Next week Monday, the BBC will be airing a remake of the iconic television series Civilisation, which was first broadcast in 1969. Presented by the acclaimed art historian Kenneth Clark, the original programme examined the history of western civilisation through the prism of art, poetry, literature, philosophy music and architecture, in 13 episodes.
It was an incredibly ambitious idea that Clark and the BBC production team pulled off with great aplomb. Nearly half a century later, these visual essays are still magnificent to watch with their depth and range of scope.
Of course, Civilisation is also incomplete. It doesn’t cover anything outside the West and it stops at 1969. Presumably, these will be the gaps that the 2018 version (Civilisations) hopes to fill in.
Nevertheless, Civilisation is still a powerful meditation on the transformative power of beauty and how integral the history of art is to understanding any civilisation.
A powerful meditation on the transformative power of beauty.
Clark had an unfussy and frank presentation style which has stood the test of time. I am always surprised to read that he was considered “pompous”. He doesn’t come across like that at all. Crucially, Civilisation didn’t underestimate the intelligence of its mass audience. There is not a shred of oversimplification in it and yet there is nothing inaccessible about it either. Anyone can watch Civilisation and be inspired by its timeless elegance.
I have no idea if the new remake will be able to match the excellence of the first series, but I shall keep an open mind for now, though critics who have seen it, say it doesn’t come close. In the meantime, if you haven’t already, I highly recommend watching the 1969 version first. It is available on the BBC iplayer here.
If you cannot access that, there are also episodes available on YouTube:
Featured Image Credit: Screenshot from Civilisation (1969)