In the late 1980s, a meeting was convened
at the BBC studios on Whiteladies Road in Bristol. Its participants –
mainly amiable former public schoolboys named Mike – discussed the
imminent retirement of a grey-haired freelancer, who had been working
with the BBC for almost four decades. “We need to think about who is
going to take over from David when this series is finished,” a junior
producer, Mike Gunton, remembered his boss saying. David Attenborough
was nearing 65 and putting the finishing touches to The Trials of Life,
the third of his epic series about the natural world. These programmes
had been broadcast around the globe. They had established a new genre,
perhaps even a new language, of wildlife films. It was a fine legacy.
Now it was time to go.
When Alastair Fothergill became head of the BBC Natural History Unit a
few years later, executives were still worrying over the same question.
director-general asked him to find a new David Attenborough. “I
remember thinking, that’s not very sensible,” said Fothergill. “He has
always been this great oak tree under which it’s been hard for a sapling
to grow.” Today, Mike Gunton has ascended the ranks to become creative
director of the Natural History Unit. He still attends meetings on
Whiteladies Road. But, three decades after the subject was first
broached, finding the next David Attenborough is no longer on the
agenda. “We still haven’t got an answer and I don’t want one,” Gunton