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Civilisation (1969)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Civilisation (1969)
BBC, 23/02-18/05/1969
13 x 50 mins, colour
DirectorMichael Gill
 Ann Turner
Script & narrationKenneth Clark
ProducerMichael Gill
 Peter Montagnon
PhotographyA. Arthur Englander

Documentary series in which Sir Kenneth Clark examines the ideas and values which to him give meaning to the term Western Civilisation.

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Kenneth Clark's career as early television's pre-eminent art historian started with a series of programmes made for ITV. His first attempts, such as Is Art Necessary (ITV, 1958) and Should Every Picture Tell a Story? (ITV, 1958), were based around studio debates. However, Clark was uncomfortable with the format and decided that a lecture-based presentation might better suit both his own personal style and his subject matter. The result was Five Revolutionary Painters (ITV, 1958), which effectively cast the mould for the rest of his broadcasting career.

BBC2's second controller, David Attenborough, was charged with introducing colour to British TV, and he therefore needed programmes that would demonstrate the benefits of the new service. One of his ideas was to base a series around some of the world's "most beautiful things", set into some form of context by a narrator. The obvious choice for the role was Clark, who refined Attenborough's nebulous concept by adding a clearly defined historical structure.

The premise for the series, which was fully titled Civilisation: a personal view by Kenneth Clark (BBC, 1969), was explained by Clark with a quote from John Ruskin: "Great nations write their autobiographies in three manuscripts - the book of their deeds, the book of their words and the book of their art. Not one of these books can be understood unless we read the two others, but of the three the only trustworthy one is the last." And for 13 weeks he attempted to show how two thousand years of the creative urge had moulded western civilisation.

The first episode was watched by just 1 million viewers - a figure that partly reflected the relatively few households able to receive the new channel - but Civilisation's impact far outweighed its viewing reach. Prior to its transmission it had been dismissed as an expensive folly - three years in the making and with a budget of £500,000. However, it quickly became a symbol of 'quality' programming and won near universal critical acclaim.

Civilisation remains an impressive piece of work, although its emphasis on individual creators and a narrative that built around a unified vision of the route to modernity now looks quaint and naïve. However, Clark's doctrine that humanity can be explored and explained through art is compelling, while his presentational style, which often resembles an internal monologue, provides direct access to his ideas, enabling him to speak to his audience without condescension.

Anthony Clark

Click titles to see or read more

Video Clips
Extract (7:58)
Part 12: 'Fallacies of Hope' (49:28)
Clark, Sir Kenneth (1903-1983)
Englander, A. Arthur (1916-2004)
BBC2 (1964-)
Authored Documentary