David Attenborough: 10 landmark nature series

As his latest series, Our Planet, lands on Netflix, we celebrate a man who’s changed the way we see the natural world: British wildlife presenter Sir David Attenborough.

David Parkinson

Our Planet (2019)

Our Planet (2019)

As he’s already the most familiar and beloved voice in broadcasting history, there’s no need to coin a new epithet for David Attenborough. In a TV career that had coincided precisely with the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, he has simply transformed the way we look at natural history and, in the process, has alerted millions across the globe to the beauty and fragility of the planet on which they dwell.

In addition to the numerous programmes he has presented and narrated, Attenborough also enjoyed a stint in the upper echelons of BBC power and was responsible for commissioning such landmark shows as Man Alive, Call My Bluff, The Old Grey Whistle Test, Pot Black and Monty Python’s Flying Circus during his stewardship of BBC2.

Between producing Julian Huxley’s Coelacanth series in 1952 and fronting Dynasties in 2018, Attenborough (who gave his name to Athina Rachel Tsangari’s 2010 feature, Attenberg) has largely been associated with the Beeb’s Bristol-based Natural History Unit. But he has also made programmes like Flying Monsters 3D (2010) for Sky, Natural Curiosities for Eden (2013-15) and, now, Our Planet for Netflix (2019).

Refusing to anthropomorphise wildlife or patronise viewers, Attenborough has captured the drama of everyday existence in every corner of the Earth with an authority and enthusiasm that has made him the only person to have won BAFTAs in monochrome, colour, HD, 3D and 4K. 

Zoo Quest (1954-63)

Zoo Quest (1954-63)

Lured away from the world of science textbook publishing, David Attenborough joined the BBC as a producer and only became a regular presenter after Jack Lester went down with malaria. Very much a product of its pre-conservation times, Zoo Quest saw Attenborough accompany teams from London Zoo to trap animals in the wild to return to captivity. However, it took viewers into previously unseen habitats and, through encounters like those with Charlie the orangutan and Elsa the lioness, taught them to trust Attenborough implicitly. During the run, he also produced and/or narrated numerous episodes of such forgotten shows as Travellers’ Tales (1956-57) and Adventure (1961-63). 

Wildlife on One (1977-2005)

Wildlife on One (1977-2005)

Having survived a brush with New Guinean cannibals while shooting A Blank on the Map (1971) and taken a diversion to recount the great voyages of discovery in The Explorers (1975), Attenborough started narrating a programme that would run for 253 episodes over 28 years. Bookended by episodes on Gooney birds and crabs, this flagship BBC series followed on from The World about Us (which Attenborough had commissioned for BBC2) in a bid to reclaim wildlife study from Disney’s ‘true-life adventure’ approach. Made in 1987, the episode ‘Meerkats United’ was voted the best wildlife documentary to screen on the Beeb, which rehired Attenborough for the Wildlife Specials franchise between 1995-2007.

Life on Earth (1979)

Life on Earth (1979)

While at BBC2, Attenborough had demonstrated with Civilisation (1969), America (1972) and The Ascent of Man (1973) that audiences would stick with a programme on a weighty topic over 13 episodes. Terrified that someone would bag the wildlife brief, he quit his BBC desk job (while in line for the director generalship) to trace the evolution of life on Earth. Using the latest equipment and drawing on the expertise of Natural History Unit camera crews, Attenborough concocted scenarios that allowed him to leap continents and centuries in a single cut. The meeting with Dian Fossey’s gorillas in Rwanda ranks among the greatest moments in television history.

The Living Planet (1984)

The Living Planet (1984)

Nine series would be made under the ‘Life’ banner, with later studies focusing on birds (1998), mammals (2002), invertebrates (2005), and amphibians and reptiles (2008). But Attenborough is equally interested in habitats and lifestyles and the 12 films in this collection took him to rainforest canopies, polar ice caps, scorching deserts and remote islands to show how creatures of all sizes have adapted to their environments. In addition to talking underwater for the first time, Attenborough also flew on NASA’s zero-gravity plane to demonstrate weightlessness. Yet, while he marvels at how wildlife has solved the problems of survival, he also challenges humankind to treat Earth’s precious resources and ecosystems with more respect. 

The Trials of Life (1990)

The Trials of Life (1990)

Having indulged in his childhood hobby of fossil hunting in Lost Worlds, Vanished Lives (1989), Attenborough returned to consider life cycles in the third segment of the ‘Life’ sequence. During its three-year genesis, he travelled around a quarter of a million miles to study how animal forms navigate, communicate, make their homes, cohabit and procreate. No episode caused more distress than ‘Hunting and Escaping’, which showed a killer whale toying with a captured sea lion pup off Patagonia and some chimpanzees violently stalking and slaying a colobus monkey in the Ivory Coast. Attenborough would court similar controversy over the dehydration death of a baby elephant in Africa (2013).

The Private Life of Plants (1995)

The Private Life of Plants (1995)

A long-standing obsession with Mount Roraima in South America (which had inspired Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World) prompted this series. Yet it took the intervention of Jane Fonda to persuade then-husband Ted Turner to co-fund a project that had made BBC executives nervous that the public wouldn’t respond to static flora in the same way that it had to quaint or ferocious fauna. However, the latest time-lapse technology enabled the camera crews to present botany as an ongoing drama, which Attenborough admitted often made his own jaw drop, with the pioneering depiction of how plants adapt to changing conditions, combat predators and collaborate with each other. 

State of the Planet (2000)

State of the Planet (2000)

Comprising only three parts, this isn’t among Attenborough’s more epic enterprises, but it’s certainly one of the most important. Criticised by eco-activists for not doing enough to highlight the effects of global warming, he responded by exploring humanity’s impact on the planet and drawing on the latest scientific research to propose changes that could reverse ruinous current trends. Standing before the statues on Easter Island, he reminds us of the brevity of the human interlude in Earth’s history and he has continued to drive home the message with urgency and cogency – but without alarm – in The Truth about Climate Change (2006) and Saving Planet Earth (2007).

The Blue Planet (2001)

The Blue Planet (2001)

Although this landmark investigation into marine life was driven by the BBC Natural History Unit and Attenborough didn’t appear, producer Alastair Fothergill still invited him to narrate. Despite over 70% of the Earth’s surface being covered by water, surprisingly little is known about underwater life and the crews had to spend five years filming in 200 locations in order to capture previously unseen environments and behaviour patterns. Among the remarkable denizens of the depths are the walking handfish and the Australian squid that change colour while mating, while the shorelines play host to battling elephant seals and antic emperor penguins. Attenborough returned to narrate Blue Planet II in 2017.

Planet Earth (2006)

Planet Earth (2006)

Made over five years in high-definition, this is the BBC’s most expensive wildlife series. Venturing into the last wildernesses, the 11 episodes show how creatures have settled into a range of terrains, including the jungles that occupy only 3% of the land mass, while hosting over half of the world’s 8.7 million known species. American viewers heard Sigourney Weaver instead of Attenborough narrating, just as Oprah Winfrey would narrate Life (2009). Moreover, while Attenborough had written and appeared in the spin-off Blue Planet documentary, Deep Blue (2003), he was notable by his absence from Earth (2007). Nevertheless, he resumed presenting and voiceover duties on the 4K sequel, Planet Earth II (2016).

Frozen Planet (2011)

Frozen Planet (2011)

Having fronted Life in the Freezer (1993), the first tele-survey of the natural history of Antarctica, the 84 year-old Attenborough returned to cold climes for a seven-part series that caused considerable controversy when a number of American stations refused to show ‘On Thin Ice’, as its views on climate change were deemed to be politically provocative. Moreover, the decision to include footage of a polar bear giving birth in a Dutch animal park was also criticised. But, having devoted himself to presenting life as it is lived, Attenborough justified the choices with the same sense of pragmatism he has brought to all of his wildlife endeavours. 

Read more

Back to the top

See something different

Subscribe now for exclusive offers and the best of cinema.
Hand-picked.