Life on Earth - 1979
Attenborough’s first major wildlife series wrote the blueprint for many of his later endeavours: innovative filming techniques, cameramen waiting for days for a single shot and slow-motion footage - in this instance capturing the flight of a bat as filmed using a wind tunnel. For many however, the highlight of the 13-part series was Attenborough’s own encounter with gorillas in Rwanda. “There is more meaning and mutual understanding in exchanging a glance with a gorilla,” said the gentle presenter, “than with any other animal I know.”
The Living Planet - 1984
Though we saw wildlife in Sudan, red-breasted geese that had been reared to fly alongside the cameraman, and an erupting volcano creating Giant’s Causeway-like basalt columns in Iceland, The Living Planet’s most memorable sequence was filmed in Panama, where migratory birds made mesmerising cloud shapes against a sunset backdrop.
The Trials of Life - 1990
Already a seasoned globetrotter, the three-and-a-half year filming schedule for The Trials of Life saw Attenborough notch up some quarter of a million miles. The result? In Kenya we met and followed an elephant family as they survived throughout the year, and we joined a group of West African chimpanzees who voraciously protected their territory and hunted with a primordial violence that captivated viewers and more than explained the series’ name.
Life in the Freezer - 1993
Attenborough’s first foray into the polar caps resulted in the UK falling for Emperor Penguins - "the only birds to lay their eggs directly on ice,” as Attenborough informs us - whose male population spend the harsh Antarctic winter huddled together for warmth. The moment when the first female penguins arrive with Spring supplies, making the males chatter with joy, is televisual gold.
The Private Life of Plants - 1995
In this series, the BBC’s use of time-lapse photography came to the fore, showing the incredible diversity of plants around the world, from the jungles of Borneo to the forests of Siberia. After the series was aired, Attenborough admitted that he’d used the commission to realise a long-held ambition to visit Mount Roraima - which splits the border of Venezuela, Brazil and Guyana - to see some of South America’s unique fauna.
The Life of Birds - 1998
"Birds are the most accomplished aeronauts the world has ever seen,” said Attenborough in the opening segment of this epic three-year series. We meet parrots in New Zealand, shearwaters in Japan and the Galapagos Hawk, which hunts Marine Iguanas in those most famous of islands. But the highlight for many was a sequence filmed in the stunning Seychelles, where more than a million sooty terns gathered to mate and made an arresting - and deafening - spectacle.
The Life of Mammals - 2002
This series saw more fantastic camera angles - zip wires through the jungle, infra-red lion hunts in Africa and close encounters with grizzly bears in Alaska - but the undoubted star of the show were the locations, showing that warm-blooded mammals can adapt to life whether it’s in the baking deserts of Australia, or the freezing latitudes of the Arctic North. Our favourite? The jumping lemurs of Madagascar, whose movements were captured in slow motion and eloquently explained by our velvet-voiced national treasure.
Planet Earth - 2006
Filmed entirely in high definition, Planet Earth was the most expensive documentary series ever commissioned, costing £16 million over its four-year production. The firsts in the series included: the first footage of a snow leopard and her cub in deepest Pakistan, Demoiselle Cranes attempting to fly over Everest, and an Arctic wolf hunt filmed entirely from the air. The highlight however must be the footage of great white sharks leaping out of the water to a South African sunrise for their cape fur seal breakfast. “Slowed down 40 times,” says Attenborough, “we see this immensely powerful predator at its best.”
Frozen Planet - 2011
Attenborough’s latest project has once again captured the public’s imagination with his sprinkling of magic. And while the time-lapses of thawing waterfalls and revolving suns at the poles are utterly incredible, the series will no doubt be remembered for the filmed sequence of a penguin “who has turned to a life of crime,” as Attenborough informs us - as he steals his neighbour’s nest materials to build his own home.