Let me start this week with an admittedly hard quiz question: in 1954, how did the sudden illness of Jack Lester, head of London Zoo’s reptile house, transform British television? The answer is that his reluctant stand-in as the presenter of BBC’s Zoo Quest was the show’s director, David Attenborough.
Offhand, it’s not easy to think of many people whose 90th birthday could overshadow the Queen’s, but this month Attenborough’s is coming pretty close. The latest tribute was David Attenborough’s Zoo Quest in Colour (BBC4, Tuesday), which dedicated an appropriate 90 minutes to his first TV hit. As the title indicates, the big coup here was that the archive clips were no longer in grainy black-and-white. The bad news for anti-colourising purists, though, was that this didn’t mean they could get down to some serious head-shaking. Of course, more than ten years before colour television came to Britain (and, by my reckoning, at least 30 before seaside B&Bs stopped proudly offering ‘Colour TV’ as an enticement), Zoo Quest was broadcast in black and white. Nonetheless, much of it was shot on colour stock, which apparently produced sharper images. So no trickery — or, if you prefer, treachery — was involved in showing us the undeniably stunning footage we now saw.
Naturally, a few things have changed since Attenborough was a blond hunk with an almost Putinian fondness for taking his shirt off. These days, for example, wildlife presenters don’t tend to steal the animals they find in tropical jungles and take them back home. There was also something inescapably pre-Suez about the way Attenborough and his cameraman Charles Lagus exchanged their jackets and ties for safari suits, headed to the colonies and got the natives to do much of the heavy lifting.