Sir David Attenborough’s infectious enthusiasm for animals has, for more than 60 years, made him the face and voice of the natural world on television. His Wikipedia page records his impressive history and body of work, but it doesn’t quite capture what it is about him that draws us in. What is it that compels us to watch documentary series that can be upwards of ten episodes long? Even a series about plants? I don’t think there is anyone else who could have the same impact on us.
I was once at a party where “Planet Earth” was playing in the background. Before long, everyone had migrated to the living room to watch, transfixed, as his narration accompanied stunning film of wild creatures. I don’t believe that every person was interested in the animals to begin with, because the viewing started out as a demonstration of a big-screen TV. But, after, these same people gushed for days about what they saw, and what the animals did. Why?
Put simply, I believe what hooked the viewers was joy. Attenborough seems barely able to contain himself when, after what might have been exhaustive preparation, he is able to show us some creature or behaviour that has never been filmed before. His grand mission in life seems to be to join us in our living rooms and have us experience the nature that excites him so much so that we can feel the same wonder and thrill that he does.
This ability to inspire is a gift that few have. When we see Attenborough, he is usually in his trademark blue shirt and khaki pants, and trekking to an exotic place that we will, in all likelihood, never go to, to show us the wildlife that he cares so deeply about. It’s the man that we can connect with first, and then the subject.
There is probably not a more honest moment on TV than during a segment of the series “Life in Cold Blood”. Attenborough finds a colony of severely endangered frogs that live in a single spot in a single river somewhere in the South American rainforest. It is explained that one of his life’s goals has been to see these frogs in their native habitat. They are unique in their brilliant yellow coloring, and the way that they communicate to each other by waving their arms. When told that he will able to coax these signals out of them by using a plastic model frog with a manually operated forearm, Attenborough displays the same emotion that a child might when brought to a candy store where everything is free.
So we don’t just watch because of his grandfatherly appearance or British accent or big words, or even solely for the amazing animal specimens he finds. We watch him because of his passion for the world that we live in, and that, because of him, we are motivated to explore, ourselves.
The following clip is a humorous example, I think, of exactly what he’s capable of. Enjoy!