Civilisation (1969) [Blu-ray]

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It’s all very well having a Glorious Summer of Sport on our TV screens, but it can be rather trying for those of us who are not so gripped by the prospect of wall-to-wall World Cup, Wimbledon and Commonwealth Games action. On the other hand, it does give us the chance to spend some quality time with our otherwise sadly neglected DVD collections, as was the case for me this week when I sought out a boxset that I’ve been meaning to watch for ages.

The BBC’s 1969 documentary series Civilisation: A Personal View by Kenneth Clark is one of those programmes that is still hailed today as a genuine TV landmark. It might not look it to our modern eyes, but its approach of putting the presenter right into the landscapes and buildings that he is talking about was a revolutionary one at the time; and the fact that it was one of the first British documentaries shot in colour was also a radical idea by the then-BBC2 controller who commissioned the series, one David Attenborough. Whatever happened to him?

Over 13 instalments, leading art historian of the day Lord Kenneth Clark takes us on a journey through the civilisations of western Europe starting with the Dark Ages and moving through to the modern era. But despite the title, this is not so much the facts-and-dates history of civilisation as a concept or even a working system with Clark admitting that he doesn’t know how to define ‘civilisation’ in the abstract. Instead, it is the specific story of art down the ages and how it has been influenced by (and in return influenced) the societies in which it was created. Clark’s contention – and the ‘personal view’ of the extended title – is that the only way you can truly understand a civilisation is through its end products, and in particular its art and architecture.

“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 books can be understood unless we read the two others. But of the three, the only trustworthy one is the last.” – Ruskin

From this starting point we embark on a broadly chronological survey of art down the ages, starting with the works of Vikings and early Christians after the final implosion of the Roman Empire. Clark is of course wonderfully knowledgeable about his field and the stories he imparts are always interesting, informative and engagingly told, and the then-revolutionary colour filming means that the art treasures covered are beautifully filmed – especially on the high definition Blu-ray that was specially remastered from the original 35mm film negatives in 2011.

However it has to be said that the slow, stately style of the programme and the presenter belong to a very different patrician era. As he stands in front of the latest location he delivers his piece to camera for all the world exactly as I imagine he would have given an academic lecture to a room full of Oxford undergraduates. The camera position is usually static and his orations are mainly one uninterrupted take (and even retain some mild, harmless stumbles that these days would immediately provoke a reshoot) giving the whole production a stately feel to it. That immediately dates it of course, but at the same time also lends the finished show a sense of importance and substance that modern day TV programmes can’t hope to replicate; and perhaps nor should they.

There are other ways that the gulf of over 40 years since the show’s production makes its presence felt. A lot of the time, Clark doesn’t stop to explain the basics of what’s happening in a given era or who the people are that he’s casually name-dropping. That’s because back in the 1960s this sort of information would have routinely taught to all schoolchildren in their grammar schools: no university lecturer would be expected to stop and reiterate material that his students should already know before stepping into his classroom, and so it is with Clark here. How unlike our modern day TV output, where everything has to be painstakingly explained at least once lest you alienate an audience just itching to switch to Coronation Street given the slightest excuse. While making his own material entirely clear and accessible, Clark assumes a level of historical knowledge and education from his audience that was commonly present in the 1960s but is no longer necessarily the case now and that can make this a difficult programme for modern viewers to stick with.

I’m just about old enough to remember this old world style of education and so for me the feeling was more one of nostalgia than frustration, and my extra years have made up for the ‘deficiencies’ in my original comprehensive school education so that I know a lot more about the various periods and personalities that Clark covers. As a result I was able to enjoy the distinctive take that he brings to his subject, in which moments of history are recast from an artistic point of view to always-interesting effect.

Even so, the basic assertion that the story of civilisation is the story of art never quite sits right on me – or even entirely on Clark himself, one feels. When he’s discussing the output of the Italian Renaissance for example, he’s quick to admit that these glorious works of painting, sculpture, architecture and jewels were very much the product of the elite and the strict preserve of the ruling classes of the day, sometimes shared by just a few dozen members of the most powerful families. By contrast, the vast majority of people living in this time would never see or experience any of it. Does this mean that civilisation only exists for the rich and powerful? It’s a view that seems anachronistic and archaic to us today, rather like summing up our modern society with Damien Hirst’s diamond-encrusted human skull – which I grant you does indeed have a lot to say about the excesses of our current celebrity-obsessed pop-culture, but at the same time leaves an awful lot of the story untold.

In the early episodes the principal proponent and producer of art is of course the church (and specifically in Western Europe, the Christian Church) meaning there’s a lot of religious iconography with churches, stained glass windows, vaulted ceilings and jewel-encrusted reliquaries. Surprisingly for the time in which the programme was made and for a man of his generation, Clark seems rather ambivalent about religion but there’s no doubting its influence over nearly a century of art history and consequently its given a position of pre-eminence in the discussion of civilisation, more so than the power of monarchs or all the battles we usually learn about in history books.

Civilisation is not, therefore, the definitive history of civilisation down the ages; nor does it ever actually claim to be so. It’s more of a corrective against the overly fact-driven historical analysis and a prompt to consider other facets when studying the past. That’s not such a provocative thought now when most historical documentaries will be touchy-feely holistic studies of past life and times, but it was for 1969 and Lord Clark is to be commended for helping initiate this new style of conveying information to the mass television audiences of the day.

Recently there have been announcements that the BBC intends to remake the series for the 21st century – an idea that had caused sharp division on both sides. Who could they possibly get to anchor a new series that has anything like Lord Clark’s standing, presence and gravitas? Would the remake follow a similar idiosyncratic art history take on civilisation or take a completely different approach? If the latter then why even link the two series together under the same title and invite all those critical comparisons? Should it start earlier – perhaps cover the Egyptian, Greek and Roman civilisations of which knowledge is assumed in Clark’s version? Or perhaps look outside Western Europe and truly tell the history of civilisation around the globe? (The omission of anything significant outside Europe troubled Clark even at the time.)

It’ll be interesting to see what they do if the remake does indeed go forward, but I suspect they are on a hiding to nothing. For those people of a certain age there will never be any prospect of eclipsing the original’s place in the history of British television. However just like the recent remake of Cosmos didn’t sit well with old fogeys like me who are too enamoured with the 1980 Carl Sagan version, that doesn’t mean that Civilisation shouldn’t be brought up to date in order to allow younger generations to share in at least some part of the knowledge it contains, which would otherwise be closed off to them by the age and to be honest ponderous style of the original.

Civilisation is available on DVD and Blu-ray. The Blu-ray is an impressive remastering and definitely the way to see all the art treasures on display if you can, but the age of the 35mm film stock does mean that there are issues with colour and picture stability that prevent it from being a flawless reproduction. The four-disc Blu-ray boxset comes with a specially written illustrated booklet of viewing notes, and a short filmed interview in which Sir David Attenborough recalls the commissioning and production of the series. There’s also a photo gallery of behind-the-scenes stills.

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