Posted: 03/12/2012


In Their Own Words

by Jef Burnham

Available March 13, 2012 on DVD from Athena.

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The documentary series, In Their Own Words, compiles incredible archival footage of BBC interviews with influential “British Novelists” and the world’s “Great Thinkers.” Through six, hour-long episodes, the series provides a surprisingly thorough survey of the major 20th Century advancements in philosophy and British literature. Captivating, concise, and surprisingly quick-paced, In Their Own Words functions not only as an introduction to this material for those unfamiliar with it, but also as a rewarding refresher for those already well-versed. The reward in this respect derives from the series’ presentation of the material through rare archival footage and recordings, offering up, among other rarities, footage and audio of Sigmund Freud, an unaired interview with Marshal McLuhan, and the only surviving audio recording of Virginia Woolf.

As someone far more invested in philosophy and cultural theory than in British Literature, I anticipated that I would find the “Great Thinkers” program far more engaging than “British Novelists.” Happily, however, I found “British Novelists” almost every bit as engaging. In fact, the interviews with P. G. Wodehouse and Evelyn Waugh stand out as two of the most wonderful in the entire program. The program addresses the chronological advancements in British Literature in “Among the Ruins, 1919-1939,” “The Age of Anxiety, 1945-1969,” and “Nothing Sacred, 1970-1990.” Other novelists featured here include the aforementioned Virginia Woolf, J.R.R. Tolkien, George Orwell, Doris Lessing, Salman Rushdie, Aldous Huxley, Graham Greene, and Martin Amis.

Given my work in the field of media studies, I would point to the “Great Thinkers” episode, “The Culture Wars,” as perhaps the single most personally important episode of the entire series. This episode chronicles the battle over the very definition of culture itself during the era of broadcasting, and the debates over how culture is constructed and the relative values of “high” and “low” culture. For me, these stand among the key issues for man living in a mediated society. That said, the remainder of “Great Thinkers” is certainly no less enlightening, addressing what it is to be human in “Human, All Too Human” and the evolution of economic theories in “The Grand Experiment.” “Great Thinkers” contains certainly the most startling footage featured in the entire series, footage of participants in Stanley Milgram’s experiments testing the human capacity for cruelty. In these experiments, the experiment’s conductor would ask participants to apply painful electric shocks to a second (and ultimately nonexistent) participant in an adjacent room. The footage is nothing short of horrifying. In addition to Freud and McLuhan, “Great Thinkers” features interviews with Bertrand Russell, Raymond Williams, Jane Goodall, Edward Said, and John Maynard Keyes.

Each disc includes biographies of featured participants. The set also includes a 13-page viewer’s guide, which includes write-ups on the personalities featured in the series then and now, bios of the interviewers featured in the series, critical reactions to seminal novels, a who’s who look at Cambridge’s Bloomsbury Group, and a history of the BBC. Additional content is available on

Jef Burnham is a writer and educator living in Chicago, Illinois. While waging war on mankind from a glass booth in the parking lot of a grocery store, Jef managed to earn a degree in Film & Video from Columbia College Chicago, and is now the Editor-in-Chief of

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