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DVD Review: In Their Own Words

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For those who don’t believe that television or radio shows consisting of people talking can be as captivating as any situation comedy, soap opera, day time talk show or cop thriller should take the opportunity offered by the Athena imprint of Acorn Media release of the two disc DVD set In Their Own Words on March 13 2012.

The invention of radio and television should have given birth to an age celebrating the sharing of ideas. The ability to communicate to a large number of people over great distances was the ideal opportunity to bring the formerly exclusive worlds of art, philosophy, and science out of the ivory towers of learning and the salons of the wealthy into everybody’s living room.

Unfortunately that wasn’t to be the case. Instead of being the venue for presenting a wide range of ideas, they’ve too often been used as vehicles to disseminate propaganda and marketing goods. In fact, if anything, radio and television have resulted in fewer people having access to the arts or being exposed to diverse opinions and ideas. Their content often seems a modern version of the Roman “Bread and Circuses,” designed to pacify the mobs and keep them from reflecting on the ills of society.

While nobody seems to question the argument that these media are only giving the public what they want, what kind of choice are they offered? Oh sure a few underfunded public television stations in North America offer alternatives to the standard fare, but they spend most of their energies on trying to stave off budget cuts by those whose best interests is served in keeping the public placated and uninformed. What’s even more frustrating are those few examples over the years of the media fulfilling its potential with programming exposing listeners/viewers to some of the world’s most creative and innovative thinkers.

The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) have done more to bring the words and ideas of the great English language writers and thinkers to the world than any other television network. In Their Own Words highlights the best of the best of this type of programming culled from the BBCs archives. Included, for example, are the only known existing recording of Virginia Wolfe talking about her work, and the voice of Sigmund Freud discussing his then-groundbreaking ideas on psychotherapy.

With Disc One devoted to English language, predominately British, authors, and Disc Two to great thinkers of the modern world, viewers are given the chance to re-familiarize themselves with the luminaries responsible for not only the development of the written word as we know it today, but the philosophies and policies that have come to form the basis of our society.

Economists, social critics, and scientists broach their ideas on the welfare state, feminism, free markets, genetics, quantum physics and medicine. We watch and listen to the steady evolution of the novel from the days of the world’s recovery from WWI through the angry young men of post WWII and as the joint influences of technology and immigration from the furthest reaches of Britain’s former Empire came to bear upon its format and content.

Presented as a documentary, the set is more than a compilation of old recordings and footage of the writers and thinkers in question. What’s almost as fascinating as hearing from the various parties involved is seeing the 20th Century treated like an historical era. Having known people who had lived during every decade in the century, I had never really stood back and observed it. Watching this set I was able to see how patterns that have occurred history were repeated during my own lifetime.

You also gain a real appreciation for how the pace of change sped up as the century progressed. On both discs the first two or three eras covered are defined by events, starting with WWI – the years just prior, during and the years after, continuing with WWII and its immediate aftermath, including the 1950s.

From then on change comes fast and furious. The 1960s are explored as a single segment unto its own. After that, major shifts in thought and policy seem to be almost yearly occurrences. Is it any wonder there was such an explosion of wildly different world views during this time? You have the rise of Thatcherism in Britain at the same time there emerged a new wave of civil rights protests by both women and homosexuals.

It’s against this backdrop we witness the changes that occur among both writers and thinkers. In the early part of the century both were still the preserve of the upper classes. Even those considered radical like the Bloomsbury group that produced Virginia Wolfe and others came from upper class backgrounds, while the major thinkers, like Bertrand Russell, were all academics with little real world experience.

It wasn’t until WW II and after that we saw novelists from other backgrounds making their voices heard. While academics still made up the majority of people making contributions to our understanding of the human condition, economics and philosophy, as the century progressed their work can be seen to develop a far more practical application then before. For instead of presenting theories that spoke in generalities about ideas, they started to try and come up with explanations for things that went on in society.

The various programmes forming the basis of In Their Own Words were edited in ways that, for the most part, allow each subject to present ideas and thoughts without challenging them. In some ways this is quite refreshing as it gives viewers the chance to form their own opinions. However, in order to give us a better understanding of a subject’s significance, the filmmakers have also included additional interviews with both contemporaries and current experts in the field. However they seem to have done a good job in minimizing the editorializing and limiting commentary on the original material. The additional opinion help us gain a much better understanding of why they thought what they did and the process which allowed them to develop their thoughts.

Obviously In Their Own Words is limited as its subject matter is confined to British writers and thinkers. However, it still manages to give viewers a wonderful perspective on the evolution of thought and literature in the twentieth century. Of course being able to hear first hand from people like Kinglsy and Martin Amis, Salaman Rushdie, Evelyn Waugh, Graeme Greene, John Maynard Keynes, Jane Goodall, Martha Meade and the countless others who are the subjects of this set is somewhat amazing. The producers have done a great job organizing what could have been an overwhelming amount of material into a fashion that allows us to fully appreciate each voice and mind. Even better is they’ve taken material that has been stuffed in archives in some cases for nearly a hundred years, recorded on equipment we’d consider hopelessly primitive, and managed to clean them up sufficiently for us to have no trouble understanding those talking. All in all this is a must own for anybody interested in the history of thought and literature in the twentieth century.

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About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.
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