Jacob Bronowski’s personal
account of the ascent of man is being shown again on UKTV Documentaries
on Saturdays. I remember this series when it first appeared in 1973; an
extraordinary essay on the foundations of our civilization. I am now
working on a series about the science and technology of the Ancient
Greeks, Egyptians, Chinese, and so on; I am learning a certain amount
about them, and am therefore particularly interested to see how
Bronowski tackled the same subjects.
The first thing I notice is the
difference in style. The programme about Pythagoras – one of my great
heroes and the man who invented mathematical proof – begins with a
minute and a half of pretty shots and music. No voice-over, just mood.
No producer would be allowed to do that today. The twenty-first century
viewer is supposed to have an attention span of about ten seconds, and
therefore something ‘exciting’ has to happen before ten seconds have
Then Bronowski simply talks to
camera, occasionally moving about a bit, or doing a simple
demonstration. There are no ‘experts’, no American scientists sitting
beside their computers, no one dressed up in funny clothes, and above
all no flashy visual effects – slowmo, fastmo, crash zooms, or tilted
cameras. Only slow pans across the Greek landscape to find Bronowski
under an olive tree, waiting to tell us something complicated and
interesting, in his calm measured tones.
He also uses the surroundings as
his props – demonstrating Pythagoras’s Theorem with a few tiles and a
twig torn from the olive tree. In another programme, about the Arabs, he
describes with the help of beautiful decorative tiling the connections
between art and mathematics and Islam.
I remember The Ascent of Man as
compulsive viewing, and I am delighted to find I still enjoy the series
today, although Bronowski’s deliberate delivery sometimes makes me want
to speed the tape up a bit. Also because he goes slowly, he leaves out
many bits of the story that I long to put back in. In other words
because in the 30 years since I last saw it I have learned a good deal
about the subject, I still find his take on it fascinating, but I wish
he could have fleshed it out a little more.
If you did not see it in 1973, I
urge you to watch at least one episode now.