Tom Harrison: the Barefoot Anthropologist

BBC 4, 9pm
0.88% Share, 171,000 viewers (slot average: 135,000)

From The Independent,
According to David Attenborough in Tom Harrisson: the Barefoot Anthropologist, Tom Harrisson reckoned that the most valuable tool for an anthropologist was a pair of earplugs – to really understand people, you have to ignore what they are saying and watch what they are doing… (other programmes reviewed)

...Back to Tom Harrisson: the Barefoot Anthropologist, a man constitutionally incapable of thinking inside boxes. He’s best remembered for having, along with Charles Madge, founded Mass-Observation, a sociological project that developed an eccentric anthropological view of Britain that paved the way for modern market research, but that was hardly Harrisson’s fault. A fair idea of their methods could be got from the example offered of observations of habits in dance halls: the observer was equipped with a diagram enumerating all the possible spots a man could put his hands on a woman’s body while dancing, and had to count them up over the course of an evening.

But Harrisson was also an eminent ornithologist: while he was still at school, he organised the first nationwide bird census, of the great crested grebe. As an ornithologist, he joined an expedition to Borneo, where he fell in love with the headhunting Dayaks and launched a new career as an anthropologist. He went on another trip to observe cannibals (a rough definition of an anthropologist is someone who thinks the distinction between headhunter and cannibal matters), from which came a bestselling, book, Savage Civilisation. During the Second World War, Mass-Observation was briefly on good terms with the government, which wanted assessments of how well its propaganda and moraleboosting techniques were working; but he ended the war being parachuted into Borneo with some Australians, recruiting headhunters (a comrade, recalling the severed Japanese heads, said he had never stopped having nightmares). Post-war, he became the curator of the national museum of Sarawak and started a new career in archaeology: in a cave, he found the earliest evidence of human habitation in South-east Asia. He also had a sideline as a Palme d’Or-winning film-maker (which is how David Attenborough got to know him).

Running through this astonishing story of talent and achievement, though, was another one of bloody-mindedness verging on the pathological: he quarrelled with everybody, coming close to getting himself shot by his men during the war, and later getting himself banned for life from Sarawak. He even told his wife that he disliked Attenborough, his patron at the BBC, whom he regarded as a possible rival. There is a very good biography of Harrisson by Judith Heimann: like this film, it manages to get across how much people disliked him, without quite being able to say why that was. All the same, this was a useful tribute to a remarkable individual.
- By Robert Hanks:


  1. Ammonytte6:19 PM

    Fascinating programme. His wartime exploits would make him seem a prototype for Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now!

  2. Anonymous6:00 AM

    Just saw a documentary on him - and he does seem like a Kurtz type figure in some ways. Although much less ambivalent than Kurtz - and also not insane!