Attenborough: The treasure principle

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Sir David Attenborough has been voted our finest national treasure. But look who else is on the list – and who isn't

There is one name conspicuously absent from the results, announced yesterday, of a new nationwide poll on Britain's greatest "national treasures". Given her unique place in the notion of nation, not to mention the many treasures in her possession, isn't it odd that the Queen didn't make the list?

Perhaps our relationship to royalty is too conflicted for us to include Elizabeth Windsor in our collective affections. Yet it's easiest to define a National Treasure as somebody who would stand a good chance of being elected King or Queen, were the title subject to the democratic process. Somebody who would display the values and character of the nation at its best, without being forced to dirty their hands in policymaking. Somebody we'd feel comfortable to see welcoming the Putins or the Obamas to their official residence. Somebody we could send to the Subcontinent or the South Pacific, without worrying that they'd make us look bad with their borderline racist jokes.

As the concept of political nationalism developed in Europe at the end of the 18th Century, it brought with it cultural nationalism, which alighted upon shared cultural assets as signifiers of nationhood: "God Save the Queen [or King]", the works of Shakespeare, Big Ben and, eventually, living individuals all came to be thought of as National Treasures. In 1952, for example, the new Queen Elizabeth declared her first Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, a National Treasure.

To acquire Treasure status, one must first achieve longevity. JK Rowling aside, all those on the EuroMillions Millionaire Raffle National Treasures Report list have been in the public consciousness for at least a quarter of a century. Most of the top 10 pass The "Parky" Test: being sufficiently venerable to have appeared on Sir Michael Parkinson's chatshow, without disgracing themselves. One of the many qualities of the top-ranked Treasure, Sir David Attenborough, is that he continues to make award-winning television in his 80s.

Also helpful to one's cause is an association with a great cultural institution. In the case of Attenborough and Stephen Fry, the patronage of the BBC is a substitute for monarchy. As a narrator of audiobooks, Fry is closely linked with Rowling's Harry Potter, itself a National Treasure. Dame Judi Dench and Sir Sean Connery are both members of the James Bond family. If being a royal is detrimental, playing one is a boon: Dench has played Elizabeth I, while pending Treasures Dame Helen Mirren and Colin Firth CBE have played Elizabeth II and George VI respectively. All three won Oscars for their performances – which helps, too (cf Lord Richard Attenborough).

A National Treasure must have breadth of appeal, which means he or she must be inoffensive without being bland. This can be achieved through charm (Hugh Grant, Michael Palin) wit (Jarvis Cocker, Alan Bennett), erudition (Tony Benn, Stephen Hawking) or enthusiasm (Brian Cox, Jamie Oliver). In mathematical terms, our biggest cultural exports might be that quartet of professionally unpleasant middle-aged men: Cowell, Clarkson, Ramsay and Morgan. But they all lack one essential trait of a National Treasure – the same trait that gives Keith a greater claim to Treasuredom than Sir Mick: modesty.

The top 10...

1. Sir David Attenborough If Attenborough were to broadcast a Christmas message, he'd probably get more viewers than the Queen. Especially if he delivered it over a shot of some penguins catching fish in slow-motion.

2. Stephen Fry He's had his wobbles, usually accompanied by a brief absence from Twitter. But, even as he gets older, Fry's TV ubiquity guarantees continued Treasure status.

3. Sir Sean ConneryPlaying Bond may not always lead to National Treasuredom – ask George Lazenby – but it helps. Connery is ranked number three, making him Scotland's most treasured.

4. Sir Paul McCartney If not for Heather, Macca might have placed higher than four. As a songwriter, he probably made more National Treasures all of his rivals combined.

5. Stephen Hawking Proof you don't need to be an artiste or TV personality to be considered a Treasure. Hawking is as worthy of a place on a banknote as Newton, Faraday or Darwin.

6. Sir Bobby Charlton The only sportsperson to make the top 10, Charlton won the World Cup, survived the Munich Air Disaster and scored more goals for England than any player before or since.

7. JK Rowling The youngest person in the top 10, and the leading lady Treasure, Rowling has also been famous for far less time than the other nine. That's where 400m book sales gets you.

8. Dame Judi Dench Dench is the unofficial spokesperson for venerable British actors, who are as comfortable in a Hollywood smash as a BBC costume drama.

9. Sir Tom Jones Dame Shirley Bassey, Sir Anthony Hopkins and Ryan Giggs will all, presumably, be crushed to learn Jones is officially our most-treasured Welsh person.

10. Lord Richard Attenborough Two Oscars, three Baftas, three Golden Globes and a seat in the House of Lords – and still he's upstaged by his younger brother. Still, between them they are a much-treasured pair.

But what about Alan? Or Brucie? Or Delia?

An alternative Top 10...

The great British public may have picked an admirable top 10 National Treasures, but there are at least 10 more that ought to be recognised for their longevity, modesty and electability. "King Keith"? It has a certain ring to it. And Billy Connolly passes the Parky Test with flying colours.

David Hockney

Michael Palin

Tony Benn

Sir Bruce Forsyth

Keith Richards

Billy Connolly

Alan Bennett

Delia Smith

Dame Helen Mirren

Dame Vivienne Westwood

...10 to watch

They don't quite make the grade now, but if they carry on writing bestselling cookbooks, organising charity gigs or crusading nobly against press intrusion, these 10 are on course to achieve National Treasure status before the end of the decade.

Hugh Grant

Jarvis Cocker

Professor Brian Cox

Jamie Oliver

Lenny Henry

David Beckham

Tracey Emin

Colin Firth

Bob Geldof

Lord Prescott

... and 10 not-quite treasures

One man's National Treasure is another man's offensive television bore. Beloved by many, despised by almost as many, these are 10 National names who'll probably never be embraced as true Treasures.

Ricky Gervais

Jeremy Clarkson

Vanessa Redgrave

Piers Morgan

Gordon Ramsay

Noel Gallagher

Simon Cowell

Wayne Rooney

Jonathan Ross

Naomi Campbell

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: Multiple Apprentices Required

£6240 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Apprentices are required to join a privat...

Sauce Recruitment: HR Manager

£40000 per annum: Sauce Recruitment: This is an exciting opportunity for a HR...

Ashdown Group: Interim HR Manager - 3 Month FTC - Henley-on-Thames

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A well-established organisation oper...

Recruitment Genius: HR Advisor

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Our Client has been the leader ...

Day In a Page

Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

Army general planning to come out
Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

Growing mussels

Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project