Former BBC2 controller Jane Root on her most ambitious TV project yet – condensing the entire history of the human race into just 12 hours
22:46 GMT, 16 November 2012
22:46 GMT, 16 November 2012
Had the question been posed at the dawn of time – which is the species most likely to survive and dominate the planet – mankind would probably not even have featured.
After all, we’re a somewhat puny lot. We don’t have claws or sharp teeth to help us hunt, or fur to keep us warm. We’re neither the tallest nor the fastest animals on Earth.
Our babies are born pitifully weak. As species go, you’d have been crazy to have bet on us.
Jane's new TV series Mankind: The Story Of All Of Us on the History Channel tells the whole story of humankind in 12 hours
Yet survive we have, while 99 per cent of all life forms have become extinct. How on Earth did we do it My new TV series Mankind: The Story Of All Of Us on the History Channel sets out to answer this question. It tells the whole story of humankind in 12 hours.
We wanted to take a completely new look at who we are and where we came from, and make it thrilling television at the same time.
It’s a ridiculously huge undertaking, but with the world beset by economic crisis and threatened by climate change, we wanted to tell an optimistic story of the incredible things that we, as a species, have accomplished.
We have, after all, manipulated the forces of our planet. We used fire to cook our food, making it easier to digest – giving us smaller stomachs and bigger brains (they’ve doubled in size in 2 million years). We turned other animals into companions – our Ice Age enemy, the wolf, became a hunting buddy and man’s best friend.
These ancient wolves are the ancestors of all the dogs alive today. And we unravelled the chemistry of our planet, unlocking nitrogen from the atmosphere to use as fertiliser – revolutionising food production and helping our population to grow faster in the first 50 years of the 20th century than it did in the previous 50,000.
Mankind’s journey from a few thousand hunter-gatherers on the African savannah 100,000 years ago to a population of seven billion today has been one built around science, invention and warfare.
Along the way we have learned about the weather, navigation and trade, about medicine, evolution and the explosive power of the atom. The sacking of Rome, the industrial revolution and mapping our own DNA are just a handful of the pivotal points along the route.
Today, one in three people on the planet is Christian, but word of the death of a man called Jesus from Nazareth 2,000 years ago might never have spread across the world if it hadn’t been for the might of the Roman Empire.
It was the Romans who mastered road-building and built a vast network of shipping lanes
It was the Romans who mastered road-building and built a vast network of shipping lanes, allowing goods and ideas to flow across three continents. In the Andes, the Spanish opened up the largest silver mine in the world in the 16th century, minting millions of coins which transformed the global economy – filling the chests of pirates, fuelling a stock market boom and, via the British Empire, helping to pay for the Taj Mahal.
As trade boomed, millions of people came into the New World as slaves, bringing their customs and culture with them and creating a diaspora that has spread around the planet.
The tale we’re telling is a global story. What most of us learn at school is our own history: I learned British history, but now I live in America with my British husband and very American seven-year-old daughter, Molly.
She gets taught American history and knows everything about George Washington, but not so much about Brunel. It’s the same story across the world: in Shanghai you learn Chinese history, in Lima, Peruvian history. None of us grows up thinking about how astoundingly interconnected the whole world is.
How many of us realise that ancient Britons built Stonehenge around the same time as the Egyptians constructed the pyramids, over 2,000 miles away Or that farming was discovered – across the world – at almost exactly the same time
How different would the world be if every child, everywhere, grew up thinking about all the things that have united mankind for millions of years, rather than the things that divide us right now
People ask me how you go about condensing so much information into 12 hours of television, and the answer is prodigious planning, then breaking it down into manageable nuggets. We decided where we wanted to start (the Big Bang) and end (the near future).
Then our team spoke to an awful lot of people. Our main consultant was Ian Morris, the British professor of History and Classics at America’s Stanford University, but we also spoke to a further 200 or so historians across the globe.
People ask Jane how you go about condensing so much information into 12 hours of television, and the answer is prodigious planning
When we made the series The British for Sky TV earlier this year we had experts who knew our entire history. With Mankind we had to find the one person who knew about the Vikings in America, for example, then someone else who knew about corn in the Mayan diet, and so on.
Most importantly we wanted to create must-see television. I want there to be a buzz and for people to want to be at home for it. To realise that feeling of excitement we’ve tried not only to tell incredible tales from the past, but to show them in a totally different way.
We spent two years filming in four different countries to give the shows a variety of landscapes that would make them visually astounding.
We’ve tried to give people a feature-film experience. I want the audience to feel as though the history is growing around them – which we’ve attempted to do with computer graphics to complement the drama.
The final piece of the jigsaw was securing Stephen Fry for the voice-over. His excitement about knowledge is a joy to behold and very close to the heart of what we’re trying to do.
I hope everyone watching will discover something new. For me, it all comes down to one big thing. The world we live in has to contend with ferocious storms and economic meltdowns, but in the mid-14th century plague wiped out a third of the population of Europe in a couple of years.
Mankind survived, and a new world emerged. We are incredibly resilient and we go on and on. If you take the really long view, things always get better.
Mankind: The Story Of All Of Us, Wednesday, 10pm, History Channel.