I’ve been watching The ascent of man as I didn’t see all of it the first time around, and every other sentence uttered by Bronowski is making me mutter about intellectual arrogance, cultural imperialism, sexism and elitism, bossiness, and the social crime of talking through one’s hat to an audience of millions. And yes, I know it was a landmark and a cultural highlight and the rest.
Let’s compare this with its twin landmark programme from the same era, Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation. The two programmes purport to be ‘personal views’ and the presenters also have much in common: middle aged men, educated, elitist, intelligent. Yet I mildly discount Clark’s arrogance and absorb his personal view. Why am I so captious and unkind about Bronowski?
Civilisation is a ‘history of ideas as illustrated by art and music’; Clark was a trained art historian who had also worked as a professional at a high level in his field. The ascent of man has a wider remit; and while Bronowski was a mathematician and a scientist, he was no archaeologist, ethnographer, geneticist, historian or palaeontologist – thus having no right to an authoritative opinion on any of those topics – which did not prevent him expressing one.
Then there is the way the presenters’ scenes are shot: Clark seems to spend more time off the screen than on it, and when visible is usually positioned to one side of the television frame, seated with the appearance of languor or walking sedately through spectacular surroundings. Bronowski is often central and full face to the camera, speaks far more didactically and actually wagged his finger during an opinion piece. Now I am NOT going to have some middle-aged man wagging his finger at me in my own sitting room, WHOEVER he may be. (Queen Victoria would have agreed with me on this one.)
But it comes down to ties. Clark invariably wears a dark vaguely tweedy suit, occasionally diversified with a plain dark waistcoat, always with a subfusc tie, which is sometimes seen migrating gently towards his left ear. And then there is Bronowski, dressed in bomber jackets, strange three-quarter 1970s coats, leather jackets, mustard coloured trousers, variegated shirts, and at least twelve in-your-face ties per episode.
Can I really justify discounting the series on the grounds of tie choice? Well, yes, actually, I think I can. Bronowski’s ties shout ‘Look at me! Look at my clever blue tie with spots all over it! Look at me again! It’s my poison yellow with brown zigzags tie! Aren’t I bold and individualistic! Hello there, it’s me again with my tie covered in green and lemon squiggles! I can get away with it because I am cool!’ Call me narrow-minded; but I’d give more credit to a presenter who appeared to be less interested in himself. And I don’t think I’m going to enjoy eleven hours spent in the company of someone who insists that I look at his ties.