A new BBC series asks: what is civilisation?

The BBC asks a big question in its most ambitious culture project


On a winter’s evening in February 1969 a patrician-sounding Englishman with bad teeth but a well-cut tweed suit strolled across Britain’s television screens. Stopping in front of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, he looked up at his audience in the nation’s front rooms, and proclaimed: “Ruskin said that ‘great nations write their autobiographies in three manuscripts: the book of their deeds, the book of their words and the book of their art. Not one of these can be understood without reading the two others. But the only one to trust is the last.’ On the whole, I think this is true.”

Thus began “Civilisation”, a 13-part television series presented by Kenneth Clark, who became director of the National Gallery in London when he was just 30. Clark couldn’t really define civilisation, but he knew it needed energy and vitality and a sense of permanence to succeed. “I think I can recognise it if I see it,” he insisted. 

Broadcast on BBC2, then run by David Attenborough, “Civilisation” became the programme that launched television’s thousand ships. It was sold in more than 60 countries, taking off in America after the National Gallery of Art in Washington, dc, screened it one lunchtime and found that a theatre that sat only 300 had attracted a queue of 24,000. As John Betjeman, the future poet laureate, would later say: “It was the best telly I have ever seen.” When Clark, soon after, was offered a peerage, he chose to style himself Baron Clark of Saltwood, after his country home in Kent. But Private Eye, a satirical magazine, always referred to him as Lord Clark of Civilisation.

For a generation of art lovers, including the current director-general of the BBC, Tony Hall, “Civilisation” was a landmark. So it is not surprising, with the series’ half-centenary approaching, that the idea of reimagining its story became increasingly attractive. A new version, 
18 hard months in the filming, is set to be broadcast, again on BBC2, in the spring of 2018. 

And what a version it is. “Civilisations” may have just one more letter in its title, but the plural utterly changes the thrust. The single presenter (personified in the original subtitle, “A Personal View by Kenneth Clark”) will be replaced by three: Mary Beard, a Cambridge classicist and, more recently, a feminist icon thanks to the trolls on social media; Simon Schama, professor of art history and history at Columbia University; and David Olusoga, a British-Nigerian historian and broadcaster. Whereas the original covered only the period from the Middle Ages to the setting of a sun in 1914, the new version will go back to prehistoric times and forward to our own time. Clark barely ventured beyond western Europe; the three new presenters have made a point of travelling across the globe. 

This is the BBC’s biggest-ever culture project. The nine–part series, co-produced with PBS (which will show it in America), will be marketed all over the world. The BBC is also teaming up with museums across Britain to put on “Civilisations” festivals and has commissioned artists, including choreographers and poets, to elicit responses to the big question: what is civilisation?

Networking effects

The TV programmes focus on how human beings have used art to try to understand the world around them, and why it became so important to make images of the divine and of themselves. Mr Schama kicks off the first in Palmyra (pictured on previous page in 2009) with an echo of Clark in Paris: “We can argue all day, all year, all our lives about what civilisation is and who has the right to define it, which is the defining debate of our age. But one thing is certain: we know civilisation when we see that it is about to be destroyed.” For Mr Schama, Palmyra, the place where Persians, Syrians, Jews and Hellenistic Romans came together and which was later destroyed by Islamic State, was emblematic of the connections the series explores. 

He looks at the moment when man created art for the first time, in the Ice Age. From there, Ms Beard takes the story into the classical world, in two programmes. The fourth looks at landscape, from the imagery of northern Song Dynasty scrolls to the Islamic garden and on to Veronese’s paintings of the Veneto region; the fifth at the Renaissances, in Italy and the Ottoman Empire, Persia and Mughal India. Mr Olusoga recalls the age of exploration in the sixth programme, contrasting the brutal encounters between Spain and Mexico with the quieter exchanges between Holland and Japan. Mr Schama then examines colour and aesthetics in the 18th century, Mr Olusoga the cult of progress and the 19th-century idea of civilisation, before Mr Schama explores what happens to art when the modern world turns to horror.

“Civilisations” will be broadcast at a time when tribalism and nationalism are on the rise. But after travelling to 20 countries for the series, Mr Schama is certain that what connects humanity is stronger than what divides it. “If there is one thing we learned, it is that…the networkings and hot wirings that we uncovered between people in making ‘Civilisations’ are the real truth.”

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