Sir David Attenborough's great TV adventures are over, but live, he's magical

by Russell Baillie / 03 February, 2017
Sir David Attenborough.

The stage might not be Sir David Attenborough’s natural habitat, but his live show at Auckland’s Civic was a charming multimedia memoir from the television pioneer.

There was a magic moment at the end of the first half of Sir David Attenborough’s show in Auckland. He exited stage right, padding slowly into the Civic wings.

At the same time, on the video screen behind him, a much younger Attenborough loped down a tropical beach in restored colour footage from a 1950s adventure.

As he wandered off, the 90 year-old’s slow gait matched that of the tanned young Englishman abroad. For a moment, the beloved BBC knight and the gung-ho television rookie were back in step. 

Yes, it was choreographed. As was most everything else in this touring two-hour live memoir of a show, with Attenborough in conversation with veteran Aussie broadcaster Ray Martin.

But the image of the young Attenborough ambling alongside the old Attenborough was quietly poignant.

A lot of life has been packed in between then and now.

This show, entitled The Quest for Life took an adoring audience through much of it.

Undoubtedly, Attenborough has told all of the evening’s stories many times before.

But his undiminished enthusiasm for spinning those yarns, matched to that greatest hits footage gave those well-worn anecdotes a fresh spark.

He was like a kindly granddad hosting an epic family slide evening. One that came with riveting tales of digging dinosaur bones, hanging with mountain gorillas, sailing through storms to the lair of the komodo dragon.

The first half concentrated on his pioneering days, when he helped invent natural history television for the Beeb. Back when he lugged film cameras into the jungles of Sierra Leone and Guyana, then lugging animals out for the London Zoo.

Filming and filching fascinating fauna from soon-to-be ex-colonies might have been a dreadfully British thing to do in those days.

But playing Noah with a 16mm camera gave Attenborough a start to a career which has made him a conservation hero and inspirational figure.

There were other dreadfully British bits. Like the time Attenborough and crew joined a Papua New Guinea police squad on the trail of a highlands tribe who had never seen Europeans.

Once discovered, the natives (“were they head-hunters?” asked Martin hopefully) grew restless and took off without them.

It was but one of many never-seen-before moments in television history with Attenborough’s name on it.

But it wasn’t all him.

“I get so much bogus credit,” he said of the programmes he has fronted in more recent decades where the images are the work of patient camera people and increasingly crafty video technology – and not of a tall, well-spoken chap in khaki shorts lugging a tripod.

In the second half, he answered half a dozen questions from the audience, kids and adults alike wide-eyed at talking to him.

To finish, Attenborough read the last words of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. The passage provided a lyrical finale delivered in those famously mellifluous tones.

It was fitting. Darwin had inspired him as a youngster.  Eventually, Attenborough made television his Beagle, inspiring many with his own voyages.

His great television adventures might be long over. But armed with just a sharp memory and supporting footage, live, Attenborough was just as compelling as he’s always been.

He got a standing ovation at the beginning from an audience who have had Attenborough explain the natural world to them all their lives.

He got another at the end for what was a funny, touching personal epic of a show. One that explained something of the great man while wandering down a truly spectacular memory lane.

The 90th birthday retrospective Attenborough’s Zoo Quest in Colour screens on Prime, Sunday February 5, 7.30pm.

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