Civilisation and its Discontents

The London Telegraph asks, should the BBC remake its landmark 1969 TV series Civilization?

On the face of it, the idea of remaking Civilisation, Kenneth Clark’s television series of 1969, needs some justifying. The original hasn’t gone away, or been wiped from the tapes. In fact, the BBC repeated the whole thing on HD TV in 2011.


The subject of the series – the visual arts, architecture and philosophy of the past 1,000 years or so – might be thought not to have changed very much. Kenneth Clark was a highly intelligent and incisive man, and the book of the series, consisting of the scripts with illustrations, is still in print in 2014.

We don’t feel the need to remake a great novel after a few decades. So what has changed so radically, since 1969, to justify a remake? And what chance is there that a remake will come anywhere near the quality of the original?

As I wrote last year in a post on Civilisation, the cultural chasm between when the show was produced and today makes looking at Clark’s series the equivalent of “Notes from Atlantis:”

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).

And QEDX2: “Aborted babies incinerated to heat UK hospitals” read the headline yesterday — also in the London Telegraph — which in six words perfectly sums up what has happened to British “Civilisation” over the last 40 years. The rest is commentary, as Hillel would say, and for that, a perusal of Peter Hitchen’s equally devastating book, The Abolition of Britain will provide the backstory of how postwar Britain went deeply off the rails.



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