The art of event TV
Civilisations DVD (2entertain; £14.99)
Beginning his monumental Civilisation (1969), Kenneth Clark quoted art critic John Ruskin on how “great nations write their autobiographies in three manuscripts”. These books, thought Ruskin, covered “deeds”, “words” and “art”, but only the book on art was “trustworthy” – a sentiment with which the patrician Clark deigned to agree. Here in itself was reason enough to set out the history of western art.
Nearly half a century later, it’s clear we’re in a different era. For a start, as the name tweak suggests, the story that Civilisations tells is global. Moreover, as Simon Schama starts by outlining the horrific story of Khaled al-Asaad, the head of antiquities in Palmyra who was beheaded as a “director of idolatry” by the so-called Islamic State, this is an edgier series for uncertain times. That said, much of the rest of the series doesn’t search for such direct links with the present, but Schama’s deeper point – it may be difficult to define civilisation, but we surely know its opposite when we find it – underpins all that follows, including the episodes presented by Mary Beard and David Olusoga. Despite moments when the expert-talks-to-camera format is too staid, this is a big, clever series.
Mary Beard is one of three presenters of the BBC’s “big, clever” series Civilisations