Sir David Attenborough is, by far, one of our greatest living icons. So, it only makes sense that he broke a Guinness World Record when he made his Instagram debut recently. He is currently (as of October 2020) the fastest Instagram user to reach 1 million followers. It took him 4 hours and 44 minutes to be exact. (Sorry, Jennifer Aniston; you’re now in second place).
I think it goes to show that everyone wants a piece of Attenborough – a man whose voice is so soothing that we would all pay money to have him read us a bedtime story to put us to sleep.
The 94-year-old has just made what he calls his witness statement in the form of a Netflix documentary called A Life on Our Planet, and it’s an unforgettable one. Considering that Planet Earth, which debuted in 2006 and is narrated by Attenborough, still holds the Guinness World Record for being the most in-demand documentary show, I think it’s high time for us to do a spotlight on him…
An Icon Is Born
Attenborough was born on May 8, 1926, in Isleworth, Middlesex (now part of West London). His father, Frederick, was a principal, and his mother, Mary, was an English arts administrator. To give you a sense of the kind of home David and his brothers Richard and John grew up in (and the kind of men they became), you should know that in 1939, Attenborough’s parents fostered two Jewish refugee girls from Germany.
After the girls had been with them for three weeks, the three boys were called into the study by their parents. Their mother said, “We absolutely love you boys, but we will have to show even more love to these girls because they are here on their own and without their parents. It is entirely up to you, darlings if they stay…” Helga and Irene Bejach lived with the Attenborough family for seven years. (More on this story later on…)
A Clever Little Newt Collector
This won’t come as a surprise, but David Attenborough spent his childhood collecting fossils, stones, and natural specimens. He would hang out at his father’s university, and when, at the age of 11, he heard that the zoology department needed a large number of newts, he offered to supply them for 3d (threepence) each.
He didn’t reveal it at the time, but the source was a pond less than five meters away. He went on study geology and zoology at Clare College in Cambridge. In 1950, he married Jane Elizabeth Ebsworth Oriel, who died much later in 1997. The couple had two children, Robert and Susan, both of whom work in the education.
He Was in the Navy
Attenborough was called up for national service in 1947 to serve in the Royal Navy. He spent two years in North Wales and the Firth of Forth. After graduating with a degree in Natural Sciences, his two years of national service were essentially his first venture in world exploration. But, what is obvious to us now wasn’t to him then: that the military wasn’t where his heart was.
During a BBC One Twitter Q&A, Attenborough revealed that it was nature that became his passion. It had first taken his breath away when he suddenly became aware of “a great crested newt displaying in a pond in Leicestershire when I was 8.” (Those newts came in handy with the university.)
He Was Told His Teeth Were Too Big
In one of those great examples of how hindsight can make some people seem utterly ridiculous, Attenborough’s first boss at the BBC, Mary Adams, remarked that Attenborough, who at the time was a blooming broadcaster, “could be a perfectly pleasant chap, might be a perfectly good producer, but he shouldn’t be used again as an interviewer on camera because his teeth are too big.”
So she made him a producer for the Talks department instead. It was the department that handled all non-fiction broadcasts. When asked about the teeth comment many years later, the veteran broadcaster could only laugh at it. “My teeth have worn down since then,” were his words.
The greatest Englishman of our time has a boat named after him. As of 2016, a British polar research ship was officially named the RRS Sir David Attenborough. But you should know that the boat’s previous name was nothing even remotely as honorable. In fact, the naming process was done via an Internet poll. Take what you will from this fact, but the name of the ship with the most votes was Boaty McBoatface. This is true.
Science Minister Jo Johnson said what many people were thinking: There are “more suitable names.” And so, ditching the ridiculous boat name, the new and improved name was eventually picked up from one of the more favored choices. Still, one of the boat’s research subs was named “Boaty,” in honor of the original vote.
He Has 32 Degrees and 11 Plants and Animals Named After Him
As of 2013, Attenborough has collected 32 honorary degrees, which is more than anyone else currently. He revealed that he keeps them in a drawer. “It’s a compliment from the academic world. It’s a real compliment. It would be churlish not to accept one.” That alone is a major accomplishment, but how many people can say they have over 10 plants and animals named after them?
I won’t list them all, but here are a few examples:
The Hieracium Attenboroughianum, aka the Attenborough Hawkweed, a part of the daisy family, was discovered in 2004.
The Attenborosaurus Conybeari, aka Attenborough’s Lizard, a prehistoric marine reptile that lived during the early Jurassic period, was discovered in 1993. Its remains were destroyed in a bombing raid in WW2. A plaster cast of the lizard was made before, though, allowing the original skin impressions to be studied.
One of the Most Traveled Humans
Other than astronauts, Attenborough is considered to be one of the most traveled humans in history. During the making of the 1998 series Life of Birds, Attenborough traveled 256,000 miles by air. He’s landed on every continent in the world, capping it in 2009 when he reached the North Pole – at the age of 83!
By the time he made Life of Birds, Attenborough was turning his attention to the animal kingdom, birds in particular. He wasn’t even a bird expert; he just decided that he was better qualified to make The Life of Birds on the theme of behavior. It was while he was filming this series that his wife collapsed…
Losing His Wife Suddenly
In 1997, his wife Jane collapsed from a brain hemorrhage. He was away at the time and immediately flew home from filming in New Zealand to be with her. Fortunately, he made it in time to find her alive, but unfortunately, she was in a coma. He was able to speak to her and hold her hand at the hospital. He said she squeezed his hand back.
He spent the evening with her, but she passed away the next day. She was 70 years old. He wrote: “The focus of my life, the anchor had gone… Now I was lost.” Attenborough said he threw himself into his work and began traveling to cope with the loss.
A Major Regret in His Life
Attenborough admitted that despite being lucky enough to travel the world, he missed the most formative and important moments of his children’s lives. He said that his biggest regret is that he was not able to see his children grow up. “If you have a child of six or eight and you miss three months of his or her life, it’s irreplaceable; you miss something,” he claimed.
His daughter Susan is a primary school teacher and lives in the UK. His son Robert is a senior lecturer in Biological Anthropology at a university in Australia. Both of them are now in their 50s, and Attenborough’s absence growing up has become something of an inside joke in the family. (It’s better than resentment!).
A Family Nightmare
Attenborough lost his niece and grandniece in the 2004 tsunami in Thailand. His late brother Richard was 81 at the time and lost both his daughter Jane and his granddaughter Lucy. Lord Richard Attenborough actually lost three members of his immediate family in the tsunami disaster in Phuket, Thailand. The family was vacationing there at the time.
His granddaughter, 14-year-old Lucy, was in the hotel with her 17-year-old sister Alice, her brother Sam, her mother, her father, and her mother-in-law when the tragedy struck. Alice was treated in the hospital, but Jane, Lucy, and Jane’s mother-in-law were killed. The tsunami took the lives of 230,000 people.
He Helped Solve a Murder
One of the most gruesome murder mysteries in the history of Britain – one that detectives couldn’t solve for over 130 years – was finally solved in 2011, thanks to the man of the hour. The infamous slaying of Julia Martha Thomas in 1879 was solved six months after a skull was unearthed in Attenborough’s garden in Richmond, southwest London.
Thomas had been killed by her maid, Kate Webster, who was convicted and hanged in 1879. The story was later dubbed The Barnes Mystery, and most of the details are too gory to even publish here. So let me just say that it involved a meat saw, a razor, a kitchen knife, and way too many body parts to list here. The point is people that Attenborough’s garden was basically a gravesite, and he never knew it. Creepy!
Pushing Boundaries, Breaking Records
From color broadcasts to 3D television, Attenborough has been at the forefront of pioneering technology in broadcasting and bringing fascinating subjects to millions of TV sets. In 2015, he dived 1,000 feet in a submersible off the Australian coast. He did it to film previously unseen parts of the Great Barrier Reef. Along the way, he broke the record for the deepest-ever dive in the reef.
Without Attenborough’s ambition and persistence, we may never have seen some of the world’s rarest creatures. It began with Zoo Quest in the 1950s, in which he famously caught the mysterious Komodo Dragon on film for the first time!
He’s Been Inspiring the Royal Family for Decades
The Royal Family recently had the chance to pick Attenborough’s brain in an interview with the young royal children who got to ask the old man questions. A longtime friend of the royal family, Attenborough has inspired them over the years. His time with the royals started over 60 years ago, while he was in the same career but with a different and much more youthful heir.
David Attenborough started his TV broadcasting career with the BBC show Zoo Quest in 1954 and presented the nature documentary from the London Zoo until the early ‘60s. By the end of his time with the show, Attenborough had attracted the attention of the Royal Family, especially the young royals Prince Charles and Princess Anne.
Becoming a “Sir”
He first met the Royal Family in 1958, through Charles and Anne – then nine and eight-year-olds – when they toured the BBC Television Studios at Lime Grove. The presenter introduced the children to his three-year-old pet cockatoo, whom he had named Cocky. That first meeting was the beginning of a long relationship with the family.
He built a particularly strong bond with Queen Elizabeth II, who knighted him in 1985, making him Sir David Attenborough. Between 1986 and 1991, the Queen enlisted his talents as a producer to coordinate her Christmas address. He then spread his talents like wildfire throughout the royal family, first to Prince William and then to his children. The Duke of Cambridge made a tribute to Attenborough on his 90th birthday in 2016.
The Cutest Interview Ever
During the interview in which the little royals quizzed Attenborough, two-year-old Prince Louis managed to get the old man to reveal whether he was a dog person or a cat person. Prince George asked: “Which animal do you think will become extinct next?” The 94-year-old replied: “Well, let’s hope there won’t be any because there are lots of things we can do when animals are in danger of extinction. We can protect them.”
Then, five-year-old Charlotte asked: “I like spiders, do you like spiders too?” Attenborough enthusiastically said they were “wonderful things.” Prince Louis asked him: “What animal do you like?” Attenborough explained that monkeys were his favorite all-around creature. Why? Because of their entertaining nature. But if he had to pick a house pet, he would choose a puppy.
He Brought Televised Snooker to the People
BBC Two launched in 1964, and a year later, Attenborough became controller of the network. As soon as he came along, he immediately retired the channel’s quirky kangaroo mascot and changed up the entire schedule. With a mission to make BBC Two diverse and different from other networks, he established a portfolio of shows that included music, arts, entertainment, archaeology, experimental comedy, travel, drama, sport, business, science, and natural history.
In 1966, Attenborough oversaw the introduction of color TV on the BBC before anywhere else in Europe. Three years later, he introduced televised snooker. The sport has been a staple on the channel ever since. For Americans, it’s not the most popular sport, but, for the British, it’s kind of a big deal.
You Can Thank Him for Monty Python
That’s not the only thing that he brought to the people. Attenborough also birthed a classic British comedy. As a BBC Two controller, he approved Monty Python’s Flying Circus in 1969, the famous comedy group’s first-ever major production series. And it’s not just the people in the UK that know and love Monty Python.
The comedy group has migrated beyond the pond. They went on to create life-long classics like Monty Python and the Holy Grail and The Life of Brian. They have established themselves as possibly the greatest British comedy ensemble of all time.
Other programs he commissioned through BBC Two were Man Alive, Call My Bluff, Chronicle, Match of the Day, The Old Grey Whistle Test, and The Money Programme.
If You Were an Animal…
Believe it or not, if Attenborough had the chance to come back as anything, it would be in the form of the laziest creature on earth, a sloth. During a live online Q&A, he seemed quite confident in his answer. Of course, the man has met his soul animal many times, being as well-traveled as he is.
He was also asked what his superpower would be. His answer was to fly. “It would be wonderful, wouldn’t it? Not gliding, mind, I want powered flight, please. I don’t just want to float around when the wind is right. I want to be able to just stretch my wings and take off,” Attenborough explained.
He’s Not an Animal Lover
Well, technically speaking, he isn’t. Attenborough went on the record as saying the term “animal lover” really means “sentiment, a cloying, anthropomorphizing sentiment.” He noted that he doesn’t love earthworms or spiders. “They’re rivetingly interesting, and they give me huge intellectual pleasure. And aesthetic pleasure, I suppose. But that’s a different thing altogether.”
He has made it clear that the term animal lover is something that just grinds his gears. Oh, and don’t call him a national treasure, as it’s “just flummery and doesn’t really mean much.”
Speaking of animals, Attenborough once had a stare-off with a Rwandan mountain gorilla… and won. During the 1979 series Life On Earth, Attenborough said, “There is more meaning and mutual understanding in exchanging a glance with a gorilla than any other animal I know.”
It’s All About the Blue Shirt and Chinos
Attenborough admitted that he always packs the same clothes: a blue shirt and chinos. You can call it the classic Attenborough. He recalled that once he forgot to pack these items and, by luck, he found them in a small town in the Jura Mountains in Switzerland. He put the clothes on and realized the buttons weren’t on the usual side. Which could only mean that he had bought a woman’s shirt by accident.
Random Fact: Attenborough’s hero is a Canadian writer and ranger named Ernest Thompson Seton.
Another random fact: the book he said he would most like to have is Hortus Sanitatis (which means “The Healthy Garden”) from the 15th century. “I wouldn’t mind one of those. It was the first natural history. At that time, people’s interest in the natural world was mostly what use it was to keep you healthy.”
His Brother, the Celebrated Actor, and Filmmaker
Lord Richard Attenborough was an English actor, filmmaker, and entrepreneur. And not just any director. He won two Academy Awards for Gandhi in 1983 for Best Picture and Best Director. He was also the president of the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) and the life president of Chelsea FC.
But his acting made his brother David recoil. Attenborough told The Independent that he “couldn’t bear to watch” 10 Rillington Place – a show in which his brother played a sexual murderer. He said his brother “was very, very funny and could be – and was – in domestic circumstances. We just spent all our time roaring with laughter – and that didn’t get much of an outlet in his feature films.”
One Shoot That Went Bad
Attenborough explained that before digital cameras, filming didn’t always go smoothly. He gave an example of a time in Paraguay when the crew couldn’t see the film results until maybe six weeks or eight weeks later. “You’d be out in the bush, and you would send the stuff home and hope that you might get a lab report,” he described. “But there wasn’t anywhere that you could get a lab report for maybe a month.”
He recalled that after filming for at least half of their trip, they had sent some material home, and a week afterward, they got a telegram saying: “Regret to say that your 250mm lens has got a hot spot.” The middle of every shot was unusable – blank. And that was the lens they had used for close-ups. So they had all the stories but no close-ups. Bummer.
The Most Trusted Celebrity
Attenborough was named the most trusted celebrity in the UK in 2006 by in a Reader’s Digest poll. A year later, he won The Culture Show’s Living Icon Award. He’s also been named among the 100 Greatest Britons in a BBC poll and is considered to be one of the top ten “Heroes of Our Time.”
In 2012, Attenborough was selected by artist Sir Peter Blake to appear in an updated version of his most famous artwork: the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album cover. It was done to celebrate the British cultural figures in his life. I should probably also mention that Attenborough has earned over 40 awards in his lifetime.
Faith in Evolution
In a 2005 interview on BBC Radio Five Live, Attenborough stated that he considers himself an agnostic. When he was asked if his observation of the natural world has given him any faith in a creator, he responded that the way he sees it, the evidence all over the planet clearly shows that evolution is the best way to explain the diversity of life.
And he said that if there is, indeed, a supreme being, “then he chose organic evolution as a way of bringing into existence the natural world.” In a BBC Four interview, Attenborough was asked if he ever had any religious faith. His answer was simple: “No.” He said, “It never really occurred to me to believe in God.”
His Foster Sisters
Attenborough has spoken about his foster sisters whom his family took in after they had fled Germany on one of the Kindertransports. Irene and Helga Bejach arrived in the UK just before the Second World War broke out. Their father was the head of public health for a district in Berlin. He ended up being murdered in Auschwitz in 1944.
The girls’ mother died of tuberculosis. Due to her age, their elder sister, Jutta, was not permitted to join them. Unfortunately, it meant the sisters had to be separated. The young sisters spent the next seven years with the Attenborough family, and, after the war, they went to join an uncle in New York.
He Hosted Their Reunion
In 2019, David Attenborough hosted a reunion for the descendants of both of their families. When he spoke at the reunion, he described the girls as “our sisters, really.” But in his typically modest way, he was reserved when talking about it. He said that it had “nothing to do with me – it’s a credit to my parents.”
Helga’s daughters grew up and donated their mother’s diaries, letters, and other documents to Leicester University (which was the family home of the Attenborough family as the father worked there). Irene passed away in 1994, and Helga died in 2005. Their sister Jutta, who eventually joined them in America, is 99.
The Kindness of His Parents
Throughout the years, the sisters maintained their connection with the Attenboroughs. Richard Attenborough invited them to some of his New York film premieres. And one of Helga’s grandsons was even inspired by David Attenborough to become an environmentalist himself. Helga’s daughter, Beverly Rich, said that when the guests left the reunion, Attenborough appreciated the significance of his parents’ kindness.
“I think that when he looked at all of us leaving,” Rich stated, “it hit him that we would probably not have existed if it was not for the humanitarian kindness of his family.” It’s a shame that neither Richard (who died in 2014) nor their younger brother John (who died in 2009), or obviously their parents, could be at the reunion.
Prince George Had to Turn the Documentary Off
Those who have seen Attenborough’s documentary Extinction: The Facts know that it can be pretty depressing seeing the state of the world as it is. In fact, the Duke of Cambridge said that his son George got so upset while watching the film that they had to turn it off. Prince William said that mid-way through watching it, the seven-year-old royal said: “I don’t want to watch this anymore. Why has it come to this?”
Apparently, George was really sad about it. Prince William went on to say that he struggled to stay optimistic about the future during discussions with his family. “I think to be perfectly honest, I’m struggling to keep the optimism levels going with my own children, and that’s really kind of a lie, an understanding moment.”