Sir David Attenborough
Sir David Attenborough

Sir David's spectacular life on earth

DAVID Attenborough plucked up his courage and stepped forward as more than 30 New Guinea cannibals brandishing machetes charged down the path at him and his film crew.

They were less than a metre away when he smiled, put out his hand and said, "good afternoon".

The tribe stopped dead, stunned.

The head man, with a huge metal plate inserted through his nose, put out his hand and vigorously shook the white man's.

"Apparently, though I didn't know it at the time, 'good afternoon' sounded like something quite pleasant in pidgin English," he said.

The Brisbane Entertainment Centre erupted.

Sir David Attenborough was in the house.

Ray Martin, who sat on a plush chair opposite Sir David's for more than two hours for an entrancing "informal chat" this week, did not even get a mention on the bill.

This was the 87-year-old naturalist and television producer and presenter extraordinaire's night.

And, according to Martin, probably the last he would do in Australia.

Sir David's tour, which was delayed a month because he had been ordered by his doctors in London to have a pacemaker inserted in his chest before he embarked on any further long-distance flights, followed another sell-out visit last year.

"The pacemaker was no big thing," Sir David said. "You simply turn up at the hospital at 9 one morning, and leave at 9am the next."

No big thing, perhaps, for someone with a heart as big as Sir David's.

David Frederick Attenborough was born in west London, the second of three sons.

His elder brother, Sir Richard, is an Academy Award-winning director and actor, best known to younger audiences for his role in the film Jurassic Park. Younger brother, John, who died last year, was an executive with the car maker Alfa Romeo.

The Attenborough boys were brought up on the campus of University College in Leicester, about 30km east of Birmingham in the English Midlands.

Their father, Frederick, was principal there.

Young David veraciously hunted fossils and other specimens.

He won a scholarship to Cambridge University, where he studied zoology and geology, taking a degree in natural sciences before being called up for national service in 1947.

When he was discharged after two years in the navy, he fancied himself a radio talent.

"I thought it would be easy," the man with the most identifiable English voice in the world said. "'I'll have no trouble doing this,' I thought to myself, so I applied to the BBC ...

"Didn't even get an interview ..." he said with mock exasperation.

"But there was something else going ... a job as a presenter with something new that was starting up called television ..."

In 1950, he and Jane Ebsworth Oriel married and set up house in the leafy suburb of Richmond, in west London.

At work, among other duties which would include producing the Queen's Christmas message, by 1957 he was presenting a BBC-TV program called Zoo Quest.

One of the earliest programs involved visiting Komodo in Indonesia on a trip that turned into a three-month hunt by air and sea.

Zoo Quest became the first to film Komodo dragons.

It was also the first to capture on film a Bird of Paradise.

"The footage was pretty crap, to be honest," Sir David said. "Black and white film does not really do a Bird of Paradise justice."

No matter. He and a crew went back 30 years later and took some of the most breath-taking footage of birds of paradise display dances ever filmed - in glorious colour.

Sir David Attenborough
Sir David Attenborough

It was during the first arduous trek into the PNG Highlands in search of the birds that Sir David met the polite cannibals.

But that was not to be the only time he has been surprised by the power of language.

He wanted to film in a part of the Solomon Islands peopled by a tribe that neither wanted modern trappings nor whites on their land.

Sir David negotiated permission to go there, all the same.

When he and his crew landed on the beach, they were greeted by an enthusiastic choir of near-naked natives singing God Save the Queen.

"They knew two verses that I had never heard before," he said, laughing.

After looking at one another, puzzled, for quite a time, Sir David realised that the tribe thought they would be greeting the Duke of Edinburgh, not David Attenborough.

Still, his crew got its footage.

Sir David was earning a reputation within the BBC, as well.

In 1965, the 39-year-old with a young family was brought back from a study sabbatical at the London School of Economics to shake up the new BBC Two TV network.

By 1969, he was promoted to director of programs for both BBC TV networks.

That lasted until 1972, when it was suggested he might be a good candidate for BBC director-general.

Enough was enough.

Sir David wanted to get back in front of the camera. He resigned, putting together his own freelance film company.

By 1976, production of a show called Life on Earth began. The 13 one-hour episodes took three years to pain-stakingly film.

Its first episode aired in 1979.

It worked. Spectacularly. Top-quality nature programs, including The Blue Planet, Planet Earth, Frozen Planet, Life of Mammals and Life in Cold Blood, followed.

Sir David's warm voice-overs and on-camera introductions permeated through them all.

But one of the encounters he rates most highly is captured only fleetingly on film, strangely.

In 1979, Sir David was given permission to film with Dian Fossey and her mountain gorilla research group in Rwanda, east Africa.

That, in itself, was rare.

The first day out, the gorillas played coy, but were watching Fossey and her new friends.

Fossey, who had been ill, could not go out with the film crew on the second day. So they decided to film a segment on opposable thumbs with the gorillas as a backdrop.

They set up and Sir David settled down in the grass.

"I was sitting there, waiting, and felt something heavy come down on top of my head, 'bumfff'," he said. "It was a hand.

"I turned around and looked into these big brown eyes - it was a huge female gorilla.

"She could have crushed my skull if she had wanted to ...

"She put her finger on my bottom lip and opened my mouth and looked in - I'm not sure what she was doing ...

"Next thing I know, there's a weight on my legs ... it was a sizable baby gorilla lying on me.

"Then there was a second. They were hers ...

"So there we were for maybe 10 minutes, lying there.

"Eventually, then they just got up and moved off.

"I ran over to my producer and started to say what great footage that must have been, and he said we might have 30 seconds ...

"He said he had been waiting for me to start talking about opposable thumbs ... it was the cameraman who eventually suggested we should get some shots ..."

Sir David is frail. He was helped to his chair this week in Brisbane.

Ever the consummate storyteller, though, he was in his element.

The years fell away as he recounted a life less ordinary, an extraordinary life in which the man and his surroundings are one.

As it should be.

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