It can be invidious to attempt to re-make a TV classic, to produce a new version of one for a modern audience or even simply to invite comparison with one. In the case of Civilisations (BBC2 and BBC i-player) it seems that what is being attempted is the invocation of the status of the iconic series Civilisation (BBC2, 1969) and the “correction” of that series’ perceived cultural elitism. The booklet to accompany the presentation, in 2000, of the BFI TV100 (in which Civilisation was voted 8th in the list of greatest factual programmes on British TV) comments that “it set the standard for subsequent presenter-led documentary series and stood as a benchmark for the educational value of public service television, though some of it may now be seen as culturally exclusive and elitist”.
That judgement could seem either a little harsh or a little soft, depending on your standpoint, whereas it is really simply acknowledging the fact that this monumental series did have its detractors and is possibly also an explanation of the fact that it didn’t finish higher on the list (I should know – I wrote it!). My own view is that Civilisation has suffered critically from one mistake only – its choice of title. It was clearly intended to be a history of Western European art and architecture (beautifully shot and presented on 35mm film to demonstrate the potential of the new colour television service) and was subtitled A Personal View by Kenneth Clark. Clark himself had become a well-known presenter of documentaries on art, especially painting, throughout the fifties and sixties, but this was the first time (of many more to come) that an expert presenter had fronted a prestige 13-part series and, though the aim was a comprehensive overview of his subject, that subject needed to be clearly defined (and clearly wasn’t).
Clark says at the very start of Civilisation that he can’t define the title term but knows when he is looking at it (and he is looking at Notre Dame in Paris as he says that). Even though the ambition of the series was greater than what had gone before, it was still restricted by the practical and financial limitations of the time. I referred in an earlier blog to the talk I helped organise at the BFI by Sir David Attenborough, in which he explained that the scope of Life on Earth was only possible in the mid-seventies because the expansion of air travel allowed a worldwide shooting schedule to be drawn up. Attenborough, of course, was the Controller of BBC2 who commissioned Civilisation and, in the later sixties, the idea of travelling across Western Europe to film a prestige series was ambitious enough. Even if the money had been there to go further afield, the way the world was divided politically would have militated against it.
The original informs the remake at several points, not least in the opening remarks of the first part and the opening titles, which clearly establish the new series as a direct response to the old. Simon Schama also tackles the meaning of “civilisation” – his take being that he may not be able to define it positively, but he can certainly recognise the opposite – and, where Clark begins his narrative with the Dark Ages and the survival of civilisation during an age of barbarian vandalism “by the skin of our teeth”, so Schama invokes the cultural destructiveness of ISIS to illustrate the fragility of civilisation (and at the same time tells the story of Khaled al-Asaad, the ultimate archivist, who preferred execution to revealing the whereabouts of Palmyra’s treasures). Then on to the opening titles – in which the title “Civilisation” first appears, with the final S formed as an addition from matter floating about the screen. The connection to the original series is unambiguously made.
But this is not enough – the “corrective” differences also need to be emphasised and the fact that most of Schama’s opening episode concerns itself with the ancient world, as well as venturing well beyond Western Europe, establishes the difference in time as well as space. The second part brings even more points of comparison and difference – most obviously, there is a different presenter, Mary Beard, who will contribute two parts to the series, as will David Olusoga, while Schama returns for a further four. This has the desired effect of introducing more diverse voices and each part is clearly labelled as the personal view of the presenter. Whether this fragmentation helps the coherence of the series is another matter, as is the related decision to divide the narrative thematically rather than chronologically. Beard’s first foray contains more direct correctives to the original than seen so far, including a clip of Clark delivering the sort of “elitist” judgements here being disclaimed. Beard has clearly been included amongst the presenters to provide a much-needed feminist perspective, but she rather overstepped the brief in the widely derided sequence in which she told a story of a man who ejaculated on an ancient statue of Aphrodite and claimed this was rape because the statue had not consented! To me, the problem here was not so much the plain silliness of the assertion, inserted in a spirit of political correctness to make a connection with a current issue, but the lost opportunity it represented to explore ideas about the fine line between art and pornography. To be fair to Beard, she recovered from this low point to give us one of the better episodes – the one on religion and art (part 4: The Eye of Faith) – which she ended with her own take on the meaning of “civilisation” as an “act of faith”.
The biggest elephant in the Civilisation room however, is the establishment of Western cultural elitism as a result of imperialism. Simon Schama first touches upon the question in part 5, but it is really the province of David Olusoga, whose previous historical series have been critiques of imperialism and colonialism and who devotes a whole episode of Civilisations (part 8: The Cult of Progress) to the question. There is clearly an important point to be made here and Olusoga not only makes it well but does so without direct reference to the original series. However, it does seem that it is the unspoken assumptions of Clark’s approach which are being addressed and I do wonder what audience this is aimed at. Those old enough to remember the original will (hopefully) have gone through a long process, aided by countless TV arts and history series, of gaining a greater perspective on world cultural history. Those who don’t remember it, or don’t even know about it, will understand that attitudes have changed and may wonder why the point is being emphasised at all.
So, to return to the title, while CivilisationS intends to indicate a wider scope than Civilisation (i.e. it is about many civilisations) it also allows for incompleteness (i.e. it is about some civilisations, not all), which can actually result in a narrower, rather than wider focus. Most of the themes tackled in single episodes could be full series in their own right (and, indeed, several have been, presented by the likes of Andrew Graham-Dixon, Waldemar Januszczak and Simon Schama himself – while Mary Beard and David Olusoga have covered similar territory at greater length from the more general historical perspective). And not every individual part of Civilisations works either – there are some excellent ten or fifteen-minute sequences, but then, when you would like to see the development of the idea, it moves on to something different entirely. Nine 60-minute episodes is nowhere near enough to encompass the scale of its ambition, with the result that the whole is very much less than the sum of its parts.
Therefore, ultimately, I would judge Civilisations a failure in relation to its lofty ambition. Despite its faults, the original Civilisation represents a genuine and highly significant advance in the art of documentary television, while Civilisations is really a misconceived idea, lacking a real point. The original series will go back on my DVD shelves and I reckon its place in the canon remains secure, but it will not be joined by its successor, which also shouldn’t trouble those of us who like to make lists.