Attenborough: The treasure principle

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

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