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Sometime in the summer of 1972 PBS began a remarkable BBC series called "The Ascent of Man."
Dr. Jacob Bronowski walked the public through the fits and starts of human history. I was a typical teenager flipping channels between The Beverly Hillbillies and Tony Orlando and Dawn Variety Hour when I accidentally turned to this host with the funny accent sitting on a rock in the Olduvai Gorge.
His manner was deliberate, not rushed. It was obvious he knew what he was talking about but it was his sincere desire to share with the audience in a deeply personal way that made his presence so compelling.
In the clip above, Dr. Bronowski talks about the discovery of the Tuang baby skull. He gives a concise description of the features that made this skull important in our understanding of human evolution. But it is his reflection of his own contribution, through abstract mathematics, "to shine a searchlight into the history of man," that resonated with a mediocre student growing up in Northwest Indiana. I didn't become a mathematician or an anthropologist but I have throughout my filmmaking career tried to find that spark of human sharing that makes a narrative glimmer, whether it's on an Imax screen or told across a campfire.
Dr. Bronowski wasn't handsome, his speech was restrained and he wasn't setting any fashion standards (he's wearing a tie under the hot sun of Kenya, for God's sake) yet he commanded the attention of millions of viewers. He had profound impact on the culture of the era not through gimmicks or superlatives but through the act of sharing himself.
The Ascent of Man is just as refreshing today as was when it was produced.