Donald Clarke

Whingeing about cinema and real life since 2009

You, sir, are no The Ascent of Man!

Did you watch The Story of Science the other night on BBC2? It was all right. Michael Mosley is an engaging enough host and the programme brought us to some pretty locations. But, like too many documentaries these days, it …

Fri, Apr 30, 2010, 22:19

   

Did you watch The Story of Science the other night on BBC2? It was all right. Michael Mosley is an engaging enough host and the programme brought us to some pretty locations. But, like too many documentaries these days, it was sabotaged by constant pounding music and by an apparent need to sweeten the hard narration with a sprinkling of “fun”. (You may have gathered by now that we hate “fun” round these parts.) Oddly, the best chance you have of seeing a good documentary nowadays is on the consistently excellent BBC4. The fact that those shows tend to have less money — they’re often just a collection of talking heads — turns out to be a positive advantage. With less at stake, the producers do not feel so compelled to appeal to a (Gawd ‘elp us) mass audience. They can happily allow Noam Chomsky to whitter away endlessly about, say, Edward Said’s Orientalism without cutting to a shot of dancing poodles every 30 seconds.

Was it ever thus? It was not. Did more ambitious documentary series always have to dilute the erudition with patronising twaddle? They did not. In the early days of BBC2 — the late 1960s and early 1970s — the station’s controller, David Attenborough, commissioned two of the greatest ever authored documentaries: Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation and Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man. In the former, Lord Clark (as he then wasn’t) stood beside paintings and told us why they were great. In the latter, Dr Bronowski, a gifted mathematician and Blake scholar, talked us through — this is where we came in — the history of science. Both men were unapologetic in their refusal to speak down to the audience. Both were magnificent.

Some idle afternoon, I might lay out my 10 favourite TV series on this “blog”. The Ascent of Man will certainly be towards the top of that list. It is available in a handsome DVD boxed set, but, as a taster, here is the most moving part of the entire series. Bronowski visits Auschwitz and meditates on the perils of certainty. Quite magnificent.

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