A civil conversation

A civil conversation

As the BBC unveils its blockbuster follow-up to the 1969 series Civilisation, how does the original seem to modern eyes?

If we can judge a person’s worth by his output, it follows that we can gauge a civilisation by its creativity. Such was the thought process behind Civilisation, a major 13-part documentary created by the BBC in the late 1960s. A TV company, however it is funded, will almost always be judged by its audience — whether size, influence or weight of wallet. Here, the BBC brought art and history to mass media — and for that, history has always judged it kindly.

But now Auntie Beeb is unleashing an updated version — Civilisations plural, fronted by a combination of Simon Schama, Mary Beard and David Olusoga. Has the original, available on iPlayer, survived the passage of time?

Civilisation was aired in 1969, when Beatles still roamed in packs, the very year that humankind managed to leap from this rock to its nearest neighbour in space. It all seems a long time ago now. It is, but not when your subject matter is an entire continent’s artistic and philosophical endeavour since the Dark Ages.

In TV terms it’s at least an epoch: 49 years is more than halfway back to the dawn of the medium, when John Logie Baird wrestled into flickering life blurry images of a ventriloquist’s dummy named Stooky Bill. Things had moved apace by the time Civilisation aired, but not that far. The number of channels had recently exploded to three, but they all shut down at last orders, and colour was not a given.

Under such circumstances, and cowed by the shamebait examples of other TV output considered Acceptable At The Time but now watched through our fingers — Miss World, mother-in-law jokes, Mind Your Language, the usual misanthropic parade — we may expect to find a period piece. What we get is a dapper little chap with an evident love of language, who stands in front of various pleasing screenfuls and discourses entertainingly on matters artistic. Kenneth Clark might look old-school BBC but he’s far from stiff, of body or mind, and his sentences can be as sharp as any modern presenter’s.

What we don’t get, thankfully, is the modern curse of an entire programme’s story arc being condensed into a two-minute abstract which plays before the titles and is repeated before and after every ad break. There weren’t any ad breaks on BBC2 in 1969, and there still aren’t. We might wish to pause and celebrate that.


Clark had first faced the cameras a decade earlier, fronting Is Art Necessary? for ATV, a commercial broadcaster. Ad-funded TV was in its infancy and attention spans had yet to shrivel, especially for a medium which had only achieved recently acheived mass-market penetration, but we can still applaud the Reithian determination that education could also entertain.

Specifically designed to show off the Beeb’s newfangled ability to broadcast in colour by bringing art to life, Civilisation took three years to film and cost a wildly over-budget £500,000. That didn’t faze the BBC2 controller, a splendid bloke named David Attenborough who already knew a thing or two about presentation and would later resign his post to concentrate on fronting his own epic, Life on Earth. As the channel’s head of output, Attenborough simply shuffled his schedule to redistribute the cost, showing each episode twice during the season’s 13-week run.

Some of the money went on airfares. Civilisation may not have pioneered the Roving Presenter concept, but it certainly popularised it. And so as the story winds across Europe, we go with it, and our fearless on-the-spot narrator. Here’s Kenneth picking his way along a riverside before lounging on a boulder in front of the triple-tiered Roman aqueduct at Nîmes, cheerily noting how “It took [Edward] Gibbon nine volumes to describe The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and I shall not embark on that.” Clearly neither reading from a script nor overselling his material — which would seem unnecessary anyway given the scope of his subject — Clark commands the camera with casual ease, straightening a stray trouser crease before leaning back on his riverside rock to continue his train of thought as a Citroen 2CV beetles across the aqueduct behind his head.


Crease straightened, he’s up and off again. There he is gazing at the Seine murkily wafting past Notre Dame, the better to imagine a passing Viking ship terrifying the locals with its carved prow — ”a powerful work of art… as menacing as a periscope of a nuclear submarine.” Now he’s traversing a Hebridean beach, trusty overcoat flapping in the sea breeze.

Neither aeroplane food nor sandy shoes can halt Clark the storyteller, who’s easily savvy enough to pepper his narrative with the sort of gently witty asides that give an audience a warming chuckle without elevating the teller above the tale. You can see why Clive James, no mean judge of words himself, was moved to describe him as “television’s premier talking head. His elegant, perspicuous sentences proved all over again that telly talk need not necessarily slobber the English language to death with its big, dumb, toothless mouth.”


If the writing has a dating flaw, it is in its overly simplistic premise that the Dark Ages were an entirely savage caesura in the linear development of human endeavour. Waldemar Januszczak and others have argued persuasively that those peoples previously considered barbarous could display a dab hand in art class themselves, while the very notion of ceaseless progress towards an undefined but inevitable ideal has been somewhat undermined in the decades since the sixties. We may not be heading toward a perfect Utopia or for that matter a doomed dystopia, but something in between. As Clark himself says of the years before the fall of Rome, “life must have gone on in an apparently normal way for very much longer than one would expect. It always does.”

Concerns worsen when the storyline introduces, to threateningly drum-laden music, “a new agent of destruction: Islam”. We’re told the “classical world was overrun” as “the old source of civilisation was sealed off”. Such a Western-centric word-set now seems shockingly superior in its separatism, and even back then it ignored the wonderful achievements of the Islamic world in science and art, far away from the he-started-it clashes between armies arguing over each other’s imaginary friends.

Indeed, “civilising” is a somewhat troubling concept when applied as an active verb: Who’s to say who civilises whom? Missionaries genuinely believed they were improving the lives of the ‘savages’ they encountered. Probably so did many of the crusaders: if enough non-believers were quietened by a broadsword, perhaps the rest would listen harder.


Although widely appreciated — not just by the intelligentsia but by a mass-market audience — upon its release, Civilisation has been criticised for its bias: it is very European, mainly male, overwhelmingly white. As Clark said in print, with typical humour and humility: “I confess the title has worried me. It would have been easy in the eighteenth century: Speculations on the Nature of Civilisation as illustrated by the Phases of Civilised Life in Western Europe from the Dark Ages to Present Day. Unfortunately, this is no longer practicable.”

And for all the viewer’s anachronistic revisionism, Clark is notably thoughtful in his choice of words. “One must admit that the Norsemen produced a culture, but was it a civilisation?” Unashamedly rooting for the teetering Christians clinging to various rocks around the British Isles, he sides with the ravaged monks of Lindisfarne: “Civilisation means something more than energy and will, and created power… how can I define it? Very shortly: a sense of permanence.” This might be to downplay the achievements of itinerant peoples “in a continuous state of flux”, and to overstate the importance of establishment, but it’s a thesis cogently argued, and we should remember that the series is subtitled A Personal View.


Furthermore, Clark shares with other passionate experts — Ian Nairn springs to mind — the sort of presenting personality which does not demand acquiescence. Expressing their views as opinion rather than fact, and intending to explain rather than argue, such presenters allow their viewers to disagree without disdain.

It provoked a reaction in John Berger’s seminal series Ways of Seeing; by all accounts, it has provoked a reaction in the 2018 Civilisations, which will cover a much broader sweep of geography and history. Stimulating response is no bad thing: Clark was opening a conversation, one which television has endeavoured to continue ever since. (If you want more art documentaries in your life, seek out the peerless Robert Hughes’s The Shock Of The New, available in full on YouTube.) Following the shadow of that flapping overcoat, the modern multiplicity of broadcast media allows for the existence of specialist channels like BBC Four and Sky Arts, each pushing thoughtful content into a culture which still owes a lot to Clark and his benignly civilising influence.

The BBC series Civilisations will be broadcast from Thursday 1 March: details here. The 1969 series Civilisation is currently available on iPlayer here.

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