NARRATIONS: an outline of the structure of the six programs and the theme
What was needed now was an outline 'treatment' or proposal to convince the C4 executives to risk their million pounds with a small TV company and a bunch of academics. We both worked on this and the details can be re-constructed. For example, on Saturday 20th June I wrote 'Spent much of the day planning a potential set of 6 TV films for C4 with David Dugan on the history of the West'. I remember in particular that the idea of the first program, using diaries and quotations from Humphrey Jennings 'Pandemonium' to bring alive the journey of the Rocket was already well formed when I met David. The second program, we worked out, would be about the industrial revolution period, but there was only so much one could do with coal, cotton and so on. So what new angles could one have? I think that in an early meeting Simon must have sold them the idea of automata, for example Vaucanson's duck, mechanization and Arkwright, and looking at France. I suggested that they dealt with the peculiar English institutions of civil society, the club and the trust, upon which I was working. The other main theme - pottery, Wedgewood, Meissen and so on may have come from discussions with the eighteenth century historian of consumption, Maxine Berg.
The third program as it emerged took the story out to Islam, North America and north-western Europe, mainly through the story of trade, discovery and science. The early two themes which we worked out, especially in a meeting with Simon on 7th December 1998, were exploration and collecting (of objects in museums, zoos, botanical gardens and so on). In the event, the second of these was nearly forgotten, though given a late and partial reprieve thanks to an intervention of my wife, Sarah, at the 'viewing' meeting in March 2000 when she suggested that Simon film with some of the Cook collections in the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. I don't know who put in the Hudson Bay story, which involved hiring a replica of the 'Half Moon' and sailing it past Manhattan (at some expense), or who thought of the tulip mania and banking in relation to Holland. The story of longitude and Captain Cook in the Pacific came out of what I shall call the 'Knight's Meeting'. This earned its name from the round table and the idea of a quest, or search for the Holy Grail, and was filmed in Cambridge in July 1999. This third program was the only into which I put least ideas, just thinking of it as the period of science and exploration. In the event, I ended up making a contribution in relation to Islamic civilization since I was the only person free to visit Istanbul and talk about the Ottomans.
The fourth program, now covering all of Asia and a period of five hundred years back to 1350, was one which David and I mapped out in the little Japanese tea house at my home in Lode on Wed 15th July 1998. My wife wrote in our diary 'David D. came to see Alan again and they spent the day discussing the possible programs. I think he remains optimistic - at least he's putting quite a bit of effort into it.' We had also been discussing the general structure a few weeks earlier when the diary records: 'D.D. and a camera woman came earlier to film Alan and stayed on to talk a little with Gerry Martin. They then went off to film Simon, but came back in the middle of the afternoon. They witnessed Gerry and Mark Elvin discussing the European and Chinese technological developments. Alan thought David found it hard to leave - who knows if the proposed programs will ever get made.' Gerry Martin, a long-time friend and benefactor, had helped to conjure up the whole project by supporting 'The Achievement Project' which, directed by Simon and others, had brought together Patrick O'Brien, myself, Simon and others in a number of seminars and conferences around the same theme of the long-term development of artefactual progress. Gerry had been one of those most central to the King's seminars and Mark Elvin, a distinguished expert on China then resident in Australia, came to the seminars each summer.
Anyway, we decided that we needed to limit ourselves in the five hundred year program to two technologies. After some discussion we decided that one of them would be glass, about which I was and still am writing a book. We played with printing, gunpowder and other technologies, but decided they could wait to the thousand year program, and so fastened on mechanical clocks. This became in some ways the most interesting program for me, though in the outcome Simon did quite a lot of the work on clocks and Chinese time was done by Christopher Cullen. Christopher had worked with Windfall before in a film on explosives called 'kaboom', and he was also a member of the on-going King's seminar. As director of the Needham Institute for the History of Science and Civilization in China, he covered parts of that impressive history.
It should also be said that the choice of glass and clocks, stemming from an earlier fascination with the work of Lewis Mumford in 'Technics and Civilization' was also directly related to my undergraduate teaching in Cambridge. From Lent Term 1990 onwards, for nine years, I lectured on 'Technological and Social Change', and many of the themes in those lectures became incorporated in the series. More generally, I think that the experience of lecturing to a very bright undergraduate audience, of explaining complex ideas simply from the part I level upwards, was an enormous help to me in working in television as a sort of presenter. It is not easy to synthesize many ideas off the top of one's head, and twenty-five years experience of doing this, often on topics which I was only just starting to understand, and trying to keep an audience interested with just talk and chalk for an hour, paid dividends.
The fifth program, a thousand years and the whole of Eur-Asia including some attention now to the middle part (e.g. Nepal and India), was again largely worked out by David and myself. The theme of grains and mills came from my undergraduate lectures and other writings. The theme of war and canon was another theme which I had talked about in my lectures and which led directly up to the steam engine.
In the sixth program, the idea of then, rashly, going back to 8000 B.C. and treating the whole world was mine. I had been intrigued by Jared Diamond's book on 'Guns, Germs and Steel' and the rather similar long-term account by Tim Flannery, 'The Future Eaters'. As an anthropologist who taught part I courses on long-term evolution of societies from hunter-gatherers onwards, and with a particular interest in tribal societies and their transformation into urban, literate civilizations, it seemed a pity to miss out that dimension. The themes we decided to pursue were the domestication and use of animals and the various communications revolutions from writing, through printing, to computers.
A day before we left for Australia, the book of the series arrived. The book bore the new title, The Day the World Took Off (2000). Since the series was about ten thousand years and not day, this seemed a strange title. Furthermore, the ‘Took Off’, reminding one of Rostow’s cold war metaphor and the worst of teleological triumphalism and the condemnation of all preceding civilizations to stagnation was not exactly ideal. But we were told that research in the coffee room of C4 (around Christmas) had established that my title (taken from Alexander Pope ‘The glory, jest and riddle of the world’), namely ‘The Riddle of the Modern World had elicited cries of ‘What riddle’ etc. And since the title was the one thing that the Broadcast Company has complete control over, there was nothing to be done. At least the sub-title of the book was the more informative ‘The Day the World Took Off’.
The book was mainly written by David’s wife, Sally Dugan, who had been a journalist, was a teacher, and had written a book for another series. David helped with some of the chapters. It was in itself, for an academic who takes on average three years to research and write a book to the point of sending it to a publisher, pretty extraordinary. They had about three months in which to do the research and writing, in the autumn of 1999, as well as the picture research. The result, I think, is excellent. From the first they again consulted me with various drafts of the chapters, some of them brought to Nepal or sent to Australia. Although there were certain advantages – for example the transcript of early film interviews and the Knight’s meeting were available and were carefully woven into the text – it was still an extraordinarily sensitive and intelligent effort. The text and pictures work very well together. It is thoughtful and economical, and stands in its own right. The last three chapters, in particular, are fascinating. If anyone wishes to know how difficult it is to do this, they can compare the relation between book and television series made in the much larger BBC 2 Millenium series ‘The Road to Riches’ in which Peter Jay wrote the book and was the presenter.