The Ascent of Man (1973)

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Released 4-Aug-2005

Cover Art

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Details At A Glance

General Extras
Category Documentary Main Menu Audio & Animation
Menu Animation
Featurette-Sir David Attenborough Remembers The Ascent Of Man
Rating Rated E
Year Of Production 1973
Running Time 644:52 (Case: 663)
RSDL / Flipper Dual Layered
Multi Disc Set (4)
Cast & Crew
Start Up Menu
Region Coding 2,4 Directed By Dick Gilling
Mick Jackson
David John Kennard
Adrian Malone

Roadshow Home Entertainment
Starring Jacob Bronowski
Joss Ackland
Roy Dotrice
Case Gatefold
RPI $79.95 Music Dudley Simpson
Sheldon Hendler

Video Audio
Pan & Scan/Full Frame None English Dolby Digital 2.0 (192Kb/s)
Widescreen Aspect Ratio 1.29:1
16x9 Enhancement No
Video Format 576i (PAL)
Original Aspect Ratio 1.29:1 Miscellaneous
Jacket Pictures No
Subtitles English for the Hearing Impaired Smoking No
Annoying Product Placement No
Action In or After Credits No

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Plot Synopsis

    Almost as soon as the groundbreaking series Civilisation hit the screens, the folk at the BBC decided to produce a follow-up series. This time the subject was man himself, and four years later in 1973 the series The Ascent of Man premiered. The central figure this time was a Polish-born mathematician and scientist named Jacob Bronowski, aged 65 by the time the series went to air.

    Bronowski had lived in England for over fifty years by the time the series was made, and his accent was tempered by a very English lilt. Unlike Civilisation, the series does not take a chronological approach but instead each episode covers one aspect of the ascent of man. The title incidentally is a reference to Darwin's book The Descent of Man, and Bronowski, despite the wars which had ravaged Europe over the century and despite many of his relatives perishing in the gas chambers, takes a positive view of the evolution of mankind. His presentational style is slow and halting but compelling, and he has a fine turn of phrase. Unfortunately the series seems to have taken a lot out of him: he became ill while making it in 1971/2 and his health declined. He died suddenly in 1974 in the USA. Apart from his contribution the series also features readings from historical texts written by some of the people covered in the series. These readings are by Roy Dotrice and Joss Ackland.

    I can recall watching this series when it premiered on Australian television. At the time it was considered to be some of the best television ever made, and that judgement still holds today. Perhaps some of the ideas are passé (certainly the clothes are) but it is still thought-provoking and entertaining. Well worth owning on DVD. The episodes are:

Lower Than The Angels (49:27)

    This first episode deals with human evolution from Australopithecus to Homo Sapiens. Bronowski visits the Omo Valley in Ethiopia, where ancient soap suds, err, remains of the earliest humans were found. He also visits Spain and some cave paintings. This episode includes some state of the art computer graphics, 1973-style.

Harvest of the Seasons (49:27)

    This instalment covers the change from a nomadic to an agricultural lifestyle. The good Doctor visits the ancient city of Jericho, and we see footage of the Bakhtiari tribe in Iran and an ancient horseback game in Afghanistan. The cultivation of wheat, which led to the domestication of animals, is observed in detail.

The Grain in the Stone (49:43)

    One of the great leaps in the ascent of man was the shaping of the environment into living spaces. Bronowski travels to Arizona, Machu Picchu, Segovia and Rheims to look at the development of architecture.

The Hidden Structure (49:38)

    Fire was used to transform metals into tools. The problem of the softness of copper was overcome by making the alloy bronze, and chemistry helped develop even more useful metals. We witness the creation of a Japanese sword. Chemistry also helped revolutionise medicine through the work of Paracelsus.

The Music of the Spheres (49:35)

    Pythagoras discovered that harmony in music was governed by exact ratios. The same applied to all matter, thought the Greeks. Bronowski traces the relationship between ratios and design through the tiled walls of the Alhambra in Spain, and through the discovery of perspective.

The Starry Messenger (49:24)

    This episode looks at astronomy, and in depth at the trials of Galileo. Our host travels to Easter Island and the ruins of the Mayan civilisation, before taking us into the Vatican's archive to view the file on Galileo.

The Majestic Clockwork (49:42)

    Until Newton's time, physics and metaphysics were indistinguishable. It took this antisocial English genius to turn physics into the dispassionate science that we recognise today. However his view that space was absolute was not universally accepted, and was exploded by the discoveries of a patents clerk named Albert Einstein. Special effects are used to demonstrate how travelling near the speed of light would affect the observer and the observed.

The Drive For Power (49:17)

    Power in terms of politics was a matter for revolutions in the 18th century, but here Bronowski concentrates more on the revolutions as an agent of social change. In particular, the Industrial Revolution in England which improved the standard of living for many. The steam engine led to the development of the railway and helped make England the mercantile capital of the world in the following century.

The Ladder of Creation (49:34)

    Until the 19th century it was believed that many creatures were created spontaneously, like bluebottles in old meat. It took two men years of observation and a flash of illumination to come to the same conclusion: the theory of evolution. These two men were Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace. We also see two experiments which suggest that the building blocks of life could have been created on Earth in boiling heat or in ice.

World Within World (49:46)

    From Mendeleev to Bohr, the history of modern physics has led to great achievement and great destruction. The examination of crystals led to the development of the concept of the structure of the atom.

Knowledge or Certainty (49:46)

    While a group of academics were making considerable discoveries in the world of physics and chemistry at the University of Göttingen, the world outside was slipping into the barbarism of World War II. Leo Szilard made crucial discoveries that led to the atomic bomb, but then tried to prevent its use against people. This episode ends with Bronowski outside the camp at Auschwitz, where many of his relatives perished.

Generation Upon Generation (49:39)

    Beginning with the discoveries of the monk Gregor Mendel, Bronowski traces the science of genetics and the development of the double-helix model of DNA.

The Long Childhood (49:54)

    This episode is a summing up of the various strands of thought that have been developed during the series, and much of the filming takes place in Bronowski's own home.

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Transfer Quality


    The series is presented in the original aspect ratio of 1.29:1.

    The series looks as if it was shot on 16mm film, and consequently it is clear but not especially sharp or detailed. The transfer is good enough for viewing but allowances need to be made for the source material. Colour is reasonable though lacking in vividness. Contrast is adequate though shadow detail is no better than average.

    The transfer is quite grainy and at times there is evidence of low level noise. The grain level increases significantly in some of the darker sequences. The transfer also suffers from telecine wobble, with the video being quite jittery at times. There is some slight aliasing and edge enhancement, though neither of these two artefacts are significant.

    There are some film artefacts, including flecks and minor blemishes, as well as the occasional scratch.

    Optional English subtitles with hard of hearing information are included. The subtitles are easy to read if a little small, and appear to translate the narration verbatim.

    Three of the four discs are dual-layered, but there are no layer breaks within any of the episodes.

Video Ratings Summary
Shadow Detail
Film-To-Video Artefacts
Film Artefacts


    The sole audio track is Dolby Digital 2.0 mono.

    The audio quality is variable, with some sections muffled or rough-sounding. Most of the time the audio is of typical television quality. Dialogue is clear, helped by Bronowski's deliberately paced vocals. Audio sync is nearly perfect, though a couple of times there were sloppy edits where he seems to start saying one thing but on the audio says another.

    The theme music is by Dudley Simpson, and the music for the rest of the programmes has been assembled by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, including music varying from classical to Pink Floyd.

Audio Ratings Summary
Audio Sync
Surround Channel Use


    The case indicates that a 48-page booklet is included, but my review copy did not contain this booklet.

Main Menu Audio & Animation

    A slightly animated graphic is presented on the main menu with the series theme music.

Featurette-Sir David Attenborough Remembers The Ascent Of Man (13:24)

    Attenborough was in charge of BBC programming when this series was conceived, and he gives a brief background to the series plus a reminiscence of Bronowski, illustrated with stills.

R4 vs R1

NOTE: To view non-R4 releases, your equipment needs to be multi-zone compatible and usually also NTSC compatible.

    The UK Region 2 appears to be identical to the Region 4.


    One of the best factual TV series ever made, in fact a genuine watershed in television about the sciences.

    The video quality is not the best but is acceptable.

    The audio quality is variable but again acceptable.

    One short extra.

Ratings (out of 5)


© Philip Sawyer (Bio available.)
Saturday, September 24, 2005
Review Equipment
DVDPioneer DV-S733A, using Component output
DisplaySony 86CM Trinitron Wega KVHR36M31. Calibrated with Ultimate DVD Platinum. This display device is 16x9 capable.
Audio DecoderBuilt in to DVD player, Dolby Digital, dts and DVD-Audio. Calibrated with Ultimate DVD Platinum.
AmplificationSony TA-DA9000ES
SpeakersMain: Tannoy Revolution R3; Centre: Tannoy Sensys DCC; Rear: Richter Harlequin; Subwoofer: JBL SUB175

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