A service of thanksgiving for the life and work of Lord Attenborough was held on 17 March 2015 at Westminster Abbey, paying tribute to the great actor, filmmaker and former chairman of the BFI who died August 2014. Among the readings was a moving address from Sir David Attenborough, who read an extract from his brother’s maiden speech as a life peer, given on 22 November 1994 in the House of Lords.
Here we reprint this powerful plea for the role of the arts in society, as it appeared in the order of service.
I have it on the best authority – from a not too distant relative – that we are related to apes. But it is surely not only the ability to stand on our hind legs that sets us so singularly apart from the animal kingdom. The crucial difference must lie in what we call ‘soul’ and creativity.
From the very earliest of times, the arts have been an instinctive essential of our humanity. They are a miraculous sleight of hand which reveals the truth; and a glorious passport to greater understanding between the peoples of the world. The arts not only enrich our lives, but also grant us the opportunity to challenge accepted practices and assumptions. They give us a means of protest against that which we believe to be unjust; a voice to condemn the brute and the bully; a brief to advocate the cause of human dignity and self-respect; a rich and varied language through which we can express our national identity.
Today, as a nation, we face daunting problems – problems which are obliging us to examine the very fabric of our society. And the role of the arts in healing a nation divided, a nation in which too many lack work, lack self-esteem, lack belief and direction, cannot be over-estimated.
The arts are not a luxury. They are as crucial to our well-being, to our very existence, as eating and breathing. Access to them should not be restricted to a privileged few. Nor are they the playground of the intelligentsia. The arts are for everyone – and failure to include everyone diminishes us all.
22 November 1994