James Burke (b. 1936) first came to prominence on Tomorrow’s World during the mid sixties, where his relaxed and conversational tone provided a sharp counterpoint to his co-presenter, the more precise and patrician Raymond Baxter. His profile on TW meant that he was an obvious pick for the BBC’s Apollo coverage – he would go on to helm numerous hours of live television alongside Patrick Moore and Cliff Michelmore.
After leaving TW in 1971, Burke moved onto his own series, The Burke Special (1972 – 76), in which he examined various aspects of modern life and conjectured how they might develop in the future. Already in place was Burke’s trademark style of swiftly jumping from one subject to another and some of the topics covered – such as test tube babies and gun control – ensured that the series generated a certain level of controversy.
Burke then moved out of the studio and onto film for Connections (1978). Subtitled An Alternative View of Change, it sought to challenge the accepted linear view of technological progress. Burke would argue that no part of the modern world can be regarded in isolation – instead you need to track back through history to find apparently unconnected events which can be linked together in order to show a continuity of change.
This interdisciplinary approach wasn’t to all tastes and neither was Burke’s presenting style – contradicting himself or walking out of shot during mid-sentence, for example. But it’s fair to say that Connections was a programme which made a deep impression on a section of its audience and – whether you disagree or agree with all his theories – still provides substantial food for thought.
This three disc set contains the following –
The Trigger Effect – Original broadcast 17th October 1978
Death in the Morning – Original broadcast 24th October 1978
Distant Voices – Original broadcast 31st October 1978
Faith in Numbers – Original broadcast 7th November 1978
The Wheel of Fortune – Original broadcast 14th November 1978
Thunder in the Skies – Original broadcast 21st November 1978
The Long Chain – Original broadcast 28th November 1978
Eat, Drink and Be Merry – Original broadcast 5th December 1978
Countdown – Original broadcast 12th December 1978
Yesterday, Tomorrow and You – Original broadcast 19th December 1978
Burke’s idiosyncratic style is clear right from the opening moments of The Trigger Effect. He asks the audience (“would you do me a favour?”) to consider all the man-made objects in the room where they’re sitting (television, lights, etc) and the impact they have on their lives. He then moves out of shot, leaving an empty frame for a few seconds, an obvious visual cue which gives the audience some “thinking time”. It’s a good example of the way Burke challenges the viewers not to be passive observers, but instead to interact with the arguments and theories he’s generating.
In addition to Burke’s sometimes provocative statements, Connections boasts impressive visuals, thanks to the skills of director Mick Jackson. Jackson’s later and very varied CV includes the Whitney Houston/Kevin Costner movie The Bodyguard, the devastating nuclear drama Threads and the Ray McAnally political serial A Very British Coup.
Connections allowed Jackson a wide palette in which to craft some striking images. And he was granted a very healthy budget – the series took fourteen months to shoot, travelled to nineteen countries and took in a hundred and fifty individual locations along the way.
Jackson’s eye for the unusual can be seen in the first episode as even the simple act of Burke travelling in a lift is presented in a memorable way. But this isn’t simply gloss for the sake of it – Burke makes the point that just as we have become increasingly dependent on technology, so our understanding of how it works has decreased sharply. Does he know how a lift works? No, he just accepts that it does.
I take going up in the world like that for granted. We all do. And as the years of the 20th century have gone by, the things we take for granted have multiplied way beyond the ability of any individual to understand in a lifetime. The things around us, the man-made inventions we provide ourselves with, are like a vast network, each part of which is interdependent with all the others.
This increasing dependency on technology is examined during The Trigger Effect as Burke looks back to a massive power-cut which engulfed New York in 1965. With discordant music (courtesy of Richard Yeoman-Clarke from the BBC Radiophonic Workshop) and the help of those who were present, re-enacting their roles, it’s presented in highly a dramatic fashion.
“What does survival without technology look like?”. Burke effectively paints a nightmarish picture of the stuggles inherent in existing in a world without electricity (tapping into many of the themes developed in numerous post-apocalyptic dramas, such as Survivors) and then links this back to show how previous civilizations, such as the Ancient Egyptians, could be said to have been the first technological nations. He therorises that once an invention – such as the plough – is created, it must inevitably lead to further inventions through the ages (even if the connection between them isn’t immediately apparent).
The series’ aims are restated at the start of Death in the Morning. Burke reflects that because knowledge of the future is impossible, tracing a modern man-made object back thousands of years is somewhat akin to a historical detective story, with twists and wrong turns along the way. He sets things up nicely by teasing us that the modern intention of this edition “affects the life of every man, woman and child on Earth” but doesn’t say what it is. Instead, his story begins two and a half thousand years earlier in the Eastern Mediterranean and is concerned with money, but will have become something totally different when we reach the present day. How we get from there to here, the intuitive leaps Burke makes and the visual imagery along the way, all help to make this a typically captivating instalment.
Highlights of later episodes include Burke’s imaginative arguments which connect the Little Ice Age of 1250 – 1300 AD to a whole host of later inventions, including the chimney and diverse objects as buttons and knitting (episode six, Thunder In The Skies). Also of interest is Eat, Drink and Be Merry, which discusses how modern credit – the plastic credit card – can be traced back to the Dukes of Burgandy, the first state to use credit. This then springboards into the problems of keeping food fresh (a particular issue for large armies in the nineteenth century) and Burke then presses on to show how these innovations led to the Saturn V rocket which took men to the moon.
The final edition, Yesterday, Tomorrow and You, neatly summaries everything that we’ve learnt in the series to date and returns to a theme posed by Burke posed at the start of the series, concerning the way that the world is developing increasingly advanced technology at a rate faster than our ability to understand it. Should we be concerned about this, or just accept that change is inevitable?
With its globe-trotting camerawork, Connections engages on several levels. Not only is it a visual treat, but it’s an intellectual one as well. It may flit from subject to subject, but James Burke remains the series’ solid centre and his quirky approach helps to ensure that the series is much more than a series of dry lectures. Picture quality is what you’d expect from material of this era – had fresh prints been struck from the negatives it could have looked much better, but as always it’s a question of cost. What we have is perfectly watchable though.
Nearly four decades on, the series still engages, entertains and stimulates – a testament to the work of James Burke, Mick Jackson and the whole production team. Warmly recommended.
Connections is released by Simply Media on the 7th of February 2017. RRP £24.99.