CULTURAL LEGACY: SHOW’S IMPACT STILL FELT AFTER FIVE DECADES
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”.