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One of the seminal pieces of television broadcasting
on 21 March 2005
Kenneth Clark (1903-83) was a distinguished English art historian, and very much a member of the old school. Patrician, cultured, privileged, he saw art as somehow pure, as untouched by the corruption of politics and materialism. 'Civilisation' is not so much a television series as a lecture series, one which represents a fascinating watershed in the history of mass communication ... and an ironic statement about civilisation itself.
Clark admits to influence by the Victorian historian and art critic, John Ruskin: the latter argued that history is written by the victors, literature by the partisan, but that art and architecture alone convey the soul of the age and thereby speak a truth which is inaccessible in the written word. Art, therefore, is an eternal truth which offers a window into the heart and soul of mankind. Clark says he couldn't define 'civilisation', but that he could recognise it when he saw it - consciously echoing the "I don't know much about art but I know what I like" cliché ... in precisely the same way that King's College Chapel echoes the sounds of bubblegum bursting.
'Civilisation' took three years to make, and was released in 1969, only two years after the BBC had ventured into colour broadcasting. Itself made in colour, the series was seen as a taking a huge risk. The BBC had - still has - a responsibility to produce educational and informative work, to stimulate and uplift, but the 1960's was a transitional era. On the one hand there was the tradition of high art, of Oxbridge dons delivering lectures on arcane subjects or broadcasting intellectual debates, on the other hand, the universities were being occupied, popular culture had suddenly become fashionable, and America's Vietnam war was throwing into question the very nature of culture, civilisation, and the power of any one class or country to impose its will and its definitions on others.
Clark fell very definitely into the old school. His 13 programmes looked at 'high art', at the respectable, at the reputable. There was little controversial about his material ... other than the absence of controversy in an era rich in satire and iconoclasm. Clark talks us through what he sees as eternal wisdoms and the core values of civilisation and art. He takes us from the so-called 'Dark Ages', looking at the light of religious experience cast upon Scottish shores in Iona, and following up with evidence of how the expansive energy and passion of the intellect can banish darkness. He celebrates the vaulting ambition of Chartres cathedral, the conspicuous consumption of the Italian city states and the Renaissance, the radicalism of the Reformation, the Age of Reason, the 19th century Romantic era, and carries on through into the materialism of the 20th century.
Each episode hangs upon the shoulders of one of the great men of the age - Michelangelo, Beethoven. Clark explores Western civilisation ... and selectively. There are elements of his presentation which seem a little dated today, yet the overall theme is optimistic - the barbarism of the 20th century did not destroy civilisation or crush the spirit of man. Art gives us hope, gives us reassurance, says Clark.
But the lasting strength of 'Civilisation' is in its own contribution to civilisation. A vast undertaking, a huge gamble, the series set the tone for television broadcasting. Clark was not only a renowned art historian, he had worked in television from its earliest days and knew that a lecture could not simply deliver words, could not talk down to its audience, but must inform. The key to any successful programme lays in its ability to communicate, to stimulate, to inform, uplift, and capture the imagination and attention of its audience.
Clark achieves this with aplomb. 'Civilisation' was a revolutionary series despite the intrinsic conservatism of its message. It demonstrated what television was capable of achieving and its seeds and tendrils have reached down the television decades ever since. Clark unites visual image, music, and language, achieving a balance in the production and delivery which became the benchmark for future productions (Bronowski's 'Ascent of Man' would follow it and bring to the understanding of science and history a more emotional dimension, but Bronowski carried forward Clark's message of informing, inspiring, engaging his audience, uniting the visual with the audio and the commentary).
'Civilisation' is an epic piece of television and cultural history and a lesson in the art of communication. Clark is a gentleman, a man with an honest passion and quiet authority, but he is also the consummate professional, master of the television art, and a man who will justifiably be recognised as one of the pioneering geniuses of television. Only 5 stars is a churlish assessment!