The Ascent of Man first broadcasts 5 May 1973
The first episode of The Ascent of Man was broadcast on 5 May 1973. The 13-part series, written and presented by Jacob Bronowski - was one of the landmarks of documentary television. The Ascent of Man was presented as a personal view of humanity's scientific achievement, exploring science, as Civilisation had explored art. Both series were commissioned by David Attenborough, Controller of BBC2, who later presented his own landmark series, Life on Earth.
Bronowski told the story thematically, with different programmes concentrating on subjects such as chemistry, agriculture or astronomy. His ability to explain complex ideas made him a winning television personality. "These programmes", he said, "are about the making of creation - Man making mistakes, then seeing the right answers. Science is creative, not a mere mechanical practice". To aid his narrative Bronowski filmed in locations as diverse as the Great Rift Valley, Easter Island, Cambridge and Auschwitz.
Bronowski was just 66 when he died in 1974, the year after the first broadcast of The Ascent of Man. The scripts from the series were published in The Listener, and then gathered into a best-selling book. The book was recently reprinted with a foreword by Richard Dawkins and remains relevant today, despite the enormous developments in science and technology since it was written.
Also in May...
That's Life 26 May 1973
The consumer rights programme That’s Life first aired on 26 May 1973. It was created by John Lloyd and presented and produced by Esther Rantzen, developing the format of Braden's Week, on which both had worked. There was initial criticism of the show's mixture of the serious and the humorous but the programme was enormously popular and ran until 1994.
Rantzen’s co-presenters over the years included Glyn Worsnip, Kieran Prendiville, Chris Serle, Bill Buckley, Gavin Campbell, Paul Heiney and Adrian Mills. Humorous interludes of press cuttings, rude vegetables, funny poems or songs were provided by people including Cyril Fletcher, Richard Stilgoe and Victoria Wood. That's Life was also one of the first programmes to make stars of the public in regular street interviews, in particular Annie Mizen, an outspoken elderly lady.
The heart of That's Life was as the consumer's champion, but it was also strong on child protection issues. In 1984 the case of Ben Hardwicke highlighted the need for more child organ transplants and led to a reduction in waiting lists. In 1986 Childline was established after a survey of viewers revealed the need for a national helpline for children in distress, and it continues to this day with Esther Rantzen as president.
Tumbledown 31 May 1988
Tumbledown was shown for the first time on 31 May 1988. The play, by Charles Wood, was based on the experiences of Lt. Robert Lawrence, recounted in the book When the Fighting is Over. It was one of several dramatic responses to the Falklands War of 1982 and examined the wider issue of the effect of combat on the participants. The play attracted 10 million viewers, helped in part by the controversy it generated, as its perceived bias was questioned in parliament.
Tumbledown tells of Lawrence's part in the Falklands War, for which he was awarded the Military Cross. However, after he is shot in the head during the battle for Mount Tumbledown, he struggles with his rehabilitation back home and is forgotten by the army. Lawrence was played by Colin Firth with Lawrence himself acting as a consultant on the production. The producer was Richard Broke and the director Richard Eyre.
Despite the criticism from the MOD and government, Tumbledown achieved great critical acclaim. It won BAFTA and Royal Television Society awards for best single drama, and Firth won the RTS award for best actor. There are plans to revive the drama as a stage play in 2013.