The Ascent of Man
I DO BELIEVE that my father thought that the Ascent of Man was the culmination of his life's work. At the time, that was an unfashionable view to hold, to believe that TV might be a more important memorial than a book, however accessible, but the challenge to produce the rounded intellectual history of mankind was one to which he gave his whole life and it was the memorial he wished to be remembered by.
Lisa Jardine was the eldest of Bronowski's four daughters. She was born in 1944 and educated at Jesus College, Cambridge, UK where she gained a BA in Maths and English in 1966. She was professor of Renaissance Studies at Queen Mary Westfield College, University of London and later at CELL at UCL. She died in 2015.
Robert Reid - a TV producer who knew Bronowski well, here remembers the origins of the Ascent of Man
Sir David Attenborough, Director of Programmes for the BBC when the Ascent of Man was commissioned, here recollects the impact of the programme.
Letter to Adrian Malone on completing the Ascent of Man
Jacob Bronowski's Christmas Card - the Watergate poem.
In 1969, the BBC wanted to make a series that would be a scientific counterpart to Civilisation, their highly successful series on Western Art, given by Lord Clarke. They turned, eventually, to Bronowski, though not without experiencing some difficulties (see left-hand margin). It was not a light undertaking for Bronowski, either, as he described later in the introduction to the book of the series:
It demands an unflagging intellectual and physical vigour, a total immersion, which I had to be sure I could sustain with pleasure; for instance, I had to put off researches I had already begun.
Adrian Malone was to be series editor, with Dick Gilling as producer. Bronowski had certain views as to how such a large-scale programme should work, as Lisa Jardine recalls:
In relation to the Ascent of Man, he listened first of all to Adrian Malone. His view was that if you were lucky enough to have a great producer, then he would know what was needed, not in terms of content, but in terms of presentation and so on. Adrian Malone was the lynchpin.
When filming did begin, a light plane, carrying a cameraman and sound recordist, crashed within seconds of taking off...
I was thinking, God, what do I tell the parents, the wives...
During the course of the filming, Bronowski became ill...
I remember carrying him on Easter Island...
Being so close to the production over several years, Malone was not sure if it would work...
We swithered between whether it was genius or whether it was idiocy...
But the mammoth task was completed: the last footage of film was shot in December 1972. The critical response to the programme was one of almost universal praise, the most noted extract being a piece to camera shot at Auschwitz and widely available on youtube.
Bronowski published his last poem, on the Watergate scandal, in the Listener magazine (see left margin),
Ascent was to be his last project, as it was completed shortly before he died at East Hampton, Long Island, New York from a heart attack on 22 August 1974 at the age of 66. There was a memorial service at the Salk institute at 2.30 p.m. on Friday 20 September 1974.
He is buried at Highgate Cemetary, north London.
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Copyright © 1997 by Stephen Moss. All rights reserved.