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1962: ‘What Manner of Men?’ Meeting Scientists through Television

By Tim Boon

At 21:25 on 11th December 1962 the BBC broadcast The Prizewinners, a television programme about that year’s Nobel laureates in medicine or physiology (Francis Crick, James Watson and Maurice Wilkins for DNA) and chemistry (Max Perutz and John Kendrew for the elucidation of protein structures). The programme, broadcast the day after the ceremony, marked a key stage in the development of science television. Instead of the established expository forms in which science had been demonstrated in the studio or via outside broadcast from laboratories, this programme placed the emphasis on the personalities of the featured scientists. As Raymond Baxter, anchor man for the programme asserted, ‘this is to be a personal programme about these men. In a few moments, through television you will be able to meet them and judge for yourselves what manner of men they are’. Rather than having a reporter frame a discussion about scientific method or theory, this programme featured the psychologist Stephen Black, whose interviewing style is friendly, direct and provocative, asking the laureates a series of questions ranging extensively from family situation, personal history, career path (including wartime experience), hobbies (taste in music and visual art) and philosophical questions such as, in Crick’s case, belief in God.

In taking this approach, the producer Philip Daly, under the guidance of Head of Department Aubrey Singer, was deliberately taking a cue from arts television, notably the artist portraits made for the magazine series Monitor. Here again, what was happening in science television can be seen as part of a wider shift in how intellectuals and artists of all kinds were coming to be represented in media. The American documentarist Richard Leacock, associated with the ‘Direct Cinema’ school, in 1963 defined a portrait film as ‘a film about a person who is interesting, who is involved in a situation he cares deeply about, which comes to a conclusion in a limited period of time, where we have access to what goes on’. Leacock was known for films on musicians and politics including, famously, Primary the 1960 account of the Wisconsin primary election between John F. Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey. His definition could readily be used to describe The Prizewinners.

The creation of televisual forms is path-dependent; micro-genres of film or programme that come into being through messy contingency persist; they effectively become templates that end up being followed or deliberately deviated from in subsequent programming. In the case of The Prizewinners, the group biography form was reproduced in several programmes in the years afterward, including programmes on cosmologists and surgeons. But the real sequel to this programme was Horizon,
Where the emphasis on biography and personality was foundational. In the first few years, Horizons that stressed the biographical mode included programmes on Buckminster Fuller, JBS Haldane, Michael Faraday, Joseph Needham and Isaac Newton amongst others. These programmes might seem a long way distant from the science television of today. But it is evident that the evolution of the form, and the current almost universal use of personality presenters could well be traced to this first eruption of scientific personality onto the screen.

Read the full article on Public Understanding of Science

Dr Tim Boon is Head of Research and Public History for the Science Museum Group and a historian of the public culture of science.
His books include Films of Fact and Material Culture and Electronic Sound.