THE (Times Higher Education) - - NEWS - Matthew Reisz

Ken­neth Clark’s 13-part BBC tele­vi­sion se­ries Civil­i­sa­tion (1969) fo­cused on Euro­pean art and thought from the Dark Ages to roughly the end of the 19th cen­tury.

He­len Wheat­ley, reader in film and tele­vi­sion stud­ies at the Univer­sity of War­wick, still reg­u­larly shows it to stu­dents on her tele­vi­sion his­tory and crit­i­cism mod­ule. Its sig­nif­i­cance, in her view, is twofold. As “the first big, ex­pen­sive, lon­grang­ing doc­u­men­tary se­ries to be shown in colour”, she ex­plained, it of­fered “a rather daz­zling spec­ta­cle…and close-up ac­cess to some of the world’s finest, most his­tor­i­cally sig­nif­i­cant paint­ings, sculp­tures, build­ings and so on”. It also “ce­mented Clark’s [pic­tured left] po­si­tion as an ed­u­ca­tor of the masses…his be­lief that his au­di­ence would be able to come with him on this jour­ney and to fol­low the some­times com­plex ideas he dis­cusses, and his re­fusal to speak down to the au­di­ence, is strik­ing”. It also marked a no­table de­par­ture from the style of “his tele­vi­sual pre­de­ces­sor, [the his­to­rian] A.J.P. Tay­lor, who would de­liver a lec­ture straight to cam­era in a TV stu­dio”.

Three years on from Civil­i­sa­tion, Lord Clark’s view of the world was di­rectly chal­lenged in another BBC se­ries, John Berger’s four-part Ways of See­ing, which ex­plored the hid­den ide­olo­gies, par­tic­u­larly around sex and so­cial sta­tus, to be found in much art.

In an age when “we’re more used to daz­zling HD mon­tage se­quences of ob­jects and places as stan­dard” in his­tory pro­grammes, Dr Wheat­ley was scep­ti­cal whether Civil­i­sa­tions would “have the aes­thetic im­pact” of its pre­de­ces­sor. Yet she wel­comed the at­tempt to “ad­dress the fail­ings of Clark’s nar­ra­tive” and had no doubt that it too would be “ex­tremely use­ful for [her] teach­ing”.

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