Feed Your Brain: Kenneth Clarks’ ‘Civilisation’

In the beginning, there was the beeb and the beeb was in black and white….

And the lord said ‘Not bad’. And the Lord was happy. ‘But let’s have some more’ said the Lord, and lo, springing from a rib that was lying around the White City, the Lord created the Beeb 2. identity...
But there was a problem. Was it the beeb for kids? For politicians? For sports fans? Was it for wine drinking toffs, or curry guzzling retards? And the Lord said, ‘Get me Kenneth Clark’.
36 years ago the first broadcasting of the great opus that was ‘Civilisation: a personal view by Lord Clark’ took place. Students of the history of art will possibly be familiar with text version of Kenneth Clarks’ work, becoming as it did, one of the staple texts for end of school examinations on the subject. Those of you unfamiliar with the full whacking-great 13 hour TV show, will have a chance to get to grips with it as BBC Four are to begin broadcasting it again on Tuesday 22nd February 2005.
Civilisation was the brainchild of David Attenborough, then the head of BBC 2 programming. He was adamant that the new beeb would be a channel of culture, the arts, science and learning. To cement his vision, he envisioned that a show should be commissioned showing the history of European art and architecture, set to music of the time, tracing the line of man’s genius from Ancient Rome to the modern day. It was, for the time, an outrageously ambitious idea.
Eventually Attenborough turned to Kenneth Clark, and 13 countries, 117 locations, 18 libraries and 118 museums later, they had their first rough cut. Which ran to 200,000 feet of film – the equivalent of six full length movies. It would finally be ruthlessly pared back to thirteen 50 minute episodes (to accommodate American TV advertising) and was first broadcast on February 23 1969.
‘Civilisation’ set the template for the next 30 years of BBC television, becoming the parent of such landmark shows as Walking with Dinosaurs, The Blue Planet and even Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. It was the original of the Species – the type of epic TV that only the BBC can make.
And it stands up. I’ve been watching it recently (on DVD) and have been gripped not just by the superb breadth of the show’s narrative, but by it’s sublime choice of music, it’s wonderful editorial style and the sharp, occasionally hilarious wit of Clark. Starting at Skellig Michael and working its way to Brunel and Darwin, ‘Civilisation’ attempts to trace the thread of human achievement from the fall of Rome to the birth of evolutionary theory. It’s staggering stuff.
But of course, not without it’s faults. The title for one thing. ‘Civilisation’ is a dreadfully misleading name. It doesn’t deal with Islam, the history of China, Africa or the north of Europe. Really it should have been given the more accurate title of ‘The history of Western European Art and Architecture from the 5th century to today’ but such titles don’t make for good copy. In fairness, Clark acknowledges this up front.
But, don’t let the late 60’s clothes and chamber music put you off. This is clever, insightful, human and most abundantly of all intensely ‘European’. Yesterday saw the Spanish people become the first to ratify the new European Constitution. And when you look at the shared heritage that we have, it’s easy to understand why.
BBC TV schedule for ‘Civilisation’

Damien DeBarra was born in the late 20th century and grew up in Dublin, Ireland. He now lives in London, England where he shares a house with four laptops, three bikes and a large collection of chairs.