'Civilisations'

April 8 2018

Video: BBC

What do you all make of the new BBC's new, 'Civilisations'? It was commissioned as a major BBC 'landmark' series, as a successor to the 1960s series 'Civilisation' fronted by Kenneth Clark. I've seen more than half of the nine films now. The series got something of a drubbing from the BBC's Arts Editor, Will Gompertz, who rated it 2 out of 5, and said;

It turns out adding that extra "s" has gone and over-egged the pudding. For all its faults (partial, dogmatic, occasionally dismissive), the Kenneth Clark written and presented originals had a clarity, structure, and coherent argument that made them fascinating to watch and easy to follow.

In contrast, from the programmes I have seen, Civilisations is more confused and confusing than a drunk driver negotiating Spaghetti Junction in the rush hour.

Ouch. To make matters worse, the ratings haven't been great, as reported by Richard Brooks in The Sunday Times:

The initial episode fronted by Simon Schama was watched by 1.9m viewers. The second, with Mary Beard as presenter, fell to 1.2m. In the latest figures released by Barb, the official collator of audience numbers, ratings have fallen to 966,000.

Richard concludes that:

The consensus from critics and viewers is that the new version is muddled and seems to have been produced by a committee.

I think the weekly ratings may have something to do with the fact that the BBC have also put all nine programmes on the iPlayer at once, so - a la Netflix - you can binge watch them all at once if you like. 

When I saw the first programme ('The Second Moment of Creation' by Simon Schama) I have to say that I did come away with the impression that it was, if not TV by committee, then a case of too many cooks. I’ll be honest - it was disappointing. But maybe that's because expectations were so high. The programme had a fantastically strong beginning, and the central narrative was convincing. But things kept getting in the way of the programme's theme, to say nothing of Schama himself. The most obvious were the endless drone shots. Drones are all the rage in TV-land at the moment. But they are often over-used, as they were here, and can be too distracting. Equally distracting in the first programme was the presence of third party contributors - archaeologists, historians and so on - who kept halting Schama's flow. Normally, TV producers and directors put contributors in if you feel the need to bolster a presenter's knowledge with some outside expertise, or bring in other characters and voices. But since Schama is clearly expert enough, the contributors (whom, even more oddly, Schama didn't speak to, they were just talking off camera to someone else) had the effect of interrupting Schama's own personal view, which, after all, is what Civilisation/s is all about; Clark's series was famously subtitled 'A Personal View’.

Then I watched the second programme, ‘How do we look?’ presented by Mary Beard, and - here I’m going to be too honest for my own good again - was again disappointed. It seemed to lack energy, and I couldn’t immediately see its purpose. I’ll admit that I was probably hankering for a bit of good old-fashioned, Clark-ian chronology. I also began to wonder why the BBC couldn’t just have chosen one person to make the series, to get a compelling, single viewpoint, even if that viewpoint proved controversial, or ‘wrong’. There were fewer drones at least in programme 2, but a seemingly random succession of soft focus frames was no less interrupting. Someone enjoyed fiddling with the settings in the edit suite. As a programme maker, you have to ask yourself why you need gadgets to keep the audience interested. If you can't people interested with a good presenter and good stories, then you're doing something wrong. 

But then, wonderfully, the series got into its stride. Programme 3 saw Schama move onto landscape. Now the thematic approach began to make sense. The opening, in China, was fascinating. Things got even better with Schama’s next programme, ‘The Power of Art’, which sensitively explored artistic relationships between East and West, which Clark hadn’t been able to in Civilisation, with his brief to stick only to Western art. While I did know about Rembrandt’s re-workings of Mughal miniatures, I never knew there was a c.1615-18 Mughal miniature (by Bichitr) which included a portrait of James I of England, who was shown wilting in the presence of the Emperor, Jahangir. Finally, it became clear how this series was going to take Clark’s effort and build on it.  

David Olusoga’s first episode, ‘First Contact’, was exceptional. Civilisations needed to tell the story of how so much art history grows out of conquest and colonialism, and Olusoga not only did it well, but with just the right amount of personal connection. We saw this in his opening sequence in front of the Benin Bronzes, which, he told us, he had stood in front of for many hours as a child, wondering at the injustice of how the Bronzes ever came to be in the British Museum in the first place. 

I’m now at episode seven, ‘Radiance’ by Schama. I think this is probably the best arts programme I’ve ever seen. The great thing about Schama’s episodes is that he does make you work for it; nothing is spoon fed, you have to pay attention. That’s rare in TV these days. But the reward is a far more intense hour of television that one is often used to. Schama gives spellbinding performances on Monet, Goya and Matisse. I never actually thought anyone could take on Clark’s series and improve on it, but in ‘Radiance’ Schama does. I challenge you to watch it and not feel deeply moved at the end. 

So I've got three left to go, out of nine. There were originally supposed to be 12, but something happened, I'm not sure what. Maybe that explains why music and literature don't get a look in, which is a shame. 

Anyway, let me know what you think. On his blog, Charles Saumarez Smith has written that he has enjoyed the series so far. The Burlington wrote an editorial on Civilisations this month, and one senses the magazine is disappointed in the series. 

Update - a reader writes:

Totally agree with you on Civilisation / Civilisations. I personally thought David Olusoga was the most convincing, as he was firmly on his patch and not trying to be too flashy.  

The main difference is that Kenneth Clark was an esteemed art historian, whilst Schama, Beard and Olusoga are historians, without a specialist knowledge of art, and therefore do not connect you to the objects in the same way as Clark did.

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