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Jacob Bronowski - an Appreciation
by Robert Reid

BRONOWSKI was not what might be called the establishment candidate of choice to present the series; nor, as it happens, was he the first choice. When it became known that he was indeed under consideration, the academic snobbery which science is all too capable of nurturing, crawled out of its corner. One message which arrived at the BBC - and there can be no doubt that it represented the view of some serious minded scientists - was that if the BBC was so misguided as to invest such an enormous financial and moral commitment in Bronowski, then it could not expect serious minded scientists to have much truck with the medium in the future.

Sir Kenneth Clarke had already demonstrated the potential of a long, well-considered television series with Civilisation. However, what could be done for European art and architecture could not necessarily be done for science. There was no little difference of opinion among the organisers as to whether what might be achieved was worth the return on the investment of several years of a working scientist's life.

I well remember, shortly after Bronowski had been invited to make The Ascent of Man, sitting between him and a distinguished author when this subject of return on intellectual capital was raised. The author did not choose to hide how much he despised the academic who wasted significant creative effort on the brash, populist medium. What was the point, the author wanted to know, of spending months in making a television programme when the few people who mattered would most likely not be watching? The curse of television, he asserted, was its ephemerality.

Bronowski suffered fools gladly, but he would not suffer foolish ideas. He was fond of quoting his father's advice always to count to ten before answering during a heated argument. But it was precisely during a heated argument that he never remembered the advice. Verbal articularcy and wit were Bronowksi's strong points; in a cutting fashion, and in great contrast to his customary gentleness and humour, he rounded on the author, exposed the snobbery of the argument and tried to explain what he was about and what he believed he could achieve. The passionate way in which these views were expressed took the author by surprise and he subsided into silence and perhaps in not considering that, in the face of such brilliantly controlled use of the English language, he had best stick to the printed word.

From 'Jacob Bronowski - an Appreciation',
New Scientist 12 January 1978.

Robert Reid was an author, documentary film producer, and former Head of Science and Features for BBC TV.

The Ascent of Jacob Bronowski

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