Friday, September 15, 2006

Life on Air - David Attenborough

Everyone likes David Attenborough. Well, except Ben's religious grandparents, who think he's the Antichrist, but that's another story. I've been a fan ever since the days of Life on Earth when I was very small, and have since accumulated most of his DVDs, which is probably why this cropped up on my Amazon recommendations. Of course, I bought it, and I'm very glad I did, as the book is an absolute delight to read.

It is often wise to be wary of autobiographies, as we all know from sitting through the self-obsessed reminiscences of boring acquaintances. Fortunately for us, Attenborough is a suberb storyteller, and so self-effacing that you barely even notice that he's talking about his own achievements. Most of the anecdotes concern the eccentrics, old colonials and other characters that he meets at the BBC and elsewhere, as well as the absolutely fascinating development of British broadcasting from the 1950s to the present - and, of course, the animals. It is only occasionally that his own actions take centre stage, and even then he sticks to the more entertaining events of his life, rather than the ones that make him look important - one notable omission is his knighthood, which is not mentioned even in passing.

The most interesting chapters are probably the earlier ones, which cover the rise of television (one channel, only broadcast a few hours a day) and Attenborough's first nature show, Zoo Quest. We tend to take for granted these days the technical expertise required to film wildlife documentaries, so it was fascinating to read about those early shows, where close-ups could only be shot in the studio, there was no way to record sound at the same time as film, and preparation for a three month exotic wildlife shoot consisted of little more than buying a plane ticket and packing your camera. The tale of the rise of BBC TV is possibly even more interesting - with all the current developments in internet TV, smart digital recorders and the impending Digital Switchover, it's a real eye-opener to see how the industry started up.

Attenborough's well-known views on conservation and the environment are largely absent from the book, which is a bit of a shame, but does fit in with the overall tone. This is mostly a collection of charming anecdotes, and it is rare to find any condemnation or judgmental opinion voiced about any of the subjects (one exception being a Belgian parks official in collusion with the Rwandan gorilla poachers). It's not by any means a serious read, but it's almost certainly a book that you will read with a smile on your face.



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