Life & Culture

TV review: Great thinkers: in their own words

Cheap and great value – now there's a thought


The cuts are biting hard at the BBC, and the resulting industrial action has hit news programmes this week. But the Beeb seems to have hit on one very effective recession-busting strategy – making use of its unparalleled archives to come up with cheap but intelligent programmes.

Great Thinkers: In Their Own Words follows the Timeshift formula of unearthing archive footage and shaping it into a narrative. For this programme a few talking heads have been added - thinkers explaining what other thinkers were thinking about. It may not come as a massive surprise to discover that a programme that attempted to explain human behaviour was heavy on Jews - even down to the narrator, Rebecca Front. Its centrepiece was the only existing sound recording of Sigmund Freud - made in December 1938, only months before his death from throat cancer. What Freud said was unremarkable. He modestly told the interviewer: "I discovered some important new facts about the unconscious, instinctual urges and so on."

It was left to another Jew, writer Oliver James, to put his words into perspective. "We have this idea of the unconscious. We think our dreams are important, we feel are childhoods are important."

All this, he explained, was due to the work of Freud.

Students of psychology will not have learned much from this programme – and those new to Freud's work have got little more than the barest outline of what he did. However, that is to miss the point, The opportunity to hear that voice, faint and distorted though it was, brought a distant historical figure to life.

Similarly, his feud with his disciple, Carl Gustav Jung, would be considered dusty and arcane… until we saw Jung, chatting to TV interviewer John Freeman in 1959 about his falling out with the great man in 1912. The details of their dispute were considered too academic even for BBC Four, but the sight of Jung chatting about his relationship with Freud was compelling.

However, the most shocking footage was of a Horizon programme from the early 1970s presented by Stanley Milgram.

The American son of Jewish refugees from Europe, Milgram had grown up appalled by the mass murder of Jews by the Nazis and was determined to find out more about the human capacity for cruelty.

His quest resulted in one of the most famous of post-war psychological experiments. Members of the public were told they were participating in an investigation into memory and learning. They would ask a question of a "student". If the question was answered wrongly, they were then asked to inflict an electric shock to the student. The students were actors and the shocks were fake but the "teachers" did not know this. Sixty-five per cent of them administered a 450-volt shock even though they were told that the level of voltage was dangerous. In original footage from the experiment we watched a middle-aged man, presumably an upstanding US citizen, obeying orders to administer a massive electric shock despite the pleas and screams of his "student".

Milgram took an important lesson from the experiment. "It does not take and evil person to serve an evil system. Ordinary people are easily integrated into malevolent systems," he said.

Television does not come much cheaper than rehashing 40-year-old programmes but when the subject matter is as important as this, the BBC - cuts or no cuts - is fulfilling its charter. However, watch out for more Only Fools And Horses re-runs.

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