Wednesday 11 February 2015

Ancestral Voices

Genre: Education / Music
Channel: BBC2

Transmission: 17/05/1976 - 14/06/1976

Believe it or not, but there was actually a time when Curious British Telly's life wasn't consumed entirely by archive television.

It was merely a passion which would briefly manifest itself when we watched old episodes of Dr Who and tried to remember that children's tv show about the artistic dog.

You see, our obsession before this glorious folly was... MUSIC!

We'd attend gigs regularly, bought NME every single week for 9 years and even started a few fan sites on Geocities.

The passion for us, fuelled by our teenage desire to be hip and cool, gradually faded, but for the people involved in Ancestral Voices music was a way of life.

Melodies from the Past

With an amazing title that sounds like the greatest Led Zeppelin album never recorded, Ancestral Voices was the BBC's attempt to educate the masses about the history of music.

Sure, everyone loved music, but did they know anything about its origins prior to Dylan going electric?

The answer was "probably not".

Therefore, it was time for David Munrow - master of the bassoon and even more curious sounding instruments - to step forward and explore the history of sounds, rhythms and singalongs.

The series saw Munrow detailing the evolution of instruments such as horns, flutes and hunting bows (the godfathers of stringed instruments) as well as the ancient myths and practices surrounding them.

Munrow was flanked by a myriad of musicians who were on hand to demonstrate the mysterious sounds of these ancient instruments. A willing audience were also present to chant/sing in the most peculiar tongues.

The Story behind the Music

Ancestral Voices was borne from director Paul Kriwaczek's love of ancient civilisations and desire to create educational programmes.

Kriwaczek was backed by well loved producer Victor Poole who amassed a varied career working with the likes of Fanny Cradock, Anthony Burgess and Jane Glover.

Five episodes were transmitted in Spring 1976 on BBC2 on Monday evenings. The series was later repeated on BBC1 in Autumn 1976. Further repeats of the series came in 1978 (BBC2) and 1980 (BBC1).

Opening Our Ears to Ancient Sounds

We were browsing through the BBC's fantastic Genome project when we stumbled across Ancestral Voices.

Now, we love all things retro, but here was a completely different league of retro, they were going waaaaaay back.

This we had to investigate!

Online searches revealed not even a clip, but our dear old friends at the BFI were only too happy to furnish us with an episode.

The main aspect of the show which grabs you is David Munrow's passion. He's absolutely obsessed with the history of music and, at times, he works himself into an enthused rapture as he preaches passionately about the evolution of music.

And, yes, we loved seeing and hearing these ancient instruments. In fact, it gave us a great perspective on just how Royal Blood have come to be smashing their instruments wildly on stage and creating such a beautiful racket.


The show is just too specialised for the average Joe!

We love a bit of educational telly, but this went in to far too much depth!

It surprised us, actually, that this went out in an early evening slot as the whole show feels much more like an Open University programme.

The show appears - although we only watched one episode - to be entirely studio bound and this contributes to a repetitive format where the camera just shifts from one corner of the studio to another. Some location filming could have easily broken this up.

For the first time in our history of visiting the BFI, we actually had to fast forward through the tape as it was boring us.

The show's dated terribly too. The fashions and haircuts are just so 70s that it hurts. Just how huge can a shirt collar be for Christ's sake?!

And then there's the musicians.

Imagine some German campers with the cheesiest grins you can imagine and you're not even close to the shivers we experienced down our spine as we watched them bob their heads sinisterly to the ancient rhythms.

And when the audience linked arms and began to sing a drinking song against the lilting sounds of a lyre and flute, our heads were in our hands.

We don't think we could stomach another episode of this.

The intentions are first class, but it's such a niche area that only a tiny audience would get enjoyment from Ancestral Voices.

The Tragedy of David Munrow

We may have found it a cringey, borefest at times, but David Munrow' passion was evident throughout and was impossible not to admire.

Sadly, before the programme even aired he had committed suicide. This tragic event has been contributed to depression and followed a suicide attempt in the previous year.

Despite working with his passion on a daily business it was no match for the debilitating effects of mental illness.

It's a stern reminder of the fragility of our mental health and how, at our lowest points, even our greatest loves can't save us.


  1. I watched it back then - yes it was for nerds like me - others wouldn't bother watching - trouble is when they try and make informative stuff "entertaining" for everyone then I stop watching - and a funny thing also happens - so do they :-((

    1. Wow! Someone else has actually seen Ancestral Voices!

  2. Yeah it's me, Anonymous again! Just reviewing my "so do they " comment - it was more in connection with BBC TV's Tomorrows World series. They tried doing the "entertaining makeover stuff" and wadda ya know, the viewing figures just fell away.... Back to David Munrow and Ancestral Voices, I contacted Paul Kriwaczek a few years before his death {well, it's always better that way ;-)) } and asked about his memories of making the series. He was very critical of Munrow (no doubt his collapsing state of mind didn't help), he said programme scripts were often delivered on-the-day which created great anxiety for P.K. and his team. Also Munrow had some very angry outbursts when things didn't go the way he liked, again due to his mental state. End of P.K. quote. I (anonymous) recall he'd had a theft from his home (I believe it was from there) of musical instruments, which were (again I believe) recovered by the police. I wish I could listen to those 655 radio programmes he did, I was always at work still when they were broadcast on Radio 3 as "Pied Piper" it was very difficult to program my reel-to-reel audio tape recorder and FM radio to capture them! This is a nice read - "The tragic story of the man who inspired millions to love music" see