Civilisations: BBC reboot of Kenneth Clark’s 1960s classic is more diverse – but is it less challenging?

Aphrodite of Menophantos, Praxiteles (4th century BCE). Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, Rome, Italy. Nutopia/BBC

Civilisations: BBC reboot of Kenneth Clark’s 1960s classic is more diverse – but is it less challenging?

Fifty years after Kenneth Clark’s cultural landmark was first broadcast, BBC2 has set a date for the launch of its new flagship series, Civilisations – an updated and re-imagined series of nine hour-long documentaries exploring the visual culture of various civilisations across the globe. Episode one hits UK screens on March 1. It takes no leap of imagination to think that the series will be a huge earner of overseas revenue for the BBC.

Kenneth Clark’s original series Civilisation, which first aired in 1969, was a watershed moment in broadcasting history. It was a step-change in quality for a start – the channel’s educational mission had previously produced arts programmes that followed an undynamic lecture format, without the advantages of colour images.

These days, David Attenborough – BBC2’s controller at the time – modestly plays down his role, implying that Civilisation was, like snooker, just another convenient foil for promoting colour broadcasts. In fact, three transformative factors combined in Clark’s Civilisation. As already mentioned, the dramatic use of full colour, luxuriant locations and the creative direction of the great Michael Gill allowed the programme to foreground the fantastic imagery and free itself from the shackles of a text.

Many at the BBC felt Clark was too stiff and pompous, and apparently he was coached into an easier manner before the camera. But this overlooks Clark’s remarkable knowledge and abilities. His success as the director of the National Gallery came through negotiating with problematic trustees, balancing gentle persuasion with respect. If he charmed trustees, why couldn’t he also beguile television audiences?

But the fact remains that the 64-year-old Clark was, even then, an elderly, white, privileged man who sometimes gave the impression that he was “talking down” to a mass audience. So, how – five decades later – does the new BBC series, Civilisations, compare with this cultural landmark?

Reflecting contemporary cultural needs

For a start, the presenting team is consciously more diverse. Mary Beard’s strong female voice provides an important corrective — among other things — placing women artists back into the frame. It should be remembered that an important contribution was made to Civilisation by Anne Turner, one of the three directors responsible for the programme’s success. But we were still consciously hearing about culture from a man – and an elderly patrician at that.

Presentation team: David Olusoga, Mary Beard and Simon Schama (2018) (C) BBC.

As a Nigerian-British scholar, David Olusoga not only represents Black British population, but symbolically the council house of his youth is deployed to counteract Clark’s castle. But the team is dominated by Simon Schama – who has a bigger share of screen time than the other two put together. And, at 73 and as a university professor to boot, he is arguably even more elitist and an even older white male than Clark.

Attenborough argues that:

Society has changed. We have an international society, a multi-ethnic society. You can’t just do it in the way we did it.

Changing times

So how much has changed, and how effective will the tactics of Civilisations be in addressing these developments? Where Clark engaged his middle-class audience with his Eurocentric personal vision, the new series has extended the definition of civilisation to take in a global perspective. The Classical and Renaissance universalism of Civilisation is thus replaced by the relativism of Civilisations.

In 1969, Clark did not shrink from referencing the Cold War. He compared the terror of the Viking ship with that of a nuclear submarine in his universalist account of human psychology. Meanwhile, the civic disturbances of the Paris student riots in the late 1960s have been replaced by anti-capitalism and pro-democracy protests in recent years across the world showing that issues of political discontent continue unabated. Schama, meanwhile, talks of the “raw power, the swagger of money, brutal poverty and hard reckonings” in the modern age.

Kara Walker’s Rift of the Medusa (2017). BBC/Nutopia/KaraWalker

Other ills of modern society might be included: celebrity cults, body-image obsessions, commercialisation, ideological bankruptcy, terrorism and the threat of nuclear conflict between the US and North Korea – some new, and some uncomfortably similar to those of the 1960s. The intention of Civilisations is to hold art up as a mirror for understanding our religions, identities and humanity. Grand as such ambitions are, they are also somewhat curtailed compared with Clark’s.

While Clark also chronicled his civilisation’s weaknesses, he additionally issued a call to arms, for people to do and be better. Will a similar challenge be issued in 2018?

Olusoga’s reflections on the legacy of Civilisation are reassuring – but his contention that Civilisations is not a remake, though literally correct is not so in spirit. Clark’s Renaissance standpoint was arguably flawed, but without considering remedial action something important may be lost – the aspiration to inspire individuals to improve the world around them.

Brave new world?

The new Civilisations inevitably brings new content – such as the work of the German neo-expressionist Anselm Kiefer or the performance poetry of hip-hop artist Akala’s The Ruins of Empires. The challenges recognised by Beard and Olusoga over engaging modern audiences who possess greater visual literacy but shorter attention spans can paradoxically be seen as a byproduct of the successes of broadcasters such as Clark.

Clark outlined, in the late 1960s, what he saw as an existential crisis for individuals and their wider community. Civilisation, he insisted, happened at “a good moment to look at some of the ways in which man has shown himself to be an intelligent, creative, orderly and compassionate animal”. Thankfully, the shocking honesty of Clark’s conclusions in the final episode — that the culture produced by the capitalist system that he termed “heroic materialism … isn’t enough” — invigorated his audiences rather than caused despondency.

So, 50 years on from Clark’s magnum opus, BBC2’s Civilisations may offer a more nuanced opportunity to understand the creativity of men and women in a broader sphere and a more inclusive manner. But let us hope it shows us what we can do at our best. Our challenging times surely need inspiration — as much as did Clark’s, in fact — if we are to self-reflect and improve.