To he who set the golden standard

Television - Andrew Billen notes a landmark of a distinguished life in broadcasting

I don't know where Sir David Attenborough stands on cloning, but he is his own best argument for it. With The Life of Mammals, he must surely have reached the twilight of his 50 years as TV's chief purveyor of fauna and flora, and I bet that not a single viewer would wish to see his shoes filled with anything less than a perfect replica. However, two documentaries that accompanied the start of the ten-parter reminded us of his extraordinary mid-career period as a television controller. Had he cloned himself, we would have had not only Life of Earth and the rest, but also a BBC director general whose legacy to public service broadcasting might have been even greater.

To start with the main attraction: a major Attenborough series now comes with as much self-reference as a Bond movie. The opening shot of BBC1's The Life of Mammals (Wednesdays, 9pm - why so late?) was of a distant Eskimo on a motorised sled speeding across icy tundra. The Inuit eventually pulled up and, from beneath the furry anorak, revealed himself to be Attenborough, David Attenborough. This was the High Arctic, "one of the coldest places on earth" - and, of course it was, James, because wherever he goes he pursues superlatives: the biggest, hottest, coldest and, in this first episode, the duck-billed platypus, simply the "most extraordinary animal alive on earth".

The series-plugging over, we finally got down to it in Australia, where, confusingly, platypuses lay eggs and marsupials gestate their young outside their bodies. Naturally, the pictures were fantastic, although not so fantastic as to justify Sir David taking ten minutes at the end telling us how he got them. He had already boasted about the microcamera that had burrowed into a platypus nest. This tic in the BBC's natural history output is there to fill out the space between the American running time and the old-fashioned BBC hour. With a series costing £8m, you would have thought there would be cash left for a rounded-out British edit.

It is a minor point, but this little concession to commercial considerations gave added poignancy to BBC4's A Life on Air (shown 20 November, 10pm, but repeated on Sunday 1 December, 8pm, BBC1) and Attenborough: the controller years, which followed it. A Life on Air, presented chummily by Michael Palin, the BBC's other great adventurer, concentrated on how Attenborough had developed from an effeminate, blinky stand-in to a wildlife presenter who epitomised the BBC's values. But it reminded us also of the degree to which Attenborough, as an early BBC2 controller, invented much of the television we know today: not just the prestige stuff you would expect such as Civilisation and The Ascent of Man (which established the tradition of major documentary series that was to keep him in work), but Match of the Day, Pot Black, The Likely Lads, Not Only . . . But Also and so much else still extant, from Call My Bluff to The Money Programme.

On The Controller Years, Sir David said he worked to a simple principle that BBC2 should regularly cover all the aspects of human activity that BBC1 did not. His strength was that, as a programme-maker, he allowed the ideas to come from other programme-makers. His predecessor Michael Peacock, he said, had simply not had time to harbour the resources necessary for the new channel, but from what we saw of his opening schedule, Peacock seemed to have taken an Artsworld view of how to run a cultural channel, considering, say, a jazz concert as a programme in its own right. Peacock bureaucratically streamed each night's programming: arts one night, education the next, all repeats on a third. Attenborough was a master at hammocking the serious between the more popular and insisted on originality at every stage.

His defence 40 years ago of a quality channel few people could receive serves well as an argument for us all to be patient with BBC4. As digital TV spreads, in time, viewers will find it, and with it the BBC's public service remit. In the meantime, it is hard not to sympathise with the "golden era" brigade on The Controller Years who compared Attenborough's schedules of 1965-70 with Jane Root's today. Christopher Frayling, dismayed by the mid-evening belt of make-over shows, said the idea of who the BBC viewer was had changed. The inquiring intellect had become consumer concern.

Yet the wisest overview of the present television habitat was also the least pessimistic and it came from Attenborough, who had turned down the opportunity to be DG and chosen sticky moments in the rainforest. He said television was now a vast library, no longer a universal theatre providing a balanced night's viewing.

Although he spoke without sentimentality, it is obviously a poignant passing. Restoring Late Night Line-Up would be a nonsense because it rested on the assumption that everyone had earlier watched the programme to be discussed, but we no longer do. But the golden age, if there ever was one, persists in the multi-channel jungle. It is simply that now, one has to use a sieve to find the nuggets gleaming amid the digital dross. The Life of Mammals will always be there for reference. We shall just have to go hunting for it.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the Times