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Customer Review

182 of 214 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Difficult to love, 2 Jan. 2008
This review is from: Civilisation: The Complete Series [DVD] [1969] (DVD)
Judging by the other reviews here it seems that not many people are going to agree with me, but in the belief that dissent is good and that civilisation thrives on alternate points of view I'm going to challenge a lot of the superlatives that have been thrown at the series.

Speaking as someones who is passionately interested in the arts I was surprised that I didn't like CIVILISATION more. What the series most powerfully shows is that nothing dates so quickly as the medium of television. TV's greatest asset is it's immediacy, but if CIVILISATION is anything to go by, it's also its greatest weakness.

I was born 2 years after the programme originally aired and admit that I find Lord Clark's manner off-putting. I'd be surprised if I am the only one of my generation who has this experience. He is clearly passionate about what he considers to be "high art" but his means of expressing this enthusiasm is delivered with a seriously patrician stiff upper lip and a surprising abhorrence (considering the subject matter) of revealing any intense emotion. The most excited he seems to get is when he speaks of something (for example, the entrance to Chartres Cathedral or various Renaissance sculptures) as being "moving". However, it's hard for this viewer to be swept up in the wake of his feelings. It's equally hard to share his dislikes. When, for example he refers to the elaborate Baroque decorative style at Versailles as "odious pomposity", not only did I find the phrase jarringly dated, I also found myself yearning to see more of this style that annoys him so much if only to work out what could possibly have produced such a reaction.

But the series' worst fault lies not in Lord Clark's dry tweedy manner, nor in the succession of horrible brown tweedy suits he wears, but in the way that the power of art to shock, to overwhelm, to change lives seems to be wilfully ignored. Lord Clark is fond of speaking about the humanizing influence of art, but seems unwilling to confront the less respectable, less genteel aspect of the arts and therefore of humanity itself. He mentions Peter Abelard in the 3rd episode and neglects to speak about his passionate love affair with Heloise. The scandalous lives and deeds of writers or artists like Byron or Caravaggio either have polite veils drawn across them as if such vulgar things would offend the delicate sensibilities of his audience or the artist in question is left out of the programme altogether. It is as if sex and violence have nothing to do with the arts and nothing to do with the human experience. If my fellow reviewers don't find anything to criticise here then I'm sorry, because I find it a problem. What seems magisterial to them feels hopelessly old-fashioned to me. Naturally I understand that the value of the arts lies not only in their ability to shock (we would all be the poorer if this were the only criterion), but the picture of the arts that Lord Clark presents seem to be made dryer and more fustian by his austere presentation - almost emasculated.

Nowhere does this feel more wrong than in the episode about the Romantic movement when the subject matter cries out for some red-blooded passion. I also notice that apart from a snatch of the KING LEAR overture, Lord Clark leaves out Hector Berlioz altogether. A glaring omission surely, as few artists let alone musicians more vigorously lived out the Romantic ideals, not even Beethoven. This, by the way is not the only sad absence, but I suppose one could argue that Lord Clark covers himself from the charge of superficiality by the programme's subtitle: A PERSONAL VIEW and the fact that this is something of a whirlwind tour.

On the positive side the photography is often extremely beautiful and occasionally the series can stir the viewer to want to find out more about a particular work of art, artist or building. Lord Clark's learning and erudition is there for all to see and the subject matter is highly interesting even if I have problems with the conservatism of the presentation. Therefore I cannot in all honesty dismiss it out of hand. One can also see why CIVILISATION is considered to be so highly influential. Many contemporary documentaries on the arts owe much to the style and techniques (if not the tone). For example Matthew Collings' wonderful recent Channel 4 documentary, the suspiciously similarly titled: THIS IS CIVILISATION must have had half an eye on it. Collings devotes an entire programme to the study of the apparent apple of Lord Clark's eye: John Ruskin. I find this detailed approach more user-friendly. If nothing else, CIVILISATION is an interesting document of a certain class and a certain attitude to the arts.

What slightly worries me is that if about 35 years is enough to make Lord Clark's work look so mothballed, then will time be as unkind to the work of our own contemporaries?
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Showing 1-10 of 18 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 29 Nov 2009 10:56:34 GMT
Jean says:
This view was also presented on Radio 4 last night, so you are not alone. :-)

Posted on 28 Jan 2010 09:38:54 GMT
This last review by Hector Lerbioz (a play, i presume, on Hector Berlioz) interested me because it reveals the remarkable change in sensibility from generation to generation. I saw Kenneth Clark's series when it first came out and enjoyed it, but have not seen it since. Hector Lerbioz gives credit where credit is due and yet I find myself more in agreement with those who praised the series highly. What Mr. Lerbioz finds 'dry and fustian' I probably find dignified. His suggetion that sex and violence are part of the human experience is fine, but that they should be thrown in our face in works of art is another thing. They've become more or less de rigueur in most contemporary films, they've become conventional - and to that extent predictable and boring. As regards Byron's scandalous life (or Caravaggio's), why delay on them? The interesting thing about both is their art. Byron's Don Juan is, for the most part, delightful, but I don't need to hear the sordid details of his personal life to appreciate his poetry. I'm reminded of a discussion of David Lean's 'Brief Encounter' which i heard recently on radio. The participants were two young women - radio pesonalities - who had heard the film described as a classic and had now seen it for the first time. They couldn't for the life of them see 'what the big deal was', as they put it.
'For goodness sake, nothing happened' they quipped. By 'nothing' they meant that the couple -Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson - didn't end up in bed. So in 'Brief Encounter' nothing happened!! I'm quite sure Mr. Lerbioz is now as callow as that. The point I'm making is that the change in sensibility from one generation to another - and it is very marked today - should lead us to be dismissive. Not that Mr. Lerbioz was dismissive. I find his review very balanced, though I disagree with him.

Posted on 5 Mar 2010 17:52:26 GMT
Paul McCard says:
How refreshing to read such a considered and thoughtful review where the broadly negative response is so measured and qualified. I would still like to see this programme, but I feel my expectations have been helpfully conditioned by the evaluation of the reviewer. No wonder it is ranked as "Most helpful negative review" on this item.

Posted on 14 Apr 2010 10:27:31 BDT
Jackal says:
good review. i wanted to like this more. the stiff upper lip presentation is fine with me. however, i find his presentation quite shallow and hence boring. the presenter very much reminds me of an average quality teacher. he is knowledgeable but doesn't make the subject come alive.

Posted on 8 Jul 2010 17:33:22 BDT
Last edited by the author on 8 Jul 2010 17:34:28 BDT
Bungliemutt says:
I entirely agree with you. The series has dated badly, and the superlatives heaped upon it by other reviewers make me wonder if they have really watched anything decent on television recently. Kenneth Clark's delivery is self-consciously intellectual, self-indulgent and dry as dust. I'm certainly not in favour of dumbing down, but to communicate you must have empathy with your audience, and Kenneth Clark inhabits and preaches to a narrow world of pretentious academe which is closed to the vast majority of us.

In reply to an earlier post on 14 Nov 2010 14:02:10 GMT
Jack O'Brien says:
[Customers don't think this post adds to the discussion. Show post anyway. Show all unhelpful posts.]

Posted on 1 Dec 2010 13:05:17 GMT
Derek Jones says:
You make it clear that you wanted to be treated to Abelard's affair with Heloise (perhaps a dramatisation of his castration?) and attention paid to the sordid personal lives of men such as Byron and Caravaggio. This has little or nothing to do with civilisation. As for the Matthew Collings series about which you drool I am completely on the side of the professional reviewers who thought it an irritating exercise in using many words to say very little of substance.

Posted on 10 Dec 2010 11:08:59 GMT
Last edited by the author on 10 Dec 2010 11:12:56 GMT
Motte 1 says:
Your interesting question asks "What slightly worries me is that if about 35 years is enough to make Lord Clark's work look so mothballed, then will time be as unkind to the work of our own contemporaries?". Yes! and it probably won't take anything like 35years (or 42yrs, if you prefer). People like Kenneth Clark lived in an era that I am glad does not exist anymore. I am sad that the pendulum has swung quite so far the other way though. I enjoyed your review.

Posted on 30 Apr 2011 08:26:23 BDT
Dan Filson says:
Time will indeed be very unkind with our own contemporaries, some of whose crassness is breathtaking.

The biggest fault of K's view of Civilisation was that it was wholly Euro-centric and he believed very much in the Renaissance. The style of TV filming has moved on - the sight of K moving into shot, facing the camera and spouting was indeed parodied heavily by the Monty Python crew, whose overt target was journalist Alan Whicker but they were knocking K too. But it is headlined a personal view, i.e. K#s personal view and so it is.

All the same you are right that many - not me - will agree with you. Patrician TV at its finest

Posted on 26 Jun 2011 17:49:10 BDT
RobJay says:
Kenneth Clark (born 1903) reminds me very much of my Father (born 1900) and my Mother (born 1903). To talk about sex and passion was simply not done, tight lips were kept firmly sealed on such unmentionables. Just how babies arrived was not a subject to be dwelt upon.
Hector Lerbioz (whoever he may be) comes from a different generation; times have changed but art as seen and understood by Kenneth Clark has not. Clark has much to offer to those willing to listen without preconceptions of how art should be approached. After all, times change.
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