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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!
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 22 February 2010
From time to time you hear the name Civilisation dropped whenever the great days of TV are being discussed, so I felt it was about time I had a look at it myself.

Have you ever watched some soap opera or drama series where some twit yells "Don't lecture me!" when their interlocutor offers some well meaning advice? Well, here is the proof of how empty that usage of the word 'lecture' is.

In Civilisation: A Personal View, Lord Clark offers the viewer 13 lectures on civilisation as it is expressed through fine art, architecture, literature and music. Thousands go to university every year in the sincere hope of hearing some brilliant mind lecture in such a way as to warm, invigorate and inspire the listener to want to acquire further knowledge. In the late '60s the BBC was the kind of corp to invite just such a wise man to offer anyone and everyone a guided tour round the great churches, palaces, relics, ornaments and art works of western civilisation, all 'filmed' in glorious colour.

Nowadays, we get some celebrity, some egotistical familiar face for our history and culture shows. Watch this and you'll realise what a falling off there has been. Really, it is the kind of enterprise to return to again and again, because so much is packed into it. They wanted to commission a series about civilisation: they hired an expert to write and present it. So what if he's a lord and not some pleb with a regional accent. So what if he's a dapper gent with a richer command of the language than the kind of vain industry parasites we endure week on week in the new century. Fact is, he's obviously the real thing, obviously passionate about his subject, in possession of a vast knowledge which he communicates candidly, humbly and charismatically.

Have the good fortune to CHOOSE THIS opportunity for yourself. Nowadays they give the people what they want, so forget about civilisation, erudition, fascination. Instead, it's talent shows for the talentless and David Dimbleby wandering in the Brit Mus going "Wow, look a' that!"

We don't deserve Civilisation.
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on 10 June 2006
Kenneth Clark starts, right at the beginning of episode 1, by admitting that he can't define "civilisation". Then he goes on to give his very personal view of what it is, how it came about and was almost obliterated in the "dark ages" and how it was re-established and could again be destroyed by lack of confidence, cynicism, hopelessness and the destructive technology that dominates the modern (1960s) age. It's a wonderful series of programmes that held my attention from beginning to end. Mostly, I completely agreed but occasionally, passionately disagreed with the narrator - almost as though we were engaged in a 2-way discussion all the way through. That's the beauty of a 'personal' view: you don't need to accept anything Lord Clark says but you have to accept that his opinion is backed up by a huge amount of knowledge so he's likely to be right. So, although I happily accepted most of what he said, his account of Roman civilisation and the 'barbarians' that destroyed it seemed slightly skewed. He gave a rather rosier view of the 'civilised' Romans than seems justified and possibly an exaggerated notion of the barbarism of the barbarians. After all, how much more barbarous than the Romans did an enemy of Rome need to be, to be considered a barbarian? And his glowing account of the positive influence of the catholic church on civilisation, completely glossing over the horrors of the inquisition, caused me to chunter with discontent. Even so, over 13 episodes, each of 50 minutes, reasons for disagreement were few and far between. This is an enthralling series, full of beautiful images and accompanied by a fascinating narration.

Highly recommended.
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on 13 May 2007
Lucid, engaging, and comprehensive does not adequately describe Sir Kenneth Clark's magnificent survey into Western Civilization. For a series over 40 years old, the audio is remastered, the transfers are remarkably clean, and the content and opinions of the host hardly seem dated. Clark effectively interweaves music, art, science and architecture into a broad sweeping portrait that defines Western thought. For those critics who find Clark's praise for Western art either superficial or superfluous have probably been watching and listening to the typical PBS tripe directed to an audience with a junior high vocabulary with an attention span to match.

Clark is a splendid presenter and teacher whose enthusiasm for his work clearly shows. It's all here, from the ancient Greeks to the modern age (well actually, circa 1969 when the series was made), while "Civilization" is a wonderful introduction to the "humanities"--something that they used to teach in college, but now supplanted by courses and programs of dubious relevance and replete with politically correct content.

If you snoozed during your mandatory art or humanities courses in college or just found them as an opportunity to catch up on some other homework during lecture, let Sir Kenneth Clark explain to you why these things still matter today and help to define our culture and our lives. For slightly more than what you would pay for one class at a local community college, you can enjoy a most superlative achievement in truly "higher education."

Clark's remarks and insight are as on target as they are illuminating--see the installment featuring Michaelangelo and the Renaissance and you will understand why. Now, if only the BBC would release Alistair Cooke's "America" with Region 1 encoding for all of us to enjoy on this side of the pond...
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There is not a lot to add to what has already been written about Lord Clark's "Civilisation" since it was first shown on TV over forty years ago. A couple of years in the making it was first transmitted between February and May 1969 - before man had walked on the moon to put it into context! Luckily for us the series was shot on 35mm colour film which has allowed the BBC to be able to produce an HD digital version, which was recently broadcast on their HD channel, and is now available as this Blu-ray Disc set.

The series has been digitally remastered in 1080i / 4:3 and if you caught the HD TV series you may find the Blu-ray version even sharper. I've compared an episode recorded on my Sky planner with the same on disc and I'm sure the Blu-ray just has the edge. There are four discs in the set - the first three have four episodes each and the forth has the final episode and the bonus features. The extras are David Attenborough reminiscing about the making of the series and a stills gallery - both in Standard Definition.

There is a 28 page booklet with an essay containing reflections of making the series, details of each episode and full credits. I'm sure you don't need me to tell you how good the series is so I'll just say that it is a concept that was made to be shown in HD - I'm sure Kenneth Clark would have been pleased with the result. This is a series that should be shown to all prospective documentary-makers - how to sell your subject without selling yourself, and how to use music appropriately!

Civilisation looks sumptuous in HD so give your eyes a treat with this Blu-ray Disc version. Five stars for content and presentation - a classic.
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Commissioned by David Attenborough during his time running BBC2 (yet another feather in his veritable Indian warbonnet of a cap), and destined to be the first of a long and epoch-making series of in-depth 'sledgehammer' TV series, Civilisation: A Personal View, is TV at its best, and has weathered the years wonderfully well.

Rather than attempting to break the series down and detail it all (I suspect others have already done this anyway), I'll just share a few examples of how this superb series continues to enrich lives in our household and, I dare to hope, the several households to which I've gifted this brilliant series. Each of the following is a little nugget that has taken my interest, either introduced to me by the series, or with the DVD reminding me to explore a previous interest further.

1 - The book of Kells: briefly discussed in episode one. Having marvelled at the richness of the few pages appearing in the film I ordered a copy of the cheap, basic, but nicely printed Thames & Hudson paperback via Amazon, which reproduces some of this exquisite work, and have frequently pored over it, transfixed by the strangely pagan ornamentation, the more abstract elements of which Clark justifiably compares with the greatest abstract geometries of Islamic art.

2 - The complete writings of Montaigne: in episode six Clark stands in the literal embodiment of the 'ivory tower', Montaigne's intellectual retreat from the grubby world of religion and provincial French politics. Reading humanist quotes Montaigne had inscribed in Latin into the beams above his head, he reflects on how the thinking man of the time needed to turn inwards to address truth, as an escape from the stultifying conventions of the outer life, as embodied in the religious and political conventions of the time. Montaigne is credited by Clark as more or less inventing the modern essay form along the way, as he mused on his thoughts. Something about Montaigne struck a chord, so I bought the rather handsome Everyman edition (and I'm still working my way through it).

3 - In episode two, 'The Great Thaw', Clark shines a light on what has long been seen, and often still is (despite the efforst made in such books as James Hannam's very interesting God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science) as the 'dark ages' of early medieval Europe. Clark shows that, in fact, much was happening of great interest, during the period between 10th-14th century, and in particular during the 12th century. There's a strong emphasis on France in this episode, with Cluny and Chartres and the figures associated with them as focal points, and the role of Christianity throughout Western Europe (as Ekklesia: the church as great power, rather than repository of 'spiritual truth'), all of which is very eloquently and convincingly put, as well as being wonderfully fascinating to watch.

The sculptor Giselbertus - who proudly inscribed his name amidst his fascinating sculptural work at Autun Cathedral 'Giselbertus Hoc Facit', or 'Giselbertus made this' - really stirred my imagination. Enchanted, I embarked on a worldwide web-search for a book on his work, finally tracking down a hardback volume of black and white photos (French text), and eventually locating a copy at a Cambridge rare books fair. The pleasure of this treasure hunt and my final success, never mind that of studying the book itself, was immense.

4 - Les Tres Riches Heures Du Duc De Berry: as Clark notes when describing the almost luminous beauty of these Limbourg Brothers miniatures, they speak to us across the ages, showing a modern and recognisable humanity (far from the stylised 'Imago Hominis' of the Echternach Gospels, mentioned in episode one), even if that humanity is situated in a long-gone age of court pageantry and horoscopes*. The naturalism and earthy humour in places connects directly to a more modern sense of ourselves we can somehow share across the centuries. This was destined to be another French language acquisition, but the art speaks a near enough universal language of beauty and, of course, 'civilisation'.

That's just four of the things I've been lead to explore having watched this terrific series (and doesn't count the travels the series has also inspired). We still return to this set for pleasure and inspiration, and at the time of writing it's available for just £14! That's 13 hour long tours of several continents, many countries, and even more cities, stuffed with the countless treasures of Western civilisation, all narrated and curated by a very charmingly avuncular guide (and with an excellent soundtrack). At more or less a quid a pop, for a very small outlay you can enrich yourself immeasurably. Amazing!

Despite this series nearing the half century, age-wise, it remains one of the best television series ever made. I really can't recommend this strongly enough.

* Wait a minute... both these things persist, actually. Hmmm!?
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on 28 May 2011
I've seen reviews here and elsewhere which gush over the quality of Civilisation's Blu-Ray release, but while I hate to burst anyone's bubble I'm afraid I can't agree that this is a perfect presentation. If there's one thing the series tells us, after all, it is that works of art - and there's no doubt that this series is one - should be scrutinised with a careful, dispassionate eye.

It is undoubtedly true that the high definition transfer shows off all of the great works of art and architecture in far greater detail than ever before, but despite claims that the image has been restored it often flickers and wobbles in an annoyingly distracting fashion, even on static shots where it's most noticeable. These problems were present on the previous DVD release, and I'm hugely disappointed that the BBC didn't spend the time and effort to fix them for the show's high definition presentations. For that reason I can't give the blu-ray five stars.

The depth of Clark's scholarship, together with the improved picture detail, mean that I would still recommend this blu-ray to anyone who's interested, but always with the caveat that the technical quality is NOT as good as we've come to expect from most blu-ray releases. The BBC really must do better next time.
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on 12 July 2009
This is how it should be done, unlike today it treats you like an adult not a child. we re watch it every year and learn something new.
If only the BBC could make things like this again.
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on 2 September 2013
Surely, Lord Clark's famous series of cinematic lectures on his interpretations of civilisation, invented the genre of the popular television documentary series? I've watched this episodic history so many times on live television, and latter on DVD that I find myself mouthing Lord Clark's dialogue that I must have learned almost subconsciously by heart. This Blu-ray edition has really revivified the viewing experience for me at least. I thought the DVD rendition was amazing, but the transfer to Blu-ray is breathtaking. I think Blu-ray has made the most of the 35mm colour film stock the series was originally photographed in. The whole viewing experience is a bit like an expertly shot moving colour-slide show where the colours are vivid, and the images are extra-sharply focused. We've all come a long way from when we thought VHS was fantastic haven't we? 'Civilisation', is a must-have for the amature art history nut.
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on 29 October 2006

I bought this series as an exercise in nostalgia. A couple of critics on Radio 4 had said the programmes were dated and you couldn't get away with Clark's patrician style of lecturing today.

Maybe... But listen to what he's saying. Look at what he's showing us. Within a few minutes I was sitting bolt upright in my chair. This was no exercise in nostalgia. What Clark was saying was more relevant today than when this series was first broadcast in 1969. Then the West was menaced by Communism. Now it's menaced by militant Islam - just as it has been in the past as Clark points out. What seemed like quaint references to the religious foundations of Western civilisation in the atheistic 1960s now have a new relevance. They show what we're fighting for. And no, I'm not related to Kenneth Clark, though I did meet him a number of times. I think this series should be on the curriculum of every school. It helps define where we came from and where we should be going. It's a classic and like all classics speaks beyond its time. Critics of Western civilisation should view it as well. They'd learn a lot.

P.S. Since I wrote this review the series has come out on Blu-ray. I've made further comments about that edition here on Amazon. Looking at "Civilisation" on a big screen where you can see masses of detail that was invisible before not only enhances enjoyment, it helps understanding. Some of the critics are missing a lot...
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