Last week, we linked to Sarah Hoyt’s essay on the resilience of cultural memes from the immediate aftermath of WWI that have stayed permanently entrenched in the left’s collective thinking. Since she wrote that she’s currently fascinated by the British interwar-era, I sent her a link to the episode of the early 1970s Thames television series The World At War that focused on the British home front during WWII. As I mentioned in a post from the day after Christmas, if you want to see Britain’s welfare state being formed, and its healthcare nationalized and socialized, even as England was busy pulverizing a giant welfare state with plenty of national socialism of its own, it’s an interesting segment — probably more so to an American viewer than a British one.
As I’ve written before, The World At War was made at the perfect time — television documentary techniques were sufficiently developed by 1969 when production on the series began to tell the story properly, and it was only a quarter century after WWII concluded, and enough survivors were still around, still sharp, and able to appear on camera. But of equal importance is that it was made before political correctness had sapped the cultural confidence of the West. If the BBC or Thames’ successor network were to remake the The World at War today, it would have a very different tone to it, probably far closer to Oliver Stone’s “Springtime for Hitler and Stalin” Showtime series than the BBC would care to admit.
Also, the interviews and the contemporary non-newsreel footage were shot in color. We take that entirely for granted now, but when the show first went into production, color TV was still a new phenomenon to many English viewers; BBC2 had only begun broadcasting in color in 1967, and BBC1 not until 1969. It’s tough to conceive of something like Monty Python‘s Flying Circus as being shot in black and white, but as late as 1967, its immediate predecessor, a show with the classic title of At Last, the 1948 Show, was a monochrome production.
Another influential British documentary series from that era, which may well have influenced the style and quality of The World at War, would also have a very different tone were it made today. In fact, it probably couldn’t be made today. To help promote the BBC’s embrace of color television, in 1968 the network commissioned a 13-part documentary series titled Civilisation: A Personal View by Kenneth Clark — or simply Civilisation, as it’s almost universally called.
Civilisation debuted on February 23, 1969; to further advance the acceptance of color TV, each episode featured luscious cinema-quality photography of globe-hoping historical locations and numerous key pieces of art and sculpture, with all sorts of stately camera moves, all shot on 35mm film, rather than the cheaper-looking 16mm format or videotape. (Many, perhaps all of the episodes, are currently available in full-length form at YouTube, but the series is available on Blu-Ray, and in terms of cinematography, it’s worth it.)
It’s fascinating, in 2013, witnessing the ongoing collapse of our own culture — and in particular, the complete collapse, decades ago, of what was once called “middlebrow culture” – to watch a show titled Civilisation – that itself is from a civilization that effectively no longer exists. At the very least, the network that created the series no longer exists in the same form (QED).