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Icon of the month: David Attenborough

Catherine von Ruhland

In a Time magazine piece on heroes of ecology, Jeremy Paxman described Attenborough as 'the voice of the environment'. You can see what he means. Those familiar whispered tones are known worldwide and have been heard enthusing about the natural world since the 1950s. Perhaps only Jacques Cousteau comes close as the recognisable voice of the oceans.

It is not just what Sir David says that is his gift to the world, but how he says it. His quiet words are imbued with a deep sense of wonder and reverence. It is how people speak in a chapel or in front of one of art's Great Masters - like they don't want to disturb the peace. Yet you can hear the joyousness bubble up too, and see it in his eyes. He has never lost the captivating boyish enthusiasm that started him off in the first place. He shows us how to regard the life of this planet.

There has emerged a deep fondness for Attenborough and his rich catalogue of work wherever it has been broadcast. When Ricky Gervais cited him as the person he most despised, the joke was that it would simply cross no one's mind to consider such a thing. At the end of 2006, he was voted Britain's Greatest Living Icon in a Culture Show poll, above such rock striplings as Morrissey, McCartney and Bowie. He is the person we'd have as our president were we ever given a free vote. He's 81 now, and you can't help wondering when the calls will start for a Lying in State and official Day of Mourning at his eventual passing. Expect weeping in the streets.

Attenborough's career has been in tandem with the development of television in this country. His wildlife documentaries are as much a record of the great strides made in camerawork over the last half century. He didn't even own a TV set when he started working for the BBC. And as controller of BBC2 in the 1960s he had the distinction of introducing colour broadcasts via the snooker show Pot Black!

Sir David was also responsible for broadcasting stand-out series, Bronowski's Ascent of Man and Kenneth Clark's Civilisation. He effectively headed up the phalanx of ex-grammar school boys and girls who flooded the media and arts worlds during that period, many of whom have since been honoured for their work. While Dennis Potter regarded the Play for Today strand as 'like having the National theatre in your front room', David Attenborough clearly was never afraid to encourage public service broadcasting to tackle huge themes. And it found a ready audience.

The rare times when he has faced criticism have been tempered by a characteristic modesty of response. Environmentalists yearned for years for him to speak out about global warming. It was only in 2006 that he 'came out' and declared that he believed human-induced climate change to be the major challenge facing the world now that he had weighed up the evidence. His previous reluctance to comment was because he knew he wasn't qualified: 'The television gives you an unfair and unjustified prominence but just because your face is on the telly doesn't mean you're an expert on meteorology.'

It was a refreshing view in a culture that gives celebrities too much voice. And it wasn't as if he hadn't already earned his green stripes. From Zoo Quest onward he had inspired generations of countless young people to seek out careers that respected the natural world. His insistence on the Parkinson show that 'you don't need a car if you live in London' was an advert if ever there was one for public transport.

Unhappy with the idea that God could create a 'worm that can live in no other way than in an innocent child's eyeball', Attenborough expresses an innate and attractive decency, no doubt inherited from parents who opened their home to child refugees from the Spanish Civil War and the Kindertransport. Researching this article I couldn't find a bad thing written about him. When poor English and British behaviour so often has our nation marked out as the Pot Noodle of Europe, the very recognition of Sir David's worth both here and abroad should give us hope. He exemplifies something of the best that we can be.