When I was growing up, there were two non-fiction television series that had a huge effect on me and the direction I would later go as an adult. One was Carl Sagan’s Cosmos which cemented a lifelong love of astronomy, the planets and space exploration; and the other was Connections, a BBC documentary presented by James Burke who had been the Corporation’s charismatic lead science correspondent during its coverage of the Apollo moon missions.
I still have the original hardback book that was published as a companion to the 1978 series, just as I still have my lavishly illustrated volume of Cosmos written by Sagan a couple of years later. However I’d long since given up any chance of actually getting to see the show on screen again, until I noticed an advertisement in a recent Radio Times for various new TV-related DVD releases – and was startled to find Connections listed among them. I don’t think I’ve ever decided to order anything quite so quickly as did here.
As always, the danger of revisiting something that was such an important touchstone of one’s childhood is that it can only disappoint when seen again. However in this case, it never even occurred to me to be wary about acquiring and watching Connections again, especially after nearly four decades having passed since my one and only previous viewing. And you know what? I was absolutely right not to worry. This is still one of the greatest factual shows in broadcasting history, with the power to keep you captivated and enlightened for every second of its ten 50 minute episodes.
The genius of the show is to give us a total new model for the way that the world works. It shreds the idea that everything is nice and ordered and linearly sequential. Long before the concept of chaos became common parlance, Connections instead demonstrates that random events across time and space can suddenly collide in a totally unexpected place and in ways that no one could have foreseen. One example is the episode “The Long Chain” which starts with the rise of international trade in the 16th century, which led to shipping insurance which in turn required boat owners to protect their ships by coating their hulls in pitch and tar. American independence in 1776 denied Britain an easy source of those materials, which led to the production of coal tar instead, by-products of which included ammonia, quinine and artificial dyes which were perfected by a booming chemical industry in Germany, and which led to the manufacture of long-chain polymers used in the production of plastics and nylon – the very stuff our modern world is built from.
Some of the connections detailed in the episodes are more successful than others – a few steps appear very tenuous indeed, while others feature developments that are so influential that the consequences could be followed in a dozen different directions in addition to the one Burke opts to focus on. But that hardly matters, and every single episode is still thoroughly engrossing and surprising. It transforms our understanding of how science history and social progress works, and does so by making it feel like a compelling crime whodunnit where the solution is what the end product will turn out to be – and it’s always hard to guess, such is the twisting and turning nature of the journey.
The first episode of the series, “The Trigger Effect”, is atypical in that it examines real time connections at a single point in history – specifically, the power blackout of 1965 that hit 30 million people in the north eastern United States and parts of Canada which was caused by a cascade failure initiated by a single faulty relay. The episode plays on end-of-the-world fears of the time which were also behind Terry Nation’s Survivors, since it asks what would happen if a future blackout proved irreversible: how many people today have access to land, grain and livestock or would know how to use a plough in such a scenario? Almost no one – so everyone would die, all because of a faulty relay. It’s a sobering examination, which itself sets up a look into how the hugely transformative technology of the plough was developed in the first place. There’s an additional disturbing dimension to the episode in that it was filmed in and around the World Trade Center, and even features an airplane in distress over the blacked-out city with no where to land.
At the other end of the series, the final episode recaps a lot of what’s gone before and then asks what will happen next. Much of it is presciently spot-on. Burke warns that the specialisation required by ever-advancing technology means that ‘ordinary people’ can no longer understand the world about them. Yet what are the alternatives to continued growth? Burke is obviously well aware of the exponential growth in IT (and he even warns against the rise of computer controlled credit) but there’s a limit to what even he can foresee. The episode predates by five or ten years the explosion in personal computers, as well as by a couple of decides the arrival of the Internet which has so totally transformed our world in such a short time. Despite being on the cusp of this when he’s talking, even a skilled and insightful analyst like Burke declares that it’s unlikely that we would ever all have computers of our own to help us keep up with the rate of change. He does so while sitting in what was the most advanced computer centre of its time, a huge room containing the booking system for British Airways – which these days could probably be comfortably replaced by a couple of high end business laptops.
Otherwise it’s surprising how little Connections feels to have dated. The usual indicators – fashion, cars and technology – are avoided because much of what we see is conveyed by historical reenactments, leaving only Burke’s beige safari suit and chocolate brown shirt as positively reeking of the 1970s. Even this ends up actually working in the show’s favour, making Burke look like a sort of quaintly dressed Time Lord striding through the centuries to deliver pieces to camera. And Burke really is the show’s big strength, providing the same friendly but intellectual authority that you both like as a person and believe as an oracle. He has some pretty good gags that break the ice when things get a bit heavy, this being a show that not only shows you the world’s first water-powered alarm clock but which then spends five minutes explaining in detail how every part works and how it relates to what came before and after.
In other areas, the age of the production is unavoidably evident. The source material hasn’t been digitally remastered in any way for the DVD release. It’s in 4:3 “full frame” format and was shot on the typical 16mm film stock used by the BBC in the 1970s that will be familiar to anyone who’s seen contemporary episodes of Doctor Who or Blake’s Seven. The colour is faded but not nearly as badly as for example the original prints of The Professionals. In fact, the overall quality looks about the same as I remember it at the time it was originally transmitted so there’s no complains as far as I’m concerned and there was certainly nothing to spoil my enjoyment.
I watched the entire series over the course of a fortnight, which for me is very rapid. I’m not much of a binge watcher; and in any case, Connections is the sort of show where you need time to digest all the information that has been presented. But I loved every minute, and having waited nearly 40 years to see it for a second time I’m delighted to be know I can watch it all over again whenever I like. And I strongly suspect that will be pretty soon, to make up for all that lost time.
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★
Connections is available on DVD from Simply Media.