Sir David Attenborough has spoken out about the value of the BBC as part of a wide-ranging conversation at Sheffield Doc/Fest, during which he reflected on his six decades in broadcasting.
The broadcaster and naturalist told a packed auditorium: “I think that the BBC has an incomparable opportunity, which gives it an incomparable responsibility.
“Of all the television organisations in the world, it is the BBC than can say we ought to cover as wide a spectrum of human interests as we can. We will recognise that some parts of the spectrum will only get 1 million [viewers] and other parts will get 5 million. But we will measure our success by the width of that spectrum. Nobody else can do that in the world. The BBC can.”
Attenborough, who turned 90 last month, agreed there was still more that could be done.
“There are still a lot of subjects which are waiting there to be dealt with which are not being dealt with,” said Attenborough, whose long career as a documentary-maker was punctuated by a stint as controller of BBC2 from 1965-1973.
“It’s very easy for me to take a high and mighty line about how it was at the BBC but the fact is that when BBC2 started, I had total freedom,” he recalled.
“Nobody came to me and said you’ve only got half a million. Only a tiny part of the country could see it. So the viewing figures meant nothing to me. You had the liberty to fail.”
The broadcaster was greeted by a 1000-strong audience at Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre, where BBC1 controller Charlotte Moore conducted the on-stage conversation.
Recalling his start in the industry, Attenborough said: “I got a job in television without ever having seen a television. I was working in publishing, doing a very boring job as a science editor, when I applied for radio and got turned down flat. A fortnight later, I got a letter about this new thing called television and could I be persuaded to join. I thought I might as well.”
After a stint as a producer and studio director, Attenborough was asked to front natural history programme Zoo Quest after regular presenter Jack Lester fell ill.
In 1965, Attenborough was offered the job of controller of BBC2, which had launched the previous year.
“If your career is in television and someone said to you: ‘There’s a new network, it’s only been on air 11 months, it’s going to need a complete change of scheduling policy, there’s 12 million quid, go and make some programmes for it,’ what would you do? If you’re in television it’s a dream ticket.”
Attenborough recalled being able to break new ground in his new role, after being told viewers were not interested in long-form documentaries.
“It was extraordinary there was no documentary series lasting more than 30 minutes,” he said.
“We introduced all kinds of new documentary strands, which were an hour long including Civilisation and The Ascent of Man.”
Return to the wild
In 1972, after a tenure that included airing the Moon landings, bringing comedians Peter Cooke and Dudley Moore to the screen and introducing colour television to the UK, Attenborough stepped down to return to filmmaking.
Not long after, he began work on his most ambitious series to date, Life On Earth. “I had been in the administration for eight years and yearned to go back and make films again,” he said.
“I knew, having got Civilisation established, the most powerful, riveting, beautiful series you could possibly make would be about the history of life. I was terrified someone else would think of this before me. I knew I had to go out and make that series.”
Life On Earth, which aired in 1979, remains his proudest production. “Nobody had done a 13-parter on natural history covering the whole thing from amoeba right through to man, from pre-history 500 million years ago to today. It set a pattern for natural history programmes that I’m quite proud of,” he said.
Attenborough went on to make landmark series including Life and Planet Earth with the BBC’s Natural History Unit. A six-part Planet Earth sequel is currently in production and will air later this year.
“It’s divided by geographical areas. The Earth is a big place and life is infinitely varied,” said Attenborough. “It’s now nearly 40 years since Life On Earth. Perhaps you could look at a peacock for a second time.”
He added that it would be “ludicrous” for him to retire while he was still being offered the opportunity to make programmes.
“We’re in the paradise at the moment with natural history filmmaking. There is nothing on this planet now that we cannot see on film. We can get cameras to the top of Everest to the bottom of the deep blue sea. We can speed things up or slow things down, show bioluminescence at the bottom of the sea.
“If we get tired of doing it or if we are so blasé to take it for granted then that’s our fault because, by golly, the world out there is a wonderful world.”