The hottest ticket of this year's Sheffield DocFest, I was lucky to get a third row seat to hear Sir David Attenborough speak at the overflowing Crucible Theatre, Sheffield. He, as the first ever Controller of BBC Two, spoke with Charlotte Moore, the current BBC Controller of Channels and Controller of iPlayer.
He took us through the process of working in a dire job as a Science Editor at a publishing company, to working in radio, to being asked to try out television – taking the risk in the 1950s when nobody could possibly have known how popular television would become. He began work at BBC Television when BBC Two became the third network in the UK.
His early career
DA: 'As a biologist, I wanted them to make programmes which made you understand about the way the animals worked…'
He was the pioneer who strove for nature to be brought to the masses via the most beautiful images possible – and he knew this meant using cinema stock 60mm film rather than the standard 35mm.
DA: 'Up to that moment, Telecine machines [which were used to broadcast television back then] couldn't get a decent image from 60mm, they used 35…and when I said I wanted to go to Africa and I would have to use 60mm, the BBC Head of Film said "over my dead body" and I argued about it…'
From here was born the first television nature documentary, shot on 60mm colour negative film stock, David Attenborough's Zoo Quest. But it was not as the presenter that Attenborough was attached to Zoo Quest, it was as producer – hence his responsibility for the acquisition of film stock – and studio director. But when the original presenter was suddenly taken ill, it was Attenborough's turn to step up.
DA: 'The BBC Head of Television said "Attenborough, you're the only person who was there at the time who can do it so you can do it and we'll find someone else to direct the cameras", which was the only reason I appeared on television.'
Not long after, came the next landmark in his natural history TV career, Elsa the Lion. He had landed in Kenya on his way to Madagascar when he heard about the extraordinary Elsa. This was the first time the world learnt about the infamous lioness with the infectious relationship with her keepers.
After working in the field, presenting documentaries about animals that the British public had never been fortunate to have seen before, Attenborough took a 'desk job'.
Becoming Controller of BBC Two
CM: 'It was in 1964, wasn't it, that you agreed to take the job as the Controller of BBC Two?'
DA: 'Well in '65 I was asked to go on BBC Two and I thought "Well, what are you, Attenborough? Are you a television man or are you a scientist?" and I concluded I was a television man. And if you said 'Go into television, that's your career, not as being a professional biologist' and someone said to you "There's a new network. It's only been on air for 11 months. There's £12 million. Go and make some programmes for it." What would you say?'
Back then, BBC Two's job was almost what Channel 4's is today in that it was there to take risks and produce something 'different'.
CM: 'What did that mean then? What did "different" mean?'
DA: 'Well back then, there were an awful lot of "big subjects" nobody would tell. We did all these things for new and no other network had. In 1954, there was no documentary series lasting more than 30 minutes and, when I said "We're going to start 50-minute or 1-hour documentaries", people said "You can't!" and I said "Watch."'
Of course, though natural history is Attenborough's non-fiction domain today, as Controller, he had a responsibility of social docos. Two of the men who inspired him the most, Robert Flaherty, a fellow natural documentary filmmaker, and Dennis Mitchell, who pioneered the radio voxpop, were responsible for a documentary about the then-ailing city of Chicago.
Documentaries that branch out
Expertly edited, without voiceover, controversial images of poverty and the Chicago abattoir, incensed the city. Chicago did not show the documentary for years. This led Attenborough to want to hear from real people in BBC Two's documentaries.
CM: 'Did you think it was important to tackle difficult subjects? Did you feel you were allowed to do anything?'
DA: 'Yes. And we did. You have to be balanced, particularly if you're a monopoly. But, I wanted voices to take an extreme line. We found interesting people with very firm opinions on certain subjects and allow them to make a film. And of course, you had yourself a trouble. But, with a title like 'One Pair Of Eyes', then the audience knows what they're expecting and that's fair.'
Fast forward a bit and the next landmark for Attenborough's was one for the entire world. The landmark. Attenborough was the Controller for the televised Moon Landings. For this, the BBC's daily end broadcast title card was delayed and the country stayed up late to watch it.
DA: 'The whole of the nation held its breath. Would the spaceship re-appear from the other side? And we were all waiting and waiting and the tension of the whole nation was extraordinary."
These images that Attenborough showed the world were images that they couldn't have ever imagined seeing – images on the moon and the images of the world from the moon dwarfed by 'the infinity of the universe'. Attenborough's BBC Two could do no wrong. The images, now taken for granted, put the topic of conservation of the planet firmly at the top of the agenda.
Live music and new talent
Moving away from non-fiction, Attenborough's passion for live music brought the next landmark in television. Live televised jazz. At this point, jazz was facing its demise. The period that bore the greatness of Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong was over. It was time for Two to play a part in its renaissance. He brought the two jazz legends over to the BBC Two studios.
DA: 'The Administration, where I was, was on top of the studios. So, at about 6:00 or 7:00, before we knocked off and went home, they walked down to look at all the studios and there they would be! There was Louis Armstrong! "…Hi Dave."'
David Attenborough and other BBC heads decided to bring them over for an official national tour, including their performance on BBC Two, to give them a 'new lease of life'.
DA: 'You know, the BBC is in such a powerful position as a patron and if it doesn't exercise that power, it's letting it rot.'
DA: 'We had a little presentation studio that was about a quarter the size of this place in which we did the weatherman and announcers and what have you and, as we had it unoccupied, we said "Why not give it to two little progressive pop groups?" so we had The Beatles and The Rolling Stones…'
CM: 'You were a real believer that new talent is a big part of what BBC Two was about?'
DA: 'We wanted new faces all the time: new comedians, new musicians, new thoughts, new writers, new documentaries.'
Technology was crucial to Attenborough's success. When Life On Earth began in 1979, television was at such a point when there were constantly new technological advancements. Time lapse, slow motion, increasingly sensitive camera sensors. Of course, previously, there was the advent of colour television and Two's function was to experiment in new picture scanning technology and colour image broadcast. Attenborough is the only person to have won BAFTAs for content in all of black and white, colour, HD, and 3D formats.
DA: 'I heard…and this is a nasty story, this is…I heard that the Germans were actually also producing colour and that they were going to bring theirs in in August and I thought, "We've got to get it done before! We must be the first in Europe."'
CM: 'And that colour led to believe you needed to bring art onto the screen?'
DA: 'The problem was, the first colour transmissions ever were in the States and the colours were ghastly, so bad. And, so, colour television had a terrible reputation and so I thought, "What we will do is show all the loveliest pictures we can in colour right from the fourteenth century onwards accompanied by appropriate music and just blow them out of their seats."'
Civilisation, presented by Kenneth Clark, followed and is now legendary.
The next landmark in his career as Controller of BBC Television was to be his last. At the same time his name was being considered for the post of Director-General of the BBC, he resigned, and forthwith pitched, to the new Controller, the idea for Life on Earth.
DA: 'I think the fundamental reason I make those programmes is because I'm fascinated by the natural world. We don't want to go on about how ghastly things are, but they are. Television programmes have opened up [the audience's] eyes to what the world is and what threatens it.
Attenborough details how he reads letters of praise from eight-year olds alongside the same from eighty-year old professors.
DA: 'Now, as your job to do a programme on subjects, which are equally interesting to eight-year olds as eighty-year olds is just a joy.'
To this day, in fact perhaps today more than ever, Attenborough's appeal endures. Earlier this year, Moore and Attenborough worked together on a documentary about the largest fossilised dinosaur ever excavated by archaeologists, Attenborough and the Giant Dinosaur. The viewing figures were over 7 million.
Also this year, the pair made a film about bioluminescence – organisms that biologically produce a light source like fireflies and glow worms.
DA: 'There's a cameraman called Martin Dawn, who is not only a very good cameraman, he's a very good biologist, he actually loves insects and is also extremely skilled at electronic trickery and he worked for years on a camera to show light levels that no electronic or film camera had been able to do. And he had the idea: luminous earthworms!'
CM: 'We've never ever been able to show people that before, but of course, this was real detail. Your openness to technology – you love it!'
DA: 'We're in paradise at the moment for natural history filmmaking. We can take a camera to the top of Everest, to the bottom of the Deep Blue. We can speed things up, we can slow them down. There's nothing we can't show. If we are so blasé as to take them for granted, then that's our fault because, by golly, the world out there is a wonderful world…'
Rapturous applause followed this impassioned sentence. Following the applause we were gifted with a glimpse into Attenborough's next piece of work.
CM: 'We are lucky enough that you are doing the next landmark series for us, which is Planet Earth II. The return of Planet Earth.'
A collective gasp, applause, and childish giggle emerged from the audience following this revelation. 2006's Planet Earth was Attenborough's and the world's highest rated natural history series and considered some of the best television in history. This at a time when the documentary form is suffering. Its return is welcome news. We were allowed a glimpse at some of the footage.
It will be, again, divided by geographical areas.
DA: 'Earth is one place that life is infinitely varied.'
CM: 'If you had to pick, from all of that amazing career, I know people ask you this, what was when you felt your proudest?'
DA: 'If you forced me, I think I would say Life On Earth. Nobody had done a 13-parter before Civilisation and to do it on natural history in 13 hours in a coherent way, no one had done it before or since. And it did set a pattern for natural history programmes.'
CM: 'The places you've been to and the experiences you've had, do you ever get worried?'
DA: '[To the audience] We are about to go off-piste. [To Moore] Charlotte Moore, I happen to know that one of your first jobs in television was to go to a part of New Guinea, which virtually no other people had gone to and lived with these extraordinary tribes under the most difficult conditions ever. And you did it and I'm delighted to know that you are now in control of BBC Two.'
CM: 'What would your advice be to young filmmakers starting out?'
DA: 'It has never been easier to make television programmes. Never. If you really want to go and make things that I've been doing, pick an animal that you can see tomorrow. Pick a rat. A slug. And go and say 'I'm going to make a serious programme with some kind of narrative structure' and it may only be four-and-a-half minutes but it'll have a structure and it'll have a story and, in the end, you'll have done it about one of these creatures. Go and do it and you'll discover a lot of things!'