Jacob Bronowski and me

From 11 to 16 October 2021, I will be playing the part of Jacob “Bruno” Bronowski in Progress Theatre’s production of SECRET LIFE OF HUMANS

I was a callow young man when The Ascent of Man was first broadcast, and it was the first documentary television series that really gripped me. Years later, when I saw Bronowski’s book of the series in a charity shop, I snapped it up. It had been beyond my means to buy it when it was first published in 1973. The series had kindled in me an interest in the history of science that has stayed with me. The thirteen programmes of the series had been commissioned by the then Controller of BBC2, David Attenborough. It was envisioned to follow in the footsteps of Civilisation, a groundbreaking series on the history of Western art and culture that I personally found irritating. My preference for The Ascent of Man was in no small part due to the personality of the presenter, Dr. Jacob Bronowski. 

Bronowski was the archetype of a television scientist: a Polish surname, spectacles, bushy eyebrows and receding hair that was somewhat unkempt. He did not learn English until he came to London at the age of thirteen. At first derided for his accent, he cultivated the clipped “received pronunciation” that characterised the upper classes of the day – although the English letter ‘R’ sometimes tripped him up. He sounded his words carefully and, even when presenting from a script, often paused to fully frame his next sentence. It gave him a gravitas that belied his whimsical sense of humour.

Bronowski’s command of English and prodigious ability in mathematics got him into Jesus College, Cambridge, where he graduated as Senior Wrangler – top mathematician of his year. At Cambridge, he co-edited a literary magazine and throughout his life, maintained an interest in literature. MI5 placed him under surveillance, perhaps because in his childhood in the First World War he had lived in Germany. “Have I been spied on?” he asks in the play. Yes, he had and this may be why he never found a senior academic post in the UK.

I was not aware of his dark secret that is at the heart of this play until I read the script. In fact it was uncovered by his daughter, the historian Lisa Jardine, in a locked cupboard in her parents California home. (In the play, the discovery is made by the fictional characters Ava and Jamie.) Jardine revealed her father’s secret to the world in the documentary she made, My Father The Bomb and Me.

He was already established on television and radio when The Ascent of Man was made. It allowed him to range over the history of human endeavour and discovery, taking in cave paintings, the statues of Easter Island – where, he later confessed to Michael Parkinson, he got rather drunk – the astronomers of Machu Picchu, Galileo, Newton, Darwin, the periodic table  and explaining Einstein’s theory of relativity using a tram in Bern. Perhaps the most memorable moment was in episode 11, Knowledge or Certainty, when he, with some reluctance, filmed at Auschwitz, where some of his own relatives died. Standing before a pool of water where ashes from the gas oves had been flushed, he stepped into the water in his good shoes and trousers and scooped up a handful of ashes. If there is a more iconic image in television, I don’t know what it could be.

John R. Goodman

Jacob “Bruno” Bronowski chronology

1908 born Łódź, Poland, moves to Germany in early childhood

1920 leaves Germany for England, knowing no English

1927 scholar, Jesus College, Cambridge

1933 doctorate in mathematics, Cambridge, becomes naturalised Briton

1934 teaching mathematics, University College, Hull

1941 married Rita Coblentz, a sculptor

1942 recruited for operation research, Ministry of Home Security

1943 published William Blake: A Man Without a Mask

1945 UNESCO operational research

1947 National Building Studies, analysis of house building methods 

1950 Director of Research, National Coal Board

1950 analysis of Taung child Australopithecus skull

1953 Italia Prize for his radio play, The Face of Violence

1964 Associate Director, Salk Institute, California

1965 published The Identity of Man

1973 Ascent of Man television series and book

1974 died East Hampton,New York

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