I’m not really the sort of person to idolise those in the public eye. They are human after all and will make bad choices like the rest of us. Occasionally I will obsess over a celebrity for a while, but that passes as quickly as it begins. There are certain people whom I admire though. One of those people is Sir David Attenborough. For the last 60 years he has graced our television screens, taking us on journeys to some of the most amazing and most isolated places on earth, often in search for the rarest plants and animals in existence. Over these many years on screen, he has done more than many others could have dreamed in regards to the conservation and protection of the natural world. An example of this is the fact that the mountain gorillas made famous by Dian Fossey could now be extinct if not for his bringing attention to their plight. In 2002 he published a collection of memoirs about his life on camera, titled Life on Air. A revised edition was released in 2008 which covered the time after its initial release and this was the edition which I read.
When we first meet David Attenborough in the late 1940’s, he is newly married and working in a rather unfulfilling job at a publishing house. After initially being rejected for a position with BBC radio (radio was like TV in those days), he is contacted by someone in the newly formed BBC Television and is offered a position there. As the idea of television was still quite new at that time and a future in that industry uncertain, he is hesitant at first but he eventually accepts and the rest is, quite literally, history.
I would imagine that there are not many people who have been involved in the television industry almost since its inception. He has spent time not only in front of the camera, but has also been involved in different areas behind it – as a producer first and foremost but also as a controller for BBC2. However he would be the first to tell you that his time spent at a desk pales in comparison to the joys of tramping through a jungle. But the insight he has to offer in terms of the advancement of television technology is one of the most interesting aspects of this book. He started his career at a time when television was exclusively live, as there was no way to record programs and replay them later. When out in the field on one of his many adventures he would once have had to record sound and vision separately and then play the sound over the film when cutting film together later. Camera gear was large and unwieldy, particularly when out in the jungle and even when filming in the studio he would find himself restricted to what was possible in terms of camera angles. But over the years I am sure that he would only be able to be amazed at the leaps and bounds in television technology. From the invention of cameras small enough to be placed in an animal’s burrow, to cameras that would allow him to film at night without alerting animals to his presence, the advancements in all aspects of the television industry have not only allowed him bring his passion into our living rooms, it has also allowed us as viewers the opportunity to see the natural world in all its glory. This fact I believe is most important as it has gone a long way to assist in conservation. While this collection of memoirs is more about his many adventures and his job, but it is really interesting seeing he and his crew overcoming many challenges out in the field and coming up with some truly ingenious ideas.
The best thing about reading this book? Hearing Sir David’s famous voice narrating as I went along. I challenge you to pick it up and read one page from it without hearing that famous white haired gentleman talking to you. There are so many anecdotes in this book that will make you laugh at loud. My favourite was a chapter in which he relates his part in one of the infamous BBC April Fools pranks. I won’t tell you which one it is though as I don’t want to spoil toe surprise. He really is quite a funny man. This may surprise some people when they only think about the fact that he is a presenter of nature programs. But if you have ever really watched one of his programs, you would be able to see that what he does must take a great sense of humour. There is so much warmth in this book and it is easy to see why he has remained so popular not just with television viewers, but also his peers for such a long time. If you enjoy reading biographies and memoirs, this is definitely a must read.