With today’s television largely devoted to supplying what the Latin poet Juvenal described as “bread and circuses” (in other words, a succession of meaningless diversions), it comes as a surprise to discover just how challenging and engaging the medium can be when used to its potential.
When Jacob Bronowski set about making this 13-part series more than 30 years ago, his reputation had already spread beyond the sciences.
He was known as a panellist on radio and TV programs, although not as a presenter. Three years later, he had created a masterpiece.
The Ascent of Man is, in the words of its creator, “a personal view” of humanity’s progress, particularly over the past 10,000 years. The viewer sees the rigours of nomadic life via the Bachtiari of Iran, who still pass their lives moving their flocks from one side of the Zagros Mountains to the other to access a few months’ supply of pasture. Civilisation cannot, contends Bronowski, flourish “on the move”.
A series of genetic accidents that led to the evolution of bread wheat, and a wealth of animals ripe for domestication helped humanity to develop settled agricultural communities some 10,000 years ago.
It’s at this point that Bronowski hits his stride. Each program examines a particular line of scientific or cultural advance: architecture, chemistry, the evolution of music, growth of the industrial revolution, and determining the inner structure of the atom.
Each program abounds with ideas; indeed, there is so much to seize the imagination that most of the sparse clues to the fact the series is more than three decades old are easily forgotten. Most, but not all. In his opening remarks, Bronowski describes man as “not a figure in a landscape, but the shaper of the landscape”.
Later, he walks across the treeless terrain of Easter Island, speaking of the islanders’ poor astronomy rather than the ecological disaster that led to their extinction. The full impact of humanity’s shaping of the landscape might not have been recognised in the early 1970s, but that does little to diminish the quality of a series that is widely and rightly cited as one of the landmarks of television history.