In the late 1980s, a meeting was convened at the BBC studios on Whiteladies Road in Bristol. Its participants – mainly amiable former public schoolboys named Mike – discussed the imminent retirement of a grey-haired freelancer, who had been working with the BBC for almost four decades. “We need to think about who is going to take over from David when this series is finished,” a junior producer, Mike Gunton, remembered his boss saying. David Attenborough was nearing 65 and putting the finishing touches to The Trials of Life, the third of his epic series about the natural world. These programmes had been broadcast around the globe. They had established a new genre, perhaps even a new language, of wildlife films. It was a fine legacy. Now it was time to go.
When Alastair Fothergill became head of the BBC Natural History Unit a few years later, executives were still worrying over the same question. The BBC director-general asked him to find a new David Attenborough. “I remember thinking, that’s not very sensible,” said Fothergill. “He has always been this great oak tree under which it’s been hard for a sapling to grow.” Today, Mike Gunton has ascended the ranks to become creative director of the Natural History Unit. He still attends meetings on Whiteladies Road. But, three decades after the subject was first broached, finding the next David Attenborough is no longer on the agenda. “We still haven’t got an answer and I don’t want one,” Gunton told me.