Television icon and living legend Sir David Attenborough said not all natural history programmes teach viewers lessons. Instead, he hopes viewers can be emotionally invested in the stories of the wildlife featured in these type of shows.
“You just have to be engaged in one of the great dramas on life and death. What more do you want?” said the 92-year-old English broadcast journalist during an interview earlier this year at the BBC Showcase in Liverpool, England.
In Attenborough’s latest natural history series Dynasties – in which he serves as a presenter and narrator – survival is the name of the game.
The five-part BBC Studios Natural History Unit production dedicates each episode to a different animal species. One episode will feature a story on a chimpanzee facing off rivals who want to take over his place as the alpha male leader. Another episode zooms in on the journey of a lioness and her cubs who have been abandoned by her pride.
In an episode set in Zimbabwe, cameras focus on a feud between a mother and daughter in a painted wolf pack. Other episodes will feature emperor penguins trying to survive a long gruelling winter month and look at what happens when humanity comes in the way of a tigress in the jungle.
Executive producer Mike Gunton said Dynasties has a Game Of Thrones-like quality to it.
“We had the same thinking as the makers of Game Of Thrones when we’re making a story about the natural world. It’s a parallel coincidence. I do think it’s interesting how their rules of writing absolutely mimic what is happening in the natural world,” Gunton enthused.
Attenborough summed up Dynasties in one word – drama.The Natural History Unit production team spent hundreds of days filming on various locations around the world to get the intricate stories on the way animals behave.
The episode on chimpanzees was filmed during a two-year period while three crew members spent 337 days on location in Antarctica for the emperor penguin feature.
Ultimately, it took about four years to complete the making of the series. Attenborough believes viewers will have a good time watching Dynasties.
“You don’t know whether it’s a tragedy or comedy. Neither did the people behind the camera; they watched as the story developed. They couldn’t know if a certain animal was going to be a hero or a villain,” he said.
Cambridge-educated Attenborough first joined BBC in 1952 where he became a producer of a quiz show as well as a series on folk songs.
For his debut as a wildlife presenter on Zoo Quest in 1954, one of the things he did was to interact with an orangutan in Borneo.
Then in 1979, he cemented his status as a notable presenter and writer with the success of the 13-episode series Life On Earth: A Natural History By David Attenborough. He also won over a whole new generation of viewers for his role as presenter on critically-acclaimed nature documentaries like Planet Earth II (2016) and Blue Planet II (2017).
The Guardian noted that Attenborough is the only person to have won Bafta (British Academy of Film and Television Arts) awards for programmes in four different formats – black and white, colour, HD and 3D.
When Attenborough looks back at his illustrious career, which has seen him travel to a number to countries around the world, he is humbled and full of gratitude.
“I can’t believe my luck. I promise you, every time I come back from a trip, (I tell myself) if it ends now Dave, you’ve had it well.”
He added: “The fact that it has been going on for years, I find that to be unbelievable. I’m the luckiest person I know.”
Now, Attenborough understandably spends less time on the field. He describes his current job as “providing the words”.
He admitted to feeling a bit of regret when he observed some of his earlier works.
“I have looked back at the films that I made, say 20 or 30 years ago, and I thought, ‘That was too many words David …’ .”
He believes that less is more: “I don’t believe in doing a beautifully-phrased commentary with a lot of adjectives. The pictures are enough. Your job is to support the picture and provide continuity.”
He is also not ready to call it a day. He said that he is happy to continue being involved with wildlife programming. “I can’t think of any other ways to spend my time.”