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"The Human Spark" on PBS

Posted by Matthew Gilbert  January 6, 2010 12:04 PM

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Alan Alda is the smiling, ever-curious face of the new PBS show “The Human Spark,” as he studies precisely what differentiates human beings from other species. The three-part documentary series, which premieres tonight at 8 on Channel 2, enables Alda to travel the world talking to experts and researchers, indulging his love of science.

But Graham Chedd (above, left) and his Watertown production company are the engine of the show. With Alda, Chedd and his colleagues at Chedd-Angier-Lewis have forged an appealing documentary approach that addresses hard questions in a casual, accessible way. Alda and Chedd, who helped found the PBS “NOVA” series in the 1970s, originally developed their documentary style for their hugely popular “Scientific American Frontiers” on PBS.

Here's most of my quick interview with Chedd, which will also appear in the Globe this weekend:

Q. What is the human spark?

A. We never find it, but we have a lot of fun looking for it.

Q. No Cliff Notes answer?

A. We came close to a simple answer. …. It’s our extraordinary sociability. We have this ability to get on with people we don’t know, to empathize with people we read about, to bond with people across the planet. We hear more and more these days about strife and hatred, but the most characteristic thing about humans is their kindness, generosity, and hopefulness toward others. What other species would send care packages to tsunami victims in Southeast Asia?

One of the people I talked to made this nice point: Imagine a backyard barbecue with neighbors, some you know and some you don’t know, sharing jokes and food and drink. Get a bunch of chimpanzees together with a barbecue, and they’d all be fighting. Dogs are very nice and friendly, but you wouldn’t get dogs sharing their bones with others. It just doesn’t happen.

This ability to be helpful and cooperative and empathetic to our fellow creatures and to other creatures -- it’s what comes the closest to defining for me the human spark. It’s a very positive thing.

Q. I thought you were going to say self-consciousness.

A. That’s part of it, and its even more than self-consciousness. It’s the ability to read other people’s minds, the ability to get into other people’s heads, figuring out what they're thinking -- sometimes to manipulate them, sometimes to be empathetic with them.

Q. What about laughter?

A. It's another, but it’s not quite unique. Chimps sort of have a laughter. One of the people we talked to thinks that laughter was an early step on the way to language. And again it’s one of these group bonding things. You’re sitting around the campfire and laughing and its rhythmic, and it might lead to music and dancing and ultimately to language.

Q. How did you and Alan Alda wind up as a team?

A. We’ve worked together for 15 years I think. The reason he did it in the first place was that he was frankly a little bored. He’d become disenchanted with making films. He began to really hate the process. And he had a lifelong interest in science.

When we approached him to host “Scientific American Frontiers,” we had in mind someone who would be the narrator, like a traditional PBS host who pops up at the beginning and at the end. He said he didn’t want to do that, he’d only become involved if he could actually go with us and meet the scientists and talk to them directly. And we gulped. We didn’t know how that would work out.

But over the years we’ve honed together a really good style that allows him to exhibit both his curiosity and his sense of humor. And once “Frontiers” collapsed, about five years ago, when PBS decided they wanted something newer and fresher in the science field than our stuff, he and I chatted for a while. I’d been toying with this ["Human Spark"] idea for a little bit because I saw that so many different strands of science were trying to address the same question, so he and I decided to take up this project

We had a ball doing it. Traveling around, having great dinners, wonderful bottles of wine that he insisted on buying! And scientists have this public image of being boring and straitlaced and tied to their statistics. But that’s not true. In my experience, or at least the ones I pick, are terrific. They’re open, their curious, and their fun. And they love Alan. The idea that there’s this famous person whose actually interested in what they do, is just startling to a lot of scientists, and so they open up and warm to him, and he warms to them, and we get these nice interactions going.

Q. Has the proliferation of science TV on cable changed your life?

A. No. We’re probably incapable of making those programs. Because they’re just fluff. I’m a great admirer of “Mythbusters.” I think they do a great job. It’s quirky and fun and irreverent. But the majority of so-called science on cable is junk. What distinguishes it mostly is just trendy, flashy production techniques -- jiggly cameras and speeded-up motion. I’m afraid I’m just a straight old-fashioned documentary filmmaker who likes to make elegant sequences that look real and feel real, with real people.

Q. Is there a big documentary production community in the area?

A. There is. Most of it is born out of WGBH. My partner and I were among the first to leave 'GBH and set up an independent company. We both worked on "NOVA."

We’ve had our doors open now for 30 years. And during that time, we’ve probably employed 300 people. Huge numbers of people in the business have been in our shop. And that’s a very nice thing to go to bed with at night. The guy that programs Animal Planet worked for us, the guy that programs one of the new National Geographic channels worked for us. Bonnie Hammer of USA network worked for us. It’s very nice, although sometimes we’re rivals with them.


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