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Ascent of Man, The (1973)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Ascent of Man, The (1973)
BBC TV/Time-Life Films 5/5 - 28/7/1973
13 x 55 mins, colour
DirectorMick Jackson
 Adrian Malone
 David Kennard
ProducerDick Gilling
 Adrian Malone
Written byJacob Bronowski

Narrator: Dr Jacob Bronowski

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A personal history of mankind's scientific and technological endeavour from prehistory to the modern age.

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BBC2 had scored a massive success with Kenneth Clark's Civilisation (1969) and it was clear to the channel's controller, David Attenborough, that some sort of sequel was required. The result was The Ascent of Man (BBC, 1973), a personal account of the history of science and technology presented by Jacob Bronowski, some four years in the making.

Unlike Civilisation, The Ascent of Man took a themed approach to its subject matter rather than a strictly chronological one. The 13-part series was therefore free to examine the impact and importance of such themes as chemistry, mathematics, astronomy, Newtonian mechanics, the industrial revolution, Darwinism and atomic physics with a far broader vision.

Bronowski, who proved himself Clark's equal in terms of his ability to explain complex ideas in simple terms, had a more personal presentational style that reinforced his emphasis on the democratising potential of technology and the responsibility which knowledge brings. This idea was crystallised by the series' most famous sequence - Bronowski at Auschwitz, where several members of his family had died, sifting the ashes of the dead through his hands in an unscripted discourse on the need to combine technology with accountability. It was the programme's defining moment and a landmark in television history.

"It is said that science will dehumanise people and turn them into numbers. That is false - tragically false. Look for yourself. This is the concentration camp and crematorium at Auschwitz. This is where people were turned into numbers. Into this pond were flushed the ashes of four million people. And that was not done by gas. It was done by arrogance. It was done by dogma. It was done by ignorance. When people believe that they have absolute knowledge, with no test in reality - this is how they behave. This is what men do when they aspire to the knowledge of gods."

Where The Ascent of Man stumbles is in its underlying assumption that the mechanics of progress will provide the tools to avert future triumphs of political dogma over humanism. The intervening 30 years have sadly proven Bronowski wrong on this point, although this does not undermine the central thrust of the series, which twins technological development with grassroots societal change. Where else will you find Josiah Wedgewood being praised, not for his aristocratic commissions, but for his mass-produced crockery which transformed the kitchens of the industrial revolution's emergent working-class?

Anthony Clark

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Video Clips
Complete episode (49:45)
Extract: At Auschwitz (3:28)
BBC2 (1964-)
Authored Documentary