Lost Gems: The Ascent of Man (1973)

One of the finest science programmes ever made

Well, as ‘Lost Gems’ go, you can’t get much more ‘Lost Gem’-ier than The Ascent of Man, the 65th official most important programme in the history of British television. Made in 1973, it was the follow-up and some might say companion series to Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation, which looked at evolution of Western culture and art. In it, Brains Trust member Jacob Bronowski discussed the history of science, starting with the evolution of man (and, of course, woman) and working its way through early human society to modern times.

And it was, quite simply, breathtaking.

Here’s a clip of the show and the then-controller of BBC2 and the man who commissioned the series, Sir David Attenborough, to tell you all about it. Then after the jump, you lucky people, all 13 episodes of the series.

With BBC2 the first network in the UK to go into colour and 625 line broadcast, adverts were needed for the power of colour. Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation was the first of these: a personal essay on Western civilisation that is quite rightly regarded as a classic. Go get it on Blu-ray, you lucky people or watch this clip first (he starts talking about 1m40s in) – you’ll feel yourself getting smarter with every minute:

Shortly after it appeared, the BBC2 commissioner of science programming, Aubrey Singer, went to David Attenborough, the controller of BBC2, and demanded that a science programme of similar authority should be made. Attenborough, a scientist himself, agreed.

The person chosen to discuss the entirety of science was polymath Jacob Bronowksi, an expert on everything and well-known radio personality from The Brains Trust. Bronowski, a mathematician, scientist, writer, poet and actor, was responsible for deciding that to illustrate science, the history of science and ‘the ascent of man’ were the best ways to approach the subject, particularly from the point of view of delivering exciting visuals at a time when computer graphics were rudimentary to say the least. And it was Bronowski who wrote the series, delivering often long, unscripted monologues from locations around the world ranging from Jordan to Auschwitz.

The series is fascinating, informative, powerful and stunning to watch, with directors including Mick Jackson (Threads, Life Story, A Very British Coup, LA Story and The Bodyguard) using some of the experimental techniques of 70s cinema to bring the story to life, and Dudley Simpson and Brian Hodgson of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop providing the electronic music.

While you can sometimes quibble with Bronowski (the Greeks may not have had a true arch, for example, but they certainly had a corbel arch) and science has moved on in the last 40 years, it’s still one of the best series on science there’s ever been and incredible to watch even now. Here’s the rundown, nabbed from Wikipedia:

  1. Lower than the Angels — Evolution of man from proto-ape to the modern form 400,000 years ago.
  2. The Harvest of the Seasons — Early human migration, agriculture and the first settlements, and war.
  3. The Grain in the Stone — Tools, and the development of architecture and sculpture.
  4. The Hidden Structure — Fire, metals and alchemy.
  5. Music of the Spheres — The language of numbers and mathematics.
  6. The Starry Messenger — Galileo’s universe–and the implications of his trial on the shift to “northern” science.
  7. The Majestic Clockwork — Explores Newton and Einstein’s laws.
  8. The Drive for Power — The Industrial Revolution and the effect on everyday life.
  9. The Ladder of Creation — Darwin and Wallace’s ideas on the origin of species.
  10. World within World — The story of the periodic table–and of the atom.
  11. Knowledge or Certainty — Physics and the clash of the pursuit of absolute vs. imperfect knowledge, and the misgivings of the scientists realizing the terrible outcome of the conflict.
  12. Generation upon Generation — The joys of life, sex, and genetics–and the dark side of cloning.
  13. The Long Childhood — Bronowski’s treatise on the commitment of man.

Yet The Ascent of Man hasn’t been broadcast uncut since 1986, although edited repeats have been shown on UK Horizons and BBC Knowledge. If you try hard, you might be able to get the series on DVD or read Bronowski’s almost word-for-word identical book, but until you do, marvel at all 13 episodes of its majesty on YouTube:


  • Rob Buckley

    I’m Rob Buckley, a journalist who writes for UK media magazines that most people have never heard of although you might have heard me on the podcast Lockdown Land or Radio 5 Live’s Saturday Edition or Afternoon Edition. I’ve edited Dreamwatch, Sprocket and Cambridge Film Festival Daily; been technical editor for TV producers magazine Televisual; reviewed films for the short-lived newspaper Cambridge Insider; written features for the even shorter-lived newspaper Soho Independent; and was regularly sarcastic about television on the blink-and-you-missed-it “web site for urban hedonists” The Tribe. Since going freelance, I've contributed to the likes of Broadcast, Total Content + Media, Action TV, Off The Telly, Action Network, TV Scoop and The Custard TV.

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