Opinion Comment

Thursday 19 September 2019

Declan Lynch: 'Sir David: last of the species of British giants'

Cartoonist: Jim Cogan
Cartoonist: Jim Cogan

Declan Lynch's Diary

I broke away from the Brexit negotiations last week and was listening to the Moncrieff radio show, when he mentioned the fact that it was Sir David Attenborough who had the idea of introducing yellow tennis balls to replace the white ones which had always been used.

I didn't know that.

I knew quite a lot of things about David Attenborough, and I felt that I should have known this thing about the yellow tennis balls, but somehow it had eluded me.

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It seems that when Attenborough was controller of BBC2, and was given the job of introducing colour TV, he felt that coverage of Wimbledon would benefit from the balls being more visible against the white lines.

Wimbledon did not agree with his idea at the time, so it took several years for that change to be made in the BBC's coverage of the grand old tournament at the All-England Club. But the International Tennis Federation was quicker to recognise the merit of Attenborough's suggestion - and thus the standard tennis ball looks the way it does today because of him.

Because of something that occurred to him in his spare time, as it were.

Attenborough may have been running BBC2 but he continued to make the odd programme himself - perhaps because he thought that making programmes was the ultimate purpose of working in television, that his busy executive "role" was perhaps not enough to keep a man fully occupied.

Oh and by the way, as part of the introduction of colour TV, Attenborough oversaw the televising of snooker - I actually knew about that one, and I should mention in passing that it was also on his watch that a programme called Match Of The Day was conceived, despite the fears of the FA who were sure that television coverage would stop people going to the matches. Attenborough managed to persuade them "on the basis that nobody watched BBC2, which was more or less true".

Will I bother to include BBC2 creations such as The Old Grey Whistle Test or Monty Python's Flying Circus? It would probably be wrong not to, in fairness.

So we have gone a fair distance into the life and times of Sir David Attenborough and we haven't even reached the wildlife programmes yet, haven't touched upon his raising awareness of issues pertaining to the environment, thus making a significant contribution to the survival of life on earth.

But we'll stay with the yellow tennis balls for the moment - partly because for some of us it only came to light last week, and partly because we don't have 44 more pages of this diary to appraise the true scale of the achievements of Sir David Attenborough. But mainly because it reminds us in a beautifully simple way that there was a time, not so long ago indeed, when you could find a man such as David Attenborough in the upper echelons of British society, who could identify a problem, and think of a way to fix it.

A man who could make great decisions which seem so obvious in retrospect, which improve the lives of the multitudes in some small way, enriching the culture - and all before embarking on an excellent luncheon and then perhaps out to the airport to fly to the Amazon to discover something or other.

And then we arrive at the Brexit discussions.

I have been listening all week to the breed of decision makers who came after him, trying to imagine how they would have addressed the issue of the white tennis ball being hard to see on television. And the first thing you assume, is that they wouldn't have regarded it as a problem at all - because they'd be seeing other problems, like the fact that, technically, all these foreigners shouldn't really be playing at the All-England Club anyway.

And as for challenging that august body of men at Wimbledon on the colour of their balls, frankly they would regard it as an impertinence on their part.

When the rest of the world changed to the yellow balls, they would view it with suspicion, and they would devise their own solution by changing the colour of the lines instead - or maybe the grass. And eventually the rest of the world would stop coming to Wimbledon, and that would be fine by them too.

So Attenborough has become like a creature in one of his programmes, among the last of an almost extinct species of British giants, and it goes without saying that he was against Brexit.

It goes without saying - but it was rumoured that the BBC asked him to stop saying it anyway, because he has been so obviously right about everything that it might interfere in some way with the ability of today's decision makers to continue to be wrong about everything, all the time.

Attenborough was wrong about one thing though: he turned down the young Terry Wogan, who wrote to him at the BBC looking for a job.

"I am afraid that, at the moment, we do not have any vacancy for anyone with your particular talents and experience," Attenborough wrote back.

But that worked out all right too.

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