More than three years in the making, with location filming in over 20 countries, this award-winning series remains compelling viewing.
Bronowski, by the 1970's, was a well-known figure on British television - an intellectual and a scientist who could communicate the complex without sounding simplistic or making the viewer feel stupid. But 'The Ascent of Man' seemed a programme too far. The BBC charter, and the BBC's experience, might emphasise the need to educate and inform, as well as entertain, but surely an exploration of this nature was too vast and too cerebral for prime-time viewing? There were many who felt that it was pretentious of the BBC and that it would be played to a distinctly minority audience.
The result was not simply that Bronowski produced groundbreaking television and set the tone for the future, his exploration of human civilisation crossed the bridge of irony - the British public was not merely ready to watch this programme, they wanted exploration and enquiry, and they wanted the sort of production Bronowski could deliver. Here we had intelligent, intellectual analysis which was sustained by human values, not cold science! Bronowski conveyed passion and excitement and made knowledge and learning warm with emotion and anticipation!
Bronowski could inject passion into a fossil! He comes across as such a lover of life. This is not just a quick history of the world ... this is excitement captured on television, and now on DVD. The great quality of 'The Ascent of Man' is that Bronowski does not set out to deliver fact, incontrovertible statements set in stone - rather he sets out to question and to sow in the minds of the viewer the seeds of doubt, the questions which will stimulate them to enquire, to enquire, and enquire again and never to take for granted. The scientific method is not the cold pursuit of certainties ... it is the human dynamic of uncertainty and the artistry of explanation. Science and history are alive.
And Bronowski never makes this point more clearly than when he kneels in a concentration camp and plucks up a handful of earth. It is a scene of such humility and compassion, it never fails to bring tears to my eyes. Evil lies in blind acceptance and obedience. The essence of civilisation is in questioning, doubting, thinking outside the box. And, in 'The Ascent of Man', the BBC brought the box into the living room and delivered out of it one of the epic pieces of television history and one of the most civilising productions any media has yet carried. Magnificent. Five stars is just for starters!
Having purchased the DVD box set & had the chance to watch all 13 episodes in sequence over a short period of time, I have been nothing short of spellbound by a second exposure to Bronowski's achievement & performance.
This is material you need to immerse yourself in totally - close the door & brook no interruptions. Bronowski's greatest legacy through these essays is the way in which he brings to life through his own understanding & humanity the key individuals who have dominated the history of science. Each viewer will draw their own conclusions & have their own favourites, but for me the desciptions of the life & work of Alfred Wallace, Gregor Mendel, Albert Einstein & Leo Szilard are peaks on the already high plateau of analysis & explanation.
The series is peppered with profound quotations from his subjects & wonderful prose from Bronowski himself. I would challenge anybody with an ounce of humanity not to be moved by the closing sequences of 'The Majestic Clockwork','The Long Childhood' &, of course, 'Knowledge or Certainty' which is angry, chilling & heart-rending all at the same time.
They do not make them like this anymore.
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