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Here's everything you need to know about National Geographic narrator David Attenborough

Apr 15, 2024
National Geographic narrator David Attenborough

The Makings of a Legend

David Attenborough remains a towering figure in the world of documentary filmmaking, having paved the way for a young generation of evocative filmmakers as he scoffs at the notion of twilight years and continues to narrate at almost 100 years old. From popularizing color television to expanding the possibilities of documentary films about the natural world, Sir Attenborough has not only shaped the genre but also inspired generations to appreciate our planet’s (and universe’s) stunning beauty and to ask probing questions about human beings’ relationship to the environment.



Early Life and Education

Born on May 8, 1926, in Isleworth, London, Attenborough's fascination with nature began at an early age. For a future documentary filmmaker who would bring the wonders of nature into people’s homes, it was an ideal time to be born: one year before television. 

Some of the themes he encountered as a child left such a huge impression that he would return to them in adulthood. A piece of amber from the Baltic sea that his sister gave him inspired him to create an episode about the organisms preserved in it. 

He studied natural sciences at Clare College, Cambridge, and later anthropology at the London School of Economics, laying the foundation for his 70+ year career of bringing the natural world to peoples living rooms (and now, fingertips).

Making Waves at the BBC

In 1950, Attenborough took a job as a radio talk producer at the BBC. This was the start of a nearly 25-year tenure with the broadcast company, during which he made significant contributions to the network's programming. His role as Controller of BBC Two allowed him to shape the channel's identity, focusing on a smorgasbord of programming, including but not limited to the arts, sports, history, music, comedy, and you guessed it, natural history.

David Attenborough’s first outing as a presenter was "Zoo Quest" in 1954,  which successfully resonated with audiences. Later, his decision to commission the 13-part series "Civilization,” about Western art history, was a significant moment in British broadcast history, showcasing the new UHF color television cameras’ ability to capture the colors of famous artworks.

Attenborough's programming choices extended beyond nature documentaries, as he also commissioned diverse shows such as "Monty Python's Flying Circus" and "Pot Black," which popularized the sport of snooker in the 1970s and 1980s. In 1972, it was hinted that Attenborough might take over as head of the entire BBC—but he rejected the idea. His eyes were set on freelance.

Greatness as a Freelance Filmmaker

After leaving the BBC in 1972, Attenborough embarked on a career as a freelance documentary filmmaker, allowing him greater creative freedom to explore his passion for nature. His 1974 series "Eastwards with Attenborough" marked the beginning of his prolific solo career.

However, it was his groundbreaking series "Life on Earth" in 1979 that truly solidified Attenborough's legacy as a pioneer in the field. This monumental project took viewers on a captivating journey through over 100 filming locations, made possible by a team of 30 people and over 500 scientists. For one sequence, cameramen used a wind-tunnel to capture a bat’s wings in slow motion. 

All of it was made possible by a modest budget of $1.2 million dollars, which was quite a lot of money at the time but necessary to fund a team of 30 for three whole years. Thanks to new, more advanced film, Sir Attenborough’s team were able to film some of the sharpest, vibrant documentary footage to date.



Following the success of "Life on Earth," Attenborough continued to produce a series of landmark documentaries known as "The Life Collection.”

The Broad Scope of His Works

Attenborough's documentaries cover a wide range of subjects,  from the depths of the ocean to the planets in the solar system. Had David Attenborough been born a year sooner or two years later, would he have experienced the same meteoric success? It’s impossible to say, but his filmography speaks for itself. In the beginning, Attenborough started out with a series about zoo animals and how they’re procured, but even then he would devote time to showing the diverse wildlife found in all the places that the zoo animals came from.

As a freelance nature science filmmaker, he was able to truly sink his teeth into each topic. And he kept innovating. For 1984’s The Living Planet, David was fitted with a fully enclosed facemask that allowed him to move his mouth—and for the first time, viewers could see and hear a narrator speaking underwater.

Sir David Attenborough has accompanied viewers to countless (somebody’s keeping count, but it’s not us!) destinations, from volcano eruptions to the secret lives of birds; from the Sahara desert to tropical rainforests. In Life in the Undergrowth, viewers learn about invertebrates while in the Private Life of Plants, David shows audiences that otherwise seemingly stationary plants actually move. 

In addition to documentaries for all ages, David Attenborough has also worked on programming for children. During the pandemic, he narrated a 14-week virtual program called Bitesize Daily, for school children, about the world’s oceans, animal behavior, and geography.

In 2024, David is still telling stories. This time, they include new revelations about a giant prehistoric sea creature, called the pliosaur, made possible by the discovery of one of the most in-tact skulls ever found, and the never-before-heard sounds of wildlife, made possible by state-of-the-art audio technology. 

All of that begs the question, what does Sir David Attenborough have in store for us in 2025? 

Impactful Narration

Central to Attenborough's success as a documentary filmmaker is his distinctive narration style. Sir David Attenborough’s bright and soothing voice, genuine interest and compassion, and the gentleness and the ease with which he narrates draws audiences into the story and makes them feel as though they are listening to a close friend. 

Not only is his voice so distinctly recognizable, but his eloquence and masterful use of timing continues to delight documentary lovers. Sir Attenborough doesn’t just convey information, he pulls viewers into the story, making it immersive and unforgettable. Some key qualities are worth watching out for when viewing a documentary narrated by David Attenborough:

  • He connects authentically with the subject matter, which makes the content more engaging. This connection creates a bridge between the story and the audience. 
  • David Attenborough’s voice mirrors the ebb and flow of the story’s emotions, drawing listeners deeper into the story.
  • He has clear articulation, making it easy to follow along as he shares scientific information and personal reflections. 
  • Just as a documentary has highs and lows, so does Sir Attenborough’s pacing. This enhances the storytelling experience by helping the viewer feel, for example, a sense of urgency or relaxation.
  • He understands the audience. Knowing who the documentary is intended for helps strike the right tone. A documentary for children might require more enthusiasm and clarity, while one for adults might dive deeper with nuanced expressions and a measured tone.
  • Attenborough is versatile. A narrator’s adaptability to different themes and subjects can amplify the story. Whether it’s a wildlife documentary, a historical retrospective, or a scientific exploration, a versatile narrator can seamlessly fit into any narrative.
  • A great narrator complements the story and does not overpower it. The balance Attenborough strikes between letting the visuals and interviews shine while providing context and insights is crucial for compelling narration.

This approach to narration has not only set Attenborough apart, it has had a profound influence on the documentary genre as a whole.

David Attenborough's unparalleled contributions to documentary filmmaking have left an enduring legacy that continues to inspire and educate audiences around the world. His passion for nature, coupled with his exceptional storytelling abilities, has cemented his place as one of the greatest documentary filmmakers of all time.

Humans Are Here To Stay

At Academy Voices, you will only find human voices. Only living, breathing people are capable of making the independent, authentic, and captivating choices that a human voice actor can. This is why Sir David Attenborough hasn’t been replaced after over 50 years, and filmmakers consistently choose to work with real voice actors for nature documentary narration.

When choosing a narrator voice, be sure to listen to voice samples. This will give you a sense of the narrator’s general style, tone, and pacing. Of course, they will likely be able to adjust their style to the specifics of your project, but you want to get a sense of the baseline characteristics of their vocal profile. You can find voice samples on websites like Academy Voices.

Listening to voice samples will also help you identify any potential assets or drawbacks with the narrator’s voice. For example, some voices may come with an accent or quality that may work great for you and your audience on one project but not on another. It’s important to identify these attributes early on as you hone your search for your narrator.

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