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'Attenborough's Journey' Salutes The Broadcaster With A Passion For Nature

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm TV critic David Bianculli, sitting in for Terry Gross.

Last month, Netflix premiered a new documentary, "Life In Color With David Attenborough," in which TV's longest-running nature host employed infrared cameras and other new technologies to show us how other creatures see the world. It was a breathtaking documentary series, the latest from a man who hosted his first nature series in the 1950s for the BBC, back when that TV network was in black and white. Since then, Sir David Attenborough has won BAFTA Awards, the British equivalent of our Emmys, for programs filmed not only in black and white, but in color, high-def, 3D and, most recently, 4K. This Saturday, on what will be the exact date of his 95th birthday, the pioneering filmmaker is being saluted with a new BBC America special called "Attenborough's Journey." And what a journey it's been, as narrator Jo Unwin establishes at the start.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ATTENBOROUGH'S JOURNEY")

JO UNWIN: In a career that's spanned the age of television itself, David's produced some of its most iconic moments.

DAVID ATTENBOROUGH: Aha.

UNWIN: And he's pioneered new filming technologies to bring his stories to life.

ATTENBOROUGH: Nobody has ever dived as deep as this before on the Great Barrier Reef.

BIANCULLI: This "Attenborough's Journey" special explains how he got into television in the '50s and on camera in particular - in both cases, completely by accident. And even earlier, his passion for nature began when he roamed the nearby hills as a young lad of 7.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ATTENBOROUGH'S JOURNEY")

UNWIN: David's fascination with life on Earth began when he was a young boy collecting fossils near his home in Leicestershire.

ATTENBOROUGH: This is the Charnwood Forest in Leicestershire. As a schoolboy, I grew up near here.

UNWIN: It was the discoveries David made here in the 1930s that inspired his lifelong search to uncover the secrets of the natural world.

ATTENBOROUGH: When I was a boy and growing up in the midlands, in Leicester, the rocks and limestones you found in the east of the country were full of the most magical things. You would hit a stone, and it suddenly fell open, and there was this amazing coiled shell - beautiful and extraordinary. And nobody had seen that for 150 million years, except you.

BIANCULLI: Attenborough made nature films for British TV for a few decades, then stopped to take a desk job running the then-new BBC Two network. But in the late '70s, he left the executive suite and went back into the field. He roamed the globe and shared his discoveries and enthusiasms with his patented semi-whisper way of narrating. He talks like he's revealing secrets and draws you in using such simple language that he's instantly understood, making his sense of wonder infectious. And when he goes on site to share the screen with one of his subjects, it's magical.

The appreciation of life and of nature and its fragility run throughout all of David Attenborough's work. More recently, he's become much more overt about pushing for environmental reforms and action. And it's understandable, since he's been a firsthand witness to the changes that global warming has brought to the undersea and surface worlds he's filmed for nearly 70 years. The documentary "Attenborough's Journey" calls him our greatest broadcaster, and it's hard to argue against that claim. I still remember one sequence from 1998's "The Life Of Birds" that ranks as one of my favorite TV moments ever. Attenborough was in the jungles of Western Australia, eavesdropping as a male lyrebird starts showing off to attract a potential mate.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRD CALLING)

BIANCULLI: This isn't in "Attenborough's Journey," but while we're celebrating Sir David Attenborough, this is something you have to hear.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE LIFE OF BIRDS")

ATTENBOROUGH: He can imitate the calls of at least 20 different species.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRD CALLING)

ATTENBOROUGH: He also, in his attempt to outsing his rivals, incorporates other sounds that he hears in the forest.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRD IMITATING CAMERA SHUTTER CLICKING)

ATTENBOROUGH: That was a camera shutter.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRD IMITATING CAMERA SHUTTER CLICKING)

ATTENBOROUGH: And again.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRD IMITATING CAMERA SHUTTER CLICKING)

ATTENBOROUGH: And now a camera with a motor drive.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRD IMITATING CAR ALARM)

ATTENBOROUGH: And that's a car alarm.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRD IMITATING CAR ALARM)

ATTENBOROUGH: And now the sounds of foresters and their chainsaws working nearby.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRD IMITATING CHAINSAW)

BIANCULLI: In moments like that - and David Attenborough has produced a lifetime of them - he's not just an ambassador showing us the wonder of nature. Time and again, in one program and one decade after another, he's also been demonstrating at its most inspiring the wonder of television.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BIANCULLI: On Monday's show, Barry Jenkins, director of the Oscar award-winning film "Moonlight" and the film adaptation of James Baldwin's "If Beale Street Could Talk." His new TV miniseries is "The Underground Railroad." It's adapted from Colson Whitehead's Pulitzer Prizewinning novel about escaping enslavement in a reimagined America. I hope you can join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer today is Roberta Shorrock. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman, Julian Herzfeld and Al Banks. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley, Kayla Lattimore and Joel Wolfram. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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