Age of Hope

Full Program Description

Age of Hope
Optimism reigns as the new century begins
Original broadcast: Sunday, April 19 at 9pm
(check local listings for re-broadcast dates)

The dawn of the twentieth century was steeped in hope and optimism. It was a new age of enlightenment: the extension of education, the emergence of mass communication, and new mobility -- all would revolutionize and enrich modern life. Alexander Briansky, born in Russia in 1882, remembers celebrating New Year's Day in Odessa in 1900: "There were fireworks, there was drinking, there were crowds on the streets. Nobody stayed at home. We had huge hopes." But few could have imagined the magnitude of the changes that were about to overtake them.

From 1900 to the outbreak of the First World War, Age Of Hope explores the early years of the century and provides a baseline for the tumultuous events that follow. Living witnesses from Europe, Asia, and the United States recount the part they played in the century's earliest history, whether fighting on the barricades of the failed Russian Revolution of 1905 or campaigning for votes for women; attending the first meeting of the African National Congress in South Africa or witnessing the sinking of the Titanic. They remember the progress they lived through and the changes they fought for -- the clash of forces and ideas in the years before World War I.

With an average age of 102, the people interviewed in Age Of Hope are among the oldest in the world -- our last surviving links with the dawn of the modern age. Their remarkable personal testimony is punctuated by equally astonishing contemporary film of many of these events, painstakingly researched in the world's film archives -- much of it never before seen on television.

In 1900, people in burgeoning industrial cities believed that they were at the very peak of civilization and national achievement. They lived in what appeared to be a settled and stable society in which little had changed for centuries, with everything -- and everyone -- in its place. A handful of European families ruled more than half the world as they had for four hundred years. In less than two decades, all would be undone by relentless political and technological revolution.

Age of Hope opens at the Paris Exhibition of 1900, where fifty million people came to see what technology and progress had in store. Alice Clousier, six years old at the time, remembers being intrigued by the moving sidewalk; Raymond Abescat, then a nine-year-old schoolboy, describes the marvel of the Exhibition's "electricity pavilion." Nine years later, the young Jeanne Plouvin remembers watching Louis Bleriot take off for the first successful flight across the English Channel.

The Titanic was to be another technological triumph. Eva Hart recalls the maiden voyage of the world's greatest, "unsinkable" ship: "My father had put my mother and I into a lifeboat and said to me `Now be a good girl. Hold Mummy's hand' -- and I thought he was following me . . . but of course he didn't. . . . Silence is a great thing to me, because I can remember . . . there was the whole world and this starlit night and these shrieking, drowning people. I think that was the worst thing of the lot, that was. And then this silence, which you couldn't describe."

Age Of Hope also witnesses the beginnings of the social and political change that would transform the lives of ordinary people around the globe. By 1905, Alexander Briansky, so full of hope in 1900, was manning the barricades in Odessa, hoping to overthrow the Tsar in the abortive revolution of that year. "We talked and sang revolution," he recalls.

Dorah Ramothibe -- at 114, the oldest interviewee in the series -- grew up working for a Boer farmer in the Transvaal. She was regularly beaten and forced to approach the white farmer crawling on her hands and knees. She remembers going to the earliest meetings of the fledgling African National Congress (ANC) in 1912 -- six years before Nelson Mandela was born -- and the hope that the new political organization brought: "We cried with joy because we had hopes that our lives would be better. . . . We wanted a better life, and we could see that it would come if we joined the Congress."

In industrial countries, people mobilized for action as never before. Women led the fight for equal rights. Gertrude Jarret, born in England in 1890, was a committed suffragette: "I thought that women should have the same rights as men. Several of us, who wanted votes for women, we used to get up in Hanley Market square, and spout a bit but, in those days, if it got too rowdy the police would come and move us off -- but we still used to say what we thought."

Between 1900 and 1914 over thirteen million people left Europe hoping for a new life in the United States -- the greatest voluntary migration in history. Yetta Sperling, a young girl from Eastern Europe, remembers the journey: "One day we were playing on the boat and a sailor was sweeping the floor and then all of a sudden he started to holler and point. He spoke in a language that I didn't understand, but he was pointing and hollering `America, America' -- and we all looked and before you know it, we saw America, we saw the Statue of Liberty. We were all yelling and singing. Ah, it was happiness."

Like many others, Sperling joined the throng of immigrants crowded in tenements on the lower East side of New York City. They worked long hours in the city's sweatshops, but she says, "New York was paradise."

By 1914, however, paradise was foundering and the hope that ushered in the century would soon seem a distant memory. Militarism and nationalism were on the march -- and after four decades of peace, war seemed inevitable. Donald Hodge, born in Kent in 1894, explains: "We were brought up to spell duty with a big 'D' and our duty was to God and our country and that was the end of the matter."

In the summer of 1914, twenty-five million soldiers were poised on the brink of war. The world's first mass conflict was about to begin. The people of Europe held their breath.

Age of Hope is produced and directed by Jonathan Lewis; the narrator is John Forsythe. People's Century is a co-production of WGBH and the BBC -- filmed around the world and shaped in Boston and London. Executive producer for WGBH is Zvi Dor-Ner; senior producer is David Espar. Peter Pagnamenta is executive producer for the BBC. National corporate sponsorship for the series is provided by Conseco, Inc. Major funding is provided by public television viewers and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Additional funding is provided by the Richard Saltonstall Charitable Foundation and The Lowell Institute.

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