An aim of this blog is to introduce things I think my clients could use to improve their English. Reading books isn’t the only option, even when it comes to science. One of the greatest scientific communicators of the last half-century has been, without a doubt, David Attenborough, and his medium is television.
At home we’ve been watching the “Life Collection”, a boxed set of his nature documentary films. Life on Earth, a survey of evolution made in the 70s, starts the series. Then there’s The Living Planet, Trials of Life, The Life of Mammals, Life in the Undergrowth, The Private Life of Plants, Life in the Freezer and Life of Birds. All in all, 60 hours of viewing on 24 DVDs. Besides the animals and plants, you can watch the evolution of wildlife filming technology as you progress through the series.
But what hasn’t changed very much in all that time is Attenborough himself. Now 83, he’s still busy – his current series is just called “Life” (see some pictures on the Guardian website). The format is simple: Attenborough – in more or less crumpled clothes, and more or less tousled hair – stands in front of some bit of Nature and starts off “behind this tree is a most astonishing little creature…” Quite amazingly, he’s been doing this essentially the same way for all these years, and nobody has got bored; on the contrary, a new Attenborough series dominates prime-time TV with ratings of 25% and more. The camerawork may have become more and more technical, but the presentation still just relies on getting the basics right. Attenborough’s scripts, which he has always written himself, are a model of clear, understandable and engaging writing for speaking. And his enthusiasm and charm hasn’t dimmed one bit since he was a small boy collecting animals and fossils from around where he lived.
Life on Air
at the BBC Shop
Recently I was given a present of his memoirs, Life on Air, which are highly recommended reading. Besides doing the nature documentaries, he also spent some time as the head of BBC 2 TV in the 60s. He rather deprecates this period as a relatively desk-bound manager, although he personally oversaw such landmark developments as the beginning of colour TV in the UK. Two sporting institutions more or less owe their existence on TV to him. The Wimbledon tennis championship was used early on simply because they didn’t have a colour studio ready, and it was an outdoor event that gave them hours of broadcasts with good natural lighting. And the “Pot Black” snooker competition was created by the BBC to exploit the fact that you could now see the colours of the billiard balls!
The one thing I noticed about the book, though, is that he doesn’t really have a separate writing style – he writes just like he speaks, in exactly the same cadences. When I read the book, I virtually heard his voice speaking the lines.