New Welsh Review

Civilisations and Civilisation: 2018 versus 1969 (Part 1)

Adam Somerset

PUBLISHED ON: 09/05/18


TAGS: Europe, Kenneth Clark, TV, historical, industrial, multimedia, sociology

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Art evolves but does not progress; so too with television. Civilisations has run its course, its ninth and final episode airing on 26 April. The critical consensus was quick to form early on. The critics looked at the format and read the division across three presenters as reflecting a lack of confidence on the part of the producers. Nonetheless, they found much to like in the two programmes helmed by David Olusoga. Mary Beard evoked less enthusiasm. In formal terms the most accomplished episode was number 7. In ‘Radiance’, Simon Schama’s script made the arc from Chartres to Matisse’s chapel at Vence. His subject, via Hokusai and Hiroshige, was the joy of colour.

In broadcasting terms, the numbers have not been ones to thrill. After a higher start they levelled out at 800,000. There may be an afterlife in streaming but the cost was high. As is common, television tie-in publications were produced. Mary Beard’s book contains a straight transcription of the scripts. It is revealing how little confidence she has in the word itself, as though ‘civilisation’ carries a taint.

A disadvantage of television is that it is not the best medium for ideas, radio being its more effective counterpart. The series did visual art of some breadth and scale but did not pause for definitions. A pointer is in the first syllables of ‘civilisation’. Extrapolate them to civil society and that offers a precondition for culture. Art, as demonstrated in the magnificent exhibition devoted to the Scythians in London in 2017, can flourish without the state. But, as is known from the twentieth century, culture withers when the state extinguishes civil society.

The title is in obvious juxtaposition to the ground-breaking series, Civilisations, of forty-nine years ago. Mary Beard is unhappy with Kenneth Clark’s attitude, which she interprets as loftiness. She opts for relativism. ‘So if you ask me what is civilisation,’ run her words, ‘I say it’s little more than an act of faith.’ But there is a difference. Read the social histories of the first half of the twentieth century and they record polio as long being a source of terror. It has been almost, but not quite, extinguished. Its extinction should be universal but children succumb today in regions where the state has died.

Beard, a classicist, sets civilisation in dichotomy with barbarianism, but it is better set against tribalism. Civilisation is manifest where tribe merges into something more encompassing. It is there in Kant’s notion of the ius cosmopoliticum. The city is an artefact where people may live among strangers without fear, a condition that does not apply in Kinshasa or across Los Angeles.

The rebukes against Kenneth Clark rest less on what he actually said than who he was. He started his career precociously young and ended it as Lord Clark of Saltwood, OM, CH, KCB, FBA. Women and men from history are now often increasingly seen less as an opportunity for exploration but as good for a kicking. Their offence is that they are not like us. But attention to the historical record reveals more nuance.

A first objection to the 1969 series is the title. Yet the title was not of Clark’s choosing. He was subordinate to the BBC Controller whose choice it was. Nor do Clark’s actual words trumpet any particular European superiority. Indeed, he speaks of the universality of exploitation in societies. The Elizabethan era was one of cultural efflorescence but it was an age of brutality. Programmes of cultural survey like these inevitably visit the Bishop’s Residence in Wuerzburg. As a choice of destination it is correct; its Tiepolo ceiling is of breathtaking magnificence. Waldemar Januszczak went there for his series on the Baroque and so too did Simon Schama for Civilisations. Lord Clark in his evaluation adds the line, ‘one can’t help speculating on the tithes and taxes that the peasants of Franconia had to pay.’

Clark is direct on the impact of Europe’s expansionism. He plainly terms its effect, for instance, on Tahiti as a disaster. Back at home his programme on the nineteenth century covers Brunel and Paxton, the Thames Tunnel and the Brooklyn Bridge. But its repeated theme is the price that industrialisation demanded. He opens with the dehumanisation of the factory:


Within this temple, where is offered up
To Gain, the master idol of the realm
Perpetual Sacrifice.


That was Wordsworth in 1810. Human consciousness uniquely co-mingles past, present and future in a way that other species do not. But the past is served by looking, in as far as is feasible, at the actuality of evidence. Civilisations speaks of 2018 and Civilisation of 1969. The programme of today attempts to reach more broadly. But as Simon Schama says in his very last words, ‘Art collapses space and time.’ So too it is with television documentaries.


Adam Somerset is a freelance writer and won second place in the New Welsh Writing Awards 2017 Aberystwyth University Prize for Memoir.