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Authored Documentary

The power of personality

Main image of Authored Documentary

The 'authored' documentary series has been a mainstay of primetime TV for almost 40 years. Academics and professionals such as Professor Robert Winston - best known for his series on human biology, including The Human Body (BBC, 1998) - continue to popularise a genre that at its core attempts to turn serious scholastic debate into informative entertainment by the power of the presenter's personality and on-screen presence.

Among the genre's early stars was Kenneth Clark, whose landmark 13-part series Civilisation (BBC, 1969) set about explaining the development of the Western world through its art, and in the process set a benchmark in terms of both popularity and intellectual authority. Viewed today, the series looks slow and excessively formal, but it helped pave the way for a series of equally important productions in a style that remains largely unchanged to this day. Even Robert Hughes' less inhibited look at art, The Shock of the New (BBC, 1980), with its focus on 20th century modernism, has clear echoes of Clark's narrative approach.

An early beneficiary of Clark's critical success was Jacob Bronowski, whose Ascent of Man (BBC, 1973) attempted to do for science what Civilisation had done for art. The cause of science was later taken up by former Tomorrow's World (BBC, 1965-2003) presenter James Burke, first in Connections (BBC, 1978), an examination of the ideas behind major technological achievements, and later The Day the Universe Changed (BBC, 1985), which attempted to tell the history of knowledge itself. More successful was Jonathan Miller's The Body in Question (BBC, 1978), the first of a series of one-off documentaries and series in which polymath Miller investigated the nature of the body and the mind, topics which have since been explored by Professor Winston and by neuroscientist Professor Susan Greenfield in Brain Story (BBC, 2000).

Another core subject for the genre is history, beginning with Alistair Cooke's America (BBC, 1972), in which the veteran broadcaster told the story of the country from before Columbus to the present day. Both Robert Kee's Ireland - A Television History (BBC, 1980) and Simon Schama's A History of Britain (BBC, 2000-02) chronicled historical events through the interpretative eye of their presenters to good effect. However, it was the historian and writer AJP Taylor who took the format to its ultimate conclusion. His TV lectures on aspects of 19th and 20th century history were simply that - lectures delivered to camera from a barely decorated studio, driven exclusively by the power of his personality. Despite this unpromising premise, his TV appearances were well received by viewers, even when his subject matter didn't immediately suggest a broad appeal, as in the case of 1848 - The Year of Social Revolution (BBC, 1978).

The presenter-led series has largely been a BBC format, although in recent years David Starkey's work for Channel 4, such as Henry VIII (1998) and its sequel Elizabeth I (2000), clearly shows the format also has appeal for commercial broadcasters. Bamber Gascoigne's history of Christianity, The Christians (1977), is an honourable ITV addition to the genre, as is Melvyn Bragg's self-explanatory The Adventure of English 500AD to 2000 (2002-03).

No discussion of the authored documentary would be complete without a mention of wildlife programmes, although their addition to the category is almost solely down to one individual, Sir David Attenborough - who, as head of BBC2, kick-started the genre by commissioning both Civilisation and Ascent of Man. For over 50 years, much of Attenborough's natural history output clearly qualifies for inclusion, particularly from the ground-breaking Life on Earth (BBC, 1979) and its sequel The Living Planet (BBC, 1984). In later years, Attenborough has scaled down his on-screen appearances, but even his disembodied narration on a series such as The Blue Planet (BBC, 2001) can inject a production with his unmistakable authority.

Despite all their highly varied topics, including John Kenneth Galbraith's look at economics and social philosophy, The Age Of Uncertainty (BBC, 1977), what all these programmes have in common is a perceived link between the presentation of their content and the personality of their presenter, in much the same way as a book is linked to its author. Making a television series is, of course, a collaborative process, but so long as viewers have an appetite for programmes that speak with the authority of a single on-screen voice the popularity of the authored documentary remains secure.

Anthony Clark

Related Films and TV programmes

Thumbnail image of Alistair Cooke's America (1972-73)

Alistair Cooke's America (1972-73)

A very personal history of the United States

Thumbnail image of Ascent of Man, The (1973)

Ascent of Man, The (1973)

Dr Jacob Bronowski discusses the cultural evolution of mankind

Thumbnail image of Civilisation (1969)

Civilisation (1969)

Sir Kenneth Clark examines the ideas underlying Western Civilisation

Thumbnail image of Great Philosophers, The (1987)

Great Philosophers, The (1987)

Bryan Magee's matchless 15-part history of Western philosophy

Thumbnail image of History of Britain by Simon Schama, A (2000-02)

History of Britain by Simon Schama, A (2000-02)

Simon Schama's massive tour through the story of these islands

Thumbnail image of Ireland: A Television History (1980-81)

Ireland: A Television History (1980-81)

Challenging history written and presented by Robert Kee

Thumbnail image of Life on Earth (1979)

Life on Earth (1979)

David Attenborough's landmark natural history series

Related Collections

Related People and Organisations

Thumbnail image of Taylor, A.J.P. (1906-1990)

Taylor, A.J.P. (1906-1990)

Historian, Presenter