It seems somehow to have always been there. I cannot remember when it first came to my attention but I have long been aware of it as a landmark or rather a landscape in the background of my mind.
Jacob Bronowski’s documentary series, The Ascent of Man, was first broadcast on BBC2 in 1973. I was only nine years old at the time and am almost certain I did not watch it. But I guess I must have seen a re-run some time later because Bronowski’s face and voice have long been familiar to me, along with the sense that his program is highly regarded.
It was one of those TV series that I always meant to get around to watching. The DVD had been languishing on my Amazon wish list for a couple of years. But only recently, when I came across a blog post by David Colquhoun, was I propelled into action. The post was a fascinating reflection on the nature of scientific investigation and ended with a video segment from the series of Bronowski, who was originally a Polish Jew, standing in Auschwitz and talking about the humanity of science. It is an extremely powerful piece of film. I decided I would wait no more and placed my order.
The Ascent of Man consists of thirteen programs, each lasting 50 minutes. Knowing that I would struggle to find the time in the evenings, I ripped the DVDs to MP4 files that I could watch on my iPhone during the commute to work. It was sitting on a train that I started on episode one.
A tiny figure silhouetted by the rising sun ascends to the top of a rocky mountain in East Africa, the cradle of humankind, and declares slowly but emphatically:
“Man is a singular creature. He has a set of gifts that make him unique among the animals, so that — unlike them — he is not a figure in the landscape, he is the shaper of the landscape.”
From that eloquent opening, I was hooked. I could barely tear myself away and watched it on the train, to and from work, in bed last thing at night and first thing in the morning. I got though the whole series in under two weeks. It was magnificent.
Bronowski sets himself the task of recounting the history of mankind, focusing on how the development of his intellectual faculties and his scientific achievements have contributed to the rise of civilisation. The emphasis is scientific but Bronowski’s knowledge and understanding are broad and deep, embracing history, politics, architecture, art, literature and psychology.
The scope of the tale is breath-taking. Starting with the evolution of man, it wends from the development of early human society and agriculture, to the first hints of man’s understanding of the world around him, to his growing mastery of matter and energy, and leads inexorably to our late 20th Century conception of the universe and man’s place within it.
Much of the material will be familiar to viewers, particularly those of a scientific bent, but it is the span and completeness of the narrative, recounted in Bronowski’s signature style that makes viewing such a sumptuous and rewarding experience. He has a talent for exposition that I have never seen bettered and a eye for colourful detail that is charming. His presentation is enriched by his sympathetic humanity and shows no trace of condescension towards the viewer.
For me, the particular delights of The Ascent of Man are Bronowski’s longer disquisitions to camera that reveal both his passion for his subject and his total command of the material, whether it be the manufacture of a samurai sword, the trial of Galileo or Mendel’s theory of inheritance. No subject is too abstruse or difficult to defy Bronowski’s ambition for his story. His emphatic pauses and gestures — that hand carefully reaching up to touch his forehead for a moment, the oft-repeated “And yet…” — may be part of a performance, but there is never any serious doubt that you are in the presence of a quite wonderful teacher.
The Ascent of Man is nearly 40 years old and in some ways shows its age. The look of the program will seem a little dated to some, but it is still astoundingly beautiful. Recorded on 16 mm film, the program may have none of the spectacular high-definition of modern television, but nor does it suffer from the more recent obsession with fast cuts and shaky, hand-held camera-work. In fact the evident care taken in the composition of many of the images presented and the set-up of lengthy tracking shots imbue the films with a quality that has stood — and will yet stand — the test of time.
I don’t want to say any more; I fear I may have gushed too much. My account may have too much of the lover’s uncritical eye. But I would like you to be able to enjoy it, to discover it, to re-discover it for yourself.
Bronowski himself said of the project:
“…my ambition has been to create a philosophy for the 20th Century which shall be all of one place. One part of that is to teach people to command science — to have command of the basic ideas of modern science, so that they can take command of its use.”
In that part of his ambition, he has succeeded in full measure.
I will only tell you finally that I found The Ascent of Man to be utterly compelling. I think I would also like it to be compulsory.