The art of event TV

BBC History Magazine - - Tv & Radio -

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

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