In Depth

David Attenborough turns 90: Six things you didn't know

He's appeared on TV for more than 60 years, but there's still lots to learn about the much-loved naturalist

Naturalist and broadcaster Sir David Attenborough celebrated his 90th birthday this weekend. Here are six things you might not know about the man who has brought the wonders of the natural world to our TV screens for over 60 years.

He was turned down by the BBC

Sir David's first job after completing a degree in natural sciences at Cambridge was in the navy. He completed two years of national service stationed in North Wales and the Forth of Firth. He then briefly worked in children's textbook publishing before applying for a job at the BBC in 1950. His application was initially rejected, but his CV was reviewed shortly afterwards and he was given three months' training. He once said that if he hadn't got into television, he might have become a teacher.

His teeth were a problem

Like many Britons at the time, Sir David didn't own a television when he started working at the BBC and had only ever watched one TV programme. He worked on natural history programmes but was discouraged from appearing on camera because he was told his teeth were too big. However, he was asked to step in as a presenter on Zoo Quest in 1954, when the scheduled presenter fell ill.

He met a group of 'cannibals'

Travelling to meet a remote community in Papua New Guinea, Sir David's guides suddenly stopped when they saw a group of men and refused to continue, saying they were cannibals. Sir David, however, carried on walking towards the group, who were making fierce cries. He recalled the encounter in an interview with Michael Parkinson, saying: "I walked towards this screaming horde of men, I stuck out my hand, and I heard myself say, 'Good afternoon.'" The men turned out to be friendly and this was their traditional welcome.

He commissioned Monty Python and rejected Wogan

Sir David became controller of BBC Two between 1965 and 1968, during which time he introduced colour television to Britain and commissioned an eclectic mix of programming, including Monty Python's Flying Circus. However, he politely turned down an application from Sir Terry Wogan to be a BBC presenter. "We do not have any vacancies for anyone with your particular talents and experience," he told the presenter, pointing out that BBC Two's chief presenter Denis Tuohy was also from Ireland. "To have had two Irishmen presenting on BBC Two would have looked ridiculous," Sir David said earlier this year. 

He is one of the most travelled men in history

In a 2012 edition of Desert Island Discs, presenter Kirsty Young claimed Sir David "has seen more of the world than any person who has ever lived". While this might be hard to prove, it is true that in order to film the Life of Birds series alone, the naturalist had to travel more than 256,000 miles, the equivalent of going around the world ten times. Despite his travels, Sir David told Time Out that his favourite place in the world was Richmond upon Thames in Surrey.

He hates rats

He has got up close and personal with a lot of scary creatures in his 60-plus years of programme-making, but Sir David has an "irrational horror" of rats. "If a rat appears in a room, I have to work hard to prevent myself from jumping on the nearest table," he told Wales Online. His loathing started during a thunderstorm when he was staying in a thatched hut in a village in the Solomon Islands. Something ran across him as he was sleeping and when he flicked on his torch, he saw rats everywhere. He adds that his horror also comes the fact that rats live so close to humans and don't have any real fear of us. 

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