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Sixty years of Attenborough through the eyes of the New Statesman

For more than half a century, the magazine has followed the broadcaster's work.

Read the New Statesman's most recent interview with David Attenborough, by Brian Cox and Robin Ince, here.

For almost 60 years, New Statesman critics have attempted to put into words the effect of seeing David Attenborough in his native habitat: the wild. “Attenborough is a lively, floor-pacing, arm-swinging magic lantern man, deftly imitating by turns a harassed traffic policeman, a Nonconformist minister searching for the clinching analogy and a district nurse on a bicycle,” wrote his fellow BBC grandee Dennis Potter in 1974.

It was Tom Driberg, in 1954, who first introduced NS readers to the “highly successful TV ‘personality’, whose casual, conversational manner conceals a deliberately studied technique”. When Jack Lester, curator of London Zoo’s reptile house, fell ill, Attenborough, then a producer, stood in to present the BBC2 series Zoo Quest. “In comparison with [him],” Driberg wrote, “many of the old troupers from the regular entertainment world seem intolerably brassy and two-dimensional.”

Following the groundbreaking Life on Earth (1979), Julian Barnes seemed somewhat perplexed to see the presenter squatting low behind a wall, observing the religious rituals of Indonesians in Spirit of Asia (1980). “This may be a productive style for creeping up on things we think we know too well and over-despise, like animals; indeed, part of the deserved success of Life on Earth derived directly from Attenborough’s guileless mixture of reverence and zeal. But the last episode of Life – which presented humans as if they were merely an advanced breed of problem-solving beast – was the least satisfactory, and in retrospect it’s easier to see why. People – unless they’re fossilised or preserved in peat, and enlivened with some label like protocrotojurassic – aren’t really Attenborough’s thing.”

After a blissfully quiet, though unfulfilling, stint as controller of BBC2 – “I asked what the policy should be, and they said: ‘That’s up to you, dear boy. You tell us’” – Attenborough became an outspoken critic of reforms to the licence-fee model. “The changes at the BBC are all market forces and marketing,” he told Mary Riddell in 1998. “Gets up my nose a bit, [and] I do have a frisson of despair at the standards.”

He still voices concern for the corporation. “It is crucially important for our society and [represents] the highest aspirations of our society. I’m appalled anybody thinks otherwise. If you remove the licence fee, it would be gone in a decade,” he told Sophie Elmhirst in 2011. But Attenborough, now 86, has recently taken to speaking out about a far more serious problem, that of overpopulation. Writing in the NS in April, Attenborough spoke with uncharacteristic force about ecosystems ruined by the arrival of man. “Anyone who believes in indefinite growth in anything physical, on a physically finite planet, is either mad – or an economist.”


Philip Maughan is Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 24 December 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Brian Cox and Robin Ince guest edit

Photo: Getty Images
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No, IDS, welfare isn't a path to wealth. Quite the opposite, in fact

Far from being a lifestyle choice, welfare is all too often a struggle for survival.

Iain Duncan Smith really is the gift that keeps on giving. You get one bile-filled giftbag of small-minded, hypocritical nastiness and, just when you think it has no more pain to inflict, off comes another ghastly layer of wrapping paper and out oozes some more. He is a game of Pass the Parcel for people who hate humanity.
For reasons beyond current understanding, the Conservative party not only let him have his own department but set him loose on a stage at their conference, despite the fact that there was both a microphone and an audience and that people might hear and report on what he was going to say. It’s almost like they don’t care that the man in charge of the benefits system displays a fundamental - and, dare I say, deliberate - misunderstanding of what that system is for.
IDS took to the stage to tell the disabled people of Britain - or as he likes to think of us, the not “normal” people of Britain -  “We won’t lift you out of poverty by simply transferring taxpayers’ money to you. With our help, you’ll work your way out of poverty.” It really is fascinating that he was allowed to make such an important speech on Opposite Day.
Iain Duncan Smith is a man possessed by the concept of work. That’s why he put in so many hours and Universal Credit was such a roaring success. Work, when available and suitable and accessible, is a wonderful thing, but for those unable to access it, the welfare system is a crucial safety net that keeps them from becoming totally impoverished.
Benefits absolutely should be the route out of poverty. They are the essential buffer between people and penury. Iain Duncan Smith speaks as though there is a weekly rollover on them, building and building until claimants can skip into the kind of mansion he lives in. They are not that. They are a small stipend to keep body and soul together.
Benefits shouldn’t be a route to wealth and DWP cuts have ensured that, but the notion that we should leave people in poverty astounds me. The people who rely on benefits don’t see it as a quick buck, an easy income. We cannot be the kind of society who is content to leave people destitute because they are unable to work, through long-term illness or short-term job-seeking. Without benefits, people are literally starving. People don’t go to food banks because Waitrose are out of asparagus. They go because the government has snipped away at their benefits until they have become too poor to feed themselves.
The utter hypocrisy of telling disabled people to work themselves out of poverty while cutting Access to Work is so audacious as to be almost impressive. IDS suggests that suitable jobs for disabled workers are constantly popping out of the ground like daisies, despite the fact that his own government closed 36 Remploy factories. If he wants people to work their way out of poverty, he has make it very easy to find that work.
His speech was riddled with odious little snippets digging at those who rely on his department. No one is “simply transferring taxpayers’ money” to claimants, as though every Friday he sits down with his card reader to do some online banking, sneaking into people’s accounts and spiriting their cash away to the scrounging masses. Anyone who has come within ten feet of claiming benefits knows it is far from a simple process.
He is incredulous that if a doctor says you are too sick to work, you get signed off work, as though doctors are untrained apes that somehow gained access to a pen. This is only the latest absurd episode in DWP’s ongoing deep mistrust of the medical profession, whose knowledge of their own patients is often ignored in favour of a brief assessment by an outside agency. IDS implies it is yes-no question that GPs ask; you’re either well enough to work or signed off indefinitely to leech from the state. This is simply not true. GPs can recommend their patients for differing approaches for remaining in work, be it a phased return or adapted circumstances and they do tend to have the advantage over the DWP’s agency of having actually met their patient before.
I have read enough stories of the callous ineptitude of sanctions and cuts starving the people we are meant to be protecting. A robust welfare system is the sign of a society that cares for those in need. We need to provide accessible, suitable jobs for those who can work and accessible, suitable benefits for those who can’t. That truly would be a gift that keeps giving.