Monday 10 November 2014

Then and Now

I saw something rather wonderful on the television last night. Unfortunately it only lasted about two minutes, and it was more than 40 years old. It was a short compilation of moments from Jacob Bronowski's 1973 series The Ascent of Man. There he was, with no script, thinking (and pausing for thought) as he spoke, first expressing his abhorrence of Hegel (and putting in a word for Gauss), then leafing through Newton's Principia in the Wren Library, and finally at Auschwitz (where many of his family died), standing at the swampy edge of the lake where the ashes from the incinerators were dumped. This famous passage is 'once seen, never forgotten' TV and I remembered it well - but all the same, the impact of it was again utterly electrifying.
 Of course there was much to disagree with in Bronowski's thesis, but the very fact that such a series - so thoughtful, so intellectually challenging, so eloquently and spontaneously expressed, so packed with individuality and learning - could be made at all seems astonishing now. The more so for its having been made and shown by a mainstream BBC channel and having attracted big audiences (we owe it, in fact, to David Attenborough, then in charge of BBC2, who made The Ascent as a science-based complement to Kenneth Clark's urbane blockbuster Civilisation). Nothing like it could conceivably be made today - least of all by a TV scientist.
  Alas, this two minutes of wonder was but a tiny element in Prof Brian Cox's latest extravaganza - a BBC4 discussion of science TV plus screenings of some of Cox's favourite shows from the past. Rashly, he had invited the, er, exuberant actor and space fanatic Brian Blessed to participate in the studio chat, and Cox had to do his desperate best to keep Blessed from erupting into full flow. The discussion, such as it was, was almost entirely between Cox and his other guest, Prof Alice Roberts, who shares with Cox the rare ability to talk through a permanent smile. Such is TV science now.


  1. Yes Nige, how many of today's so-called communicators can bring that weight of knowledge to such a multi-faceted subject as did Jacob Bronowski? No notes certainly - but he must have had a broad outline in mind, no? And to conjure Cromwell's words standing in the damp ashes of his own family in Auschwitz was television to make the blood run cold. How far we have fallen as a TV watching nation in the last 40 years.

  2. AJP Taylor was the first, personal hero that is, hands in pocket, the hint of studio anarchy in his eyebrow, the greatest teacher of modern history in your living room for the price of a TV licence. Bronowski was next, a born communicator, as was Taylor. Stunning value for money makes today's offerings look like Pelham puppets troubled with St Vitus dance.

  3. Talking of puppets - Cox reminds me irresistibly of a Thunderbirds puppet. And, yes, The Ascent of Man was marvellous. Remember watching it with my Dad.