Presented nearly four decades ago, David Attenborough’s CHRISTMAS LECTURES® explored the complex world of animal communication.

Billed as the "One hundredth and forty-fourth course of six lectures for young people" the series was filmed live at the Royal Institution between Friday 23 December 1973 and Friday 4 January 1974. 

David Attenborough was the Controller of BBC Two from 1965 to 1968 and the BBC’s Director of programmes from 1969 to 1973. In the year of presenting his Lectures he had resumed film-making and had recently returned from an expedition to Borneo and Sumatra.

Alongside the redigitised lectures, watch Sir David look back on his CHRISTMAS LECTURES® experience.

The Lectures

Breaking the cardinal rule of broadcast television – ‘never work with animals or children’ – David Attenborough demonstrates the varied means by which animals convey information to one another and reveals a collection of diverse and complicated behaviours.

From visual signals to distinctive scents, the series explores the vast repertoire of animal language as well as the diverse meaning of messages, whether it be attracting a mate or acting as a warning signal.

As Attenborough explains, getting the right message across often means the difference between life and death. Parents communicate with their young, infants signal when they’re in distress and specific colours can signal danger. Other animals have also devised clever deceptions, mimicking the warning signals of others without actually possessing a physical threat.

Language is shown to be a universal tool of the animal kingdom but, asks Attenborough, how can we learn what animals are saying to each other and how does their language compare to our own? The series concludes by exploring whether it is possible for us to communicate with animals and if we could ever hope to teach an animal to use a human language. 

Please note: The fourth lecture in the series ("Simple Signs and Complicated Communications") is currently unavailable.  

Media Gallery

  • Christmas Lectures 1973

    David Attenborough chats to young members of the audience.

    Image: The Royal Institution

  • Christmas Lectures 1973

    A ring-tailed lemur makes an appearance in David Attenborough's first lecture, Beware!

    Image: The Royal Institution

  • Christmas Lectures 1973

    Image: The Royal Institution

  • Christmas Lectures 1973

    Audience members wear busby hats.

    Image: The Royal Institution

  • A drawing taken from the original programme promoting the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures in 1973

    Image: The Royal Institution

  • Christmas Lecturers, past and present

    This year's Christmas Lecturer, Bruce Hood meets Sir David Attenborough, who delivered the Christmas Lectures in 1973.

    Image: The Royal Institution

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CHRISTMAS LECTURES 1973: The Language of Animals

Exploring the varied and wonderful world of animal language. By Sir David Attenborough

David Attenborough presents the CHRISTMAS LECTURES in 1973

Image: The Royal Institution