Television Masterpieces: Connections (1978)

British television channels have always carried a certain way of teaching us things in the past, but these have changed over the course of time. In the 1970s, the presenter talked directly to you, sometimes almost feeling as though the knowledge they were seeking to impart was barging its way into your brain. It could be heavy. It could be oblique, and sometimes even border upon psychedelic in its presentation, such were the times. These were the days of Civilisation, The Ascent of Man, and The World At War. Presentation styles, however, come and go. After all, Doctor Bronowski doubtlessly looked like a rakish gadabout to those brought up in a world of starched collars and repressed feelings. And by 1978, it was resplendent in a comfortable suit – quite likely made of polyester – a twinkle in its eye, a passion to teach you, and to make you think.

James Burke wasn’t a novice by the time of Connections, of course. Having joined the BBC’s Science and Features Department in 1966, he’d already been the BBC’s main presenter for the 1969 Apollo XI Moon landing, been a reporter on flagship science show Tomorrow’s World, and hosted an occasional series called The Burke Specials, a series of lectures in front of a studio audience which appeared sporadically on BBC1 between 1972 and 1976. All of this, though, was building up to Connections, a series which remains his magnum opus and arguably the greatest science series ever produced in this country.

Connections was, of course, a series of documentaries, hosted and written by Burke, on the subject of how various discoveries, scientific achievements, and historical world events combined in an interconnected way to bring about the modern world. It’s dated in its own way, of course. Burke’s safari suits are very much of their time, and we have, of course, evolved into an information-dependent society in ways that may well have been scarcely believable in 1978. These, however, barely register when you’re presented with such great television. The bill for creating the historical re-enactments throughout must have been astronomical, and the location camerawork is esquisite. This video, for example, of a perfect take went a little viral last year. It’s actually perfect timing and beautiful, seamless editing.

Then, of course, there’s James Burke himself. It is telling that his career began in teaching before moving into broadcasting. In all of his work, his desire to express big ideas in a language that is understandable to all is clear, and he seldom gets bogged down in the cumbersome language that a less camera-orientated host might. Neither, however, does Burke ever patronise his audience. He trusts our intelligence to bridge the gaps in what he tells us, plays with us a little, and brings in more than a splash of dry humour. And he’s also combative and challenging. He asks difficult questions, and expects effort from his audience. It wasn’t a style that was met with universal approval, but when it’s coupled with such enthusiasm for the matter at hand, it can be quite infectious.

Teaming up with Burke as co-producer and director is Mick Jackson, who’d previously been responsible for the aforementioned The Ascent of Man. A couple of the psychedelic effects from that show find their way over to Connections, not least the opening titles, in which the screen is lit up by an incandescent light before the title of the show fades in. Together, Burke and Jackson work carefully through their set-pieces – one episode is laid out almost in the style of a film noir, with Burke telling his story while looking like a private detective whose desk always has an empty whisky bottle on it – which work because they never overpower the central theme of the episode. It’s always deftly and skilfully done.

The intersection of the careers of James Burke and Mick Jackson also form part of a broader story. Consider the themes of these three television shows, recorded over the course of thirteen years:

“Every minute of the day things are happening that will, sooner or later, change our lives. They’re like parts of a jigsaw. It’s only when the picture comes together that you know if you like it or not. It used to be you could afford to wait and see. Not anymore. Tomorrow comes too fast.”

– James Burke – “The Burke Specials” (1972)

“Why should we look to the past in order to prepare for the future? Because there is nowhere else to look.”

– James Burke – “Connections” (dir. Mick Jackson, 1978)

“In an urban society, everything connects. Each person’s needs are fed by the skills of many others. Our lives are woven together in a fabric. But the connections make society strong also make it vulnerable.”

Barry Hines – “Threads” (dir. Mick Jackson, 1985)

Small wonder that Mick Jackson, who produced and directed Connections, should also have wound up directing the BBC’s 1985 nuclear docu-dramatisation Threads. The idea that one of the most important aspects of the human condition is our interconnectedness runs through both Connections and Threads. Connections shows us how we got to where we are today, sometimes by accident, and often through remarkable people seeing alternative uses for things invented for completely different purposes. Threads takes what we know about the inter-connections that hold our world together and shows us what happens when all of this is literally blown to pieces. Change for the better, change for the worse. Opposite sides of the same coin.

Connections was a global hit, the most-watched documentary series of the year on American television, when it was shown on PBS in 1979, where it also became their most-watched programme of all time. At home, meanwhile, Burke found himself name-checked in The Human League’s 1980 song The Black Hit of Space, while a book of the same name, also written by Burke and going into greater details concerning the themes raised within the TV series, also went on to be a best-seller.

Somehow, though, Burke’s television career faded over the course of the following decade. His next series, The Real Thing, was shown by BBC2 in 1980 but didn’t have the same cultural impact that its predecessor had enjoyed. Two further series of Connections were produced in 1994 and 1997 along with a spin-off series titled The Day The Universe Changed, which was first recorded in 1985 and revised a decade later. Despite the enormous success of Connections, though, the first series somehow didn’t even make it to a DVD release until 2017. “No one under the age of fifty has heard of me and everyone over the age of fifty thinks I’m dead,” Burke once observed, with his trademark dry sense of humour.

It’s facile – and seldom actually true – to say that things were always better in the past, but factual television programming doesn’t seem to have changed much for the better over the last four decades. In terms of production values, breadth, scope and ambition, Connections is a high concept masterpiece, made on a scale that probably wouldn’t be considered possible, these days. Delicately balancing education with entertainment, it’s a relevant today as it was forty years ago, for that it was most definitely a product of its time. You can see the first episode of Connections right here.