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THE ASCENT OF MAN: A MASTERCLASS IN THE ART OF AUTHORED DOCUMENTARY
on 22 September 2011
I've learnt more in the course of watching this compelling series than I did during seven years of secondary school education.
It's not simply a matter of Jacob Bronowski's intellect, but his own life experience and essential humanity that shines through and informs every word. I've never seen anyone conflate the arts and science as he does - and with such charisma, as though he's sharing some secret knowledge with you. You can't help but be flattered by his concentrated attention.
It's a masterclass in the art of the authored documentary, effortlessly juxtaposing different periods, personalities and ideas and always with a satisfying visual style - from the framing of individual shots to the staging of elaborate set-ups (see the surreal opening to Programme 11 about the imperfection of knowledge in which a giant human head sits incongruously on the beach with an assortment of scanners, cameras and other devices arranged about it).
It's not simply the story itself and how Bronowski chooses to tell it, but how he encourages you to think about the nature of human progress - our journey - and the limits of our own knowledge that is most affecting. He makes you think, rather than simply 'receive'; he makes you care, rather than simply understand.
There's an additional nostalgic pleasure to be had that was not available to the original audience in 1973 - whether its the giant computer with its childlike rendering of atomic structures, the locations populated with what are now considered vintage cars or Bronowski's own delightfully idiosyncratic wardrobe.
There's also the awareness that man's ascent has accelerated in the decades since the series was produced and you can't help but imagine how Bronowski might have enthused about the multitude of new discoveries and inventions since - the new planets, new elements, new leaps in DNA analysis, the discovery of the missing links between man and ape, the new age of telephony, computing and internet etc.
There's also a lesson here for contemporary programmer-makers: the most compelling instrument in the medium remains the power and personality of the human voice.
I can't recommend this highly enough and - if you're any kind of media student or content producer - it's a must-have.