Life On Air

(2002/10) David Attenborough, BBC Books, £8.99, pbk, pp 416, ISBN 978-1-849-90001-0


One wonders how the natural world ever managed to do anything before David Attenborough, sitting on a nearby log or a convenient rock, was there to tell it how to do so; how to grow, how to hunt food, how to attract a mate, how to simply survive. And that is the point about Attenborough; he has being telling us about the natural world for so long, and in such fascinating detail, that one supposes he has always been there. But of course, he was not always there, though this autobiography goes a long way to explaining how he got to be there, in so many places, telling us about and showing us so many wonderful things.

Back in 1950, Attenborough was working in a publishing house; he was twenty four and realising that he did not really want to be there, that there must be something he would be happier doing. It is here that this part of his story starts; he had seen an advertisement for the post of producer of radio talks with the BBC. The rest, as they say, is history, and in Life on Air Attenborough tells us that history. Originally published in 2002, this is the second revised and updated, 2010 edition.

Watching the many wildlife series he has presented and listening to his catalogue of voice-overs, one tends to forget that his long career started as a producer, in theory an office job, though he was remarkably good at getting out of the office to somewhere far, far away. After many successful years as a producer, he was promoted to Controller of BBC2. This utilised the new 625-line system and would be the first to use colour, but it had suffered an inauspicious start. Until then, there had only been two channels, BBC TV and ITV (Independent TeleVision), but BBC2 was destined to pioneer the idea of many channels and had to prove that extra channels would be of benefit. It would be his task to get it on track, to do something special with it. It was now 1965 and he had become a BBC administrator – though he still managed occasional exotic forays out of the office.

A few years later he was promoted again and was now Director of Programmes. This made producing programmes, even if only occasionally, more difficult and eventually the lure of the outside world was too much. At the end of 1972 he resigned from the BBC and went freelance. He was back to what he really loved - programme making. Over the years, series after series emerged, covering many aspects of life on our planet, and always utilising the very latest technology and pushing the skills of its users. The series Life On Earth was just the start. And he is still doing them!

I find it difficult to better Michael Palin's comment: "David Attenborough wears his achievements lightly and there are as many laughs here as there are animals." They are not belly laughs but more in the way of quiet, satisfying chuckles, and there are a lot of them. Attenborough does not take himself too seriously and is quite prepared to share (often at his own expense) those little moments when something went wrong or something unusual or unpredictable happened.

He does not play down his own importance in his achievements but he does not boast about them either, he merely recalls them for our education and enjoyment. As you might expect, this is not merely about him, much of it is about the places he visited, the kind and talented people he met and worked with, and the wildlife (flora and fauna) that he has seen and experienced. There is almost a modesty, certainly a simple matter of factness, in his writing and the ready admission that many others had their important parts to play. There is much praise for his colleagues and others who have helped him, along with interesting insights into those with whom he worked, either directly or indirectly.

There is a constant stream of tales and anecdotes and we are treated to finding out what really happened at times, how close they got to several disasters, and how lucky they sometimes were. Mistakes were made and accidents happened, but they are treated lightly and with retrospective amusement. It is as if he is simply giving a witness’ account rather than recounting his own story. There is also a constant stream of creatures, often rarely heard of, and the reminder that this is a vibrant world.

Life On Air is a charming book and tells of a charmed life. David Attenborough has been to so many places and seen so many creatures in so many environments, yet remains in awe of it all and, what is more, shares that awe with us. And he does so with kindness and humour.

Peter Tyers

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