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Life on Earth (1979)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Life on Earth (1979)
BBC Bristol, 16/01-10/04/1979
13 x 55min editions, colour
Producers Richard Brock
 Christopher Parsons
 John Sparks
PresenterDavid Attenborough

David Attenborough leads a tour through 3,500 million years of history.

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David Attenborough has been a pioneering figure in television natural history programming since the mid-1950s, when he produced and presented Zoo Quest (BBC, 1954-61); while controller of BBC2 he commissioned the long-running The World About Us (1967-86). Another achievement as BBC2 controller was the initiation of the authored documentary series with Kenneth Clark's Civilisation (1969).

Life on Earth (BBC, 1979), was something of a combination of both forms: an ambitious, 13-part series which aimed to trace the development of life in all its forms since primordial times, illustrated with a multitude of examples from species surviving today and held together by Attenborough's calm, authoritative narration. Unlike Clark and his successors, however, Attenborough largely steered clear of editorial opinion (although his passion and enthusiasm for his subject was evident throughout) and remained, for the most part, hidden from the camera.

The product of three years of research and filming in more than 30 countries, Life on Earth drew on a vast field of zoological study and presented a dense array of facts and details. But its real strength lay in its unerringly breathtaking images, which held audiences of all ages rapt with childlike awe - the tender parental nurturing of a pair of crocodiles for their infant, a cheetah at full speed bringing down a young wildebeest, the determined progress of the tiny, blind, larva-like baby opossum towards its mother's pouch and, most famously, a group of gorillas, before which crouched Attenborough himself, head down in deliberately submissive pose, his whisper betraying his own excited fascination: "there is more meaning and mutual understanding in exchanging a glance with a gorilla than any other animal I know. We're so similar." Quite incidentally, the series managed to display more sex on screen - before the watershed, no less - than ever before: insect sex, ape sex, giant tortoise sex...

Life on Earth's mastery of tricks and techniques, including time-lapse photography, microphotography and photographing at 3,000 frames per second, allowing remarkable demonstrations of, for example, insects in flight, confirmed the team assembled by the BBC's Natural History Unit in Bristol as world leaders in their field. That status has been maintained by successive series following every few years, each a television event - The Living Planet (1984), Trials of Life (1990), The Private Life of Plants (1995), The Life of Birds (1998), The Blue Planet (2001) and The Life of Mammals (2002-3).

Mark Duguid

Click titles to see or read more

Video Clips
'The Hunters and the Hunted' (54:18)
1. The capybara (1:32)
2. The cheetah and the wildebeest (3:22)
3. Gorillas (7:47)
Fragile Earth (1982-93)
Private Life of Plants, The (1995)
Zoo Quest (1954-61)
Authored Documentary