David Attenborough heartbreak over ‘family jokes’ about absence: ‘You were never there’

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Prime Minister Boris Johnson has joined politicians, celebrities and thousands of fans in wishing Sir David a happy birthday today. The popular broadcaster, who turns 95, first found fame after working in the BBC production team in the Sixties and since then has travelled the world to appear on screens. But with that came a huge sacrifice at home and he admitted that his job impacted his relationship with his two children – Susan and Robert – while they were growing up.

Susan is a former primary school headmistress and Robert is a senior lecturer in biological anthropology at the Australian National University in Canberra.

Talking to the Radio Times in 2017, Sir David told interviewer Louis Theroux: “If you have a child of six or eight and you miss three months of his or her life, it’s irreplaceable. You miss something.”

The naturalist said “if he did have any regrets” it was that when his children were younger he “was away for three months at a time”.

And he recalled how there also “used to be family jokes” about his absence.

Sir David said: “You know, ‘You were never there. You don’t remember that Father, do you? You weren’t there.’”

In 1997, Sir David’s wife, Jane Elizabeth Ebsworth Oriel, passed away after 47 years of marriage.

While filming his documentary ‘The Life of the Birds in New Zealand,’ Sir David received the terrible news that she had collapsed.

Aged 70 at the time, Mrs Oriel had suffered a brain haemorrhage and had little chance of survival.

The legendary broadcaster rushed to her side, where he remained for a short time until her death.

Writing of his wife’s final moments in his 2010 memoir ‘Life On Air,’ Sir David remembered wondering if she would respond in any way when he held her hand for the last time.

He stated: ”She did, and gave my hand a squeeze. The focus of my life, the anchor had gone… now I was lost.”

He took time off from his broadcasting and filming work after her death but later confessed that returning to work helped him cope.

He said: “What is important is that there are people around who say to you, ‘Look, we desperately need you, you know. We do desperately want you to write that script. Could you possibly do that?’

“It is a great relief when there is somebody driving you to get on with things.

“I was in the middle of a series when my wife died.

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“I took time off, of course, but there was an obligation there. There were things to do.”

More recently, Sir David has stated he feels like he is “slowing down” in terms of his workload and in December he added that he may never fly long-distance again after recording his narration for a new series from his home in Richmond.

He said: “It’s probably a fact of age, but I was finding my heart was sinking deeper and deeper into my boots every time I walked up into an aircraft and looked down that long line and thought, ‘I’m going to be here for another 24 hours’.

“It didn’t make my heart lift with pleasure.”

Asked if he thought he would ever film overseas again, he stated in December: “No, not a lot.”

Sir David has travelled to fewer locations when making documentaries in the last few years.

During the production of ‘Seven Worlds, One Planet,’ he travelled to just two of the 41 countries producers filmed in – Kenya and Iceland.

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