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Attenborough's Journey

Guardian Culture 24th October 2010

Here's David Attenborough in his native habitat – and it's not all lolling about with gorillas

'What's missing is the very beginning of the story," said David Attenborough, his gaze uncharacteristically off centre, cast over the viewer's left shoulder. "We've always started at chapter two." Attenborough's Journey (BBC2) was essentially a promotional trailer for his new series First Life, which investigates the origins of life on Earth, but it was no less enjoyable for that. Recent Attenborough programmes have come with an appended sequence showing how the crew managed to film everything – often more fascinating than the show itself – and this was along those lines, giving the viewer an idea of the hard work and ingenuity that goes into capturing footage of Sir David in his habitat.

There was a bit of background, starting, as promised, with chapter one: in which the young Attenborough grows up on the University of Leicester campus – a former lunatic asylum – and collects fossils in nearby Charnwood forest. "This is the beginning of the journey for David," said his series producer.

Sir David's career in television is as old as the medium, including a period as a production assistant at the BBC television talks department at Alexandra Palace, London and a stint fronting Zoo Quest, where he first encountered animals in their natural habitats, and then pounced on them. He was also the first controller of BBC2 and was instrumental in ushering in colour television, which did so much to enhance wildlife programming (and the snooker – can you imagine watching snooker in black and white?). After eight years he quit management to go back in front of the cameras, a sideways move for which we should all be grateful.

What this programme revealed was the remarkable extent to which Attenborough is, behind the scenes, all one might have hoped: charming, funny, engaging, uncomplaining, extraordinarily well-informed and pleasant without being too nice. He has an amusing, usually self-deprecating anecdote for every animal you could name, and his off-camera-on-camera persona (if you see what I mean) is as relaxed and engaging as his more rehearsed, down-the-lens self.

He's getting on a bit now, and it would not have been surprising to discover that the crew drove him around in a climate-controlled popemobile and winched him into place as needed. But there he is, aged 83, lying in the leaves with a worm on his hand, clambering around on wet Scottish rocks or scaling the Canadian Rockies in order to get a look at some shale. At one point they left him alone on a sandbar, in 40C heat, so they could film him from a helicopter as the tide came in around him. You could shoot Sir David from any distance and still know it was him. He's one of those personalities who is recognisable in silhouette, or even as a dot on the landscape, moving across the sands with his particular rolling gait.

One was left with an abiding sense of Sir David's reserves of patience. Looking at clips of old programmes, one got an idea of how many lost bags and boring safety briefings he's endured over the years. It's not all lolling about with gorillas. A lot of the time you're driving up and down the road in a Land Rover while the crew tell you to go a bit faster, a bit slower, to look this way, look that way. Splendid, Sir David. Shall we go again?

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