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Kenneth Clark’s 1969 series <em>Civilisation</em> was a landmark in television, and it continues to

Civilisation

Jonathan Conlin
BFI/Palgrave Macmillan, 150pp, £12

The television series Civilisation, written and presented by Sir Kenneth Clark, was first transmitted 40 years ago. The British Film Institute is marking this anniversary with a crisp monograph by the historian Jonathan Conlin. Given that there is very little scholarly work devoted to the series, Conlin has no intramural scores to settle and, consequently, his study is largely free from academic blight. It is preoccupied instead with the series itself – with its precursors and genesis, its reception, and the long shadow it has cast down the years. For Civilisation has been a burden to subsequent generations of television producers and commissioning editors, and barely a year passes without another abortive attempt to emulate its supposed qualities.
The root of the series’s appeal as a continuing model is obvious. To a certain cast of plodding mind, art remains a necessarily important thing, something intrinsically good, improving. And it is even better when rendered popularly “accessible” with stirring music, doting cinematography and big ideas that are easy to follow. Yet, for all its lavish grandiloquence, television of this sort is humble: it knows its place and pays due deference to acknowledged masterpieces in media to which it believes itself to be a subservient upstart. It is essentially reportorial and does not attempt to create its own reality. It soothes with the balm of the familiar and the canonical.
Clark simply followed the progress of most of the mainstream histories of art written in the first half of the 20th century. Save in his precocious and eventually influential early book The Gothic Revival, Clark seldom displayed taste that was anything other than utterly conventional among the classically educated aesthetes of his generation. Nor was he even remotely an original writer. But he was engaging, authoritative, sceptical, encyclopaedic and, it must be said, civilised. He was also glossily handsome. In his youth he was described by Cyril Connolly as “a polished hawk-god in obsidian”. And that statuesque demeanour remained with him into late middle age. Clark delivered opinions as if they were irrefutable truths.
Although unprecedented in scope and length (13 episodes of 50 minutes each), Civilisation felt, when it was first broadcast, like the culmination of a tradition rather than an avatar of the future. If the Edwardians had had telly, this is what they would have put on it: it was stately, formal and ponderous. This was the BBC acting responsibly. Civilisation was the kind of stuff it put on to justify the licence fee. Watching it, however, was like wading through a David Lean epic after immersion in the Nouvelle Vague, for elsewhere television was developing a distinctive new grammar and possessed, in 1969, a vitality that has long since dissipated. It was the dominant cultural force in Britain.
Ambulatory oddballs like Ray Gosling, John Betjeman and Ian Nairn would slope across the screen, forgetting to smile and chortling alarmingly. Of course, none of these all-too-human beings would ever be granted a landmark series: passionate bias and nihilistic sarcasm were not the stuff of prime time. Nor was humour – which evidently was (and still is) reckoned to be the enemy of the pietistic seriousness that signals the landmark.
Yet arts telly was strenuously artless. It carried the reverent whiff of the Workers’ Educational Association and was tiresomely fascinated by process: in how, rather than why, things are made. Huw Wheldon, then controller of BBC1, was a worthy bore: the kind of well-meaning teacher who succeeds only in putting you off reading for ever. A dismal pall of admiration for commonsensical craft hung over the countless programmes made in his image. The absence of filmic craft was almost total, too, and the bereavement of imagination, ambition and aspiration were matched by rock-bottom production values. It was for only a few rare directors that arts telly was a stepping stone, a place to serve an apprenticeship: one thinks of Ken Russell at the BBC and Mike Hodges on ATV’s New Tempo.
It was not until some years after Civilisation (and in the wake of progeny such as John Berger’s Ways of Seeing and Robert Hughes’s The Shock of the New) that an arts show which was peculiar to the medium was devised, and, with it, an idiom that was more than an analogue of colour-supplement journalism and coffee-table polemic. Of course, it might be objected that Arena’s best films had little to do with “the arts”. It was itself art, which is a different thing altogether – a gloriously mongrel kind of bricolage for the BBC, effected by a coterie that included Anthony Wall, Nigel Finch and Alan Yentob, who in the 1980s was a telly impresario, an electronic Diaghilev. The brilliance and freshness of this work was emphasised by the contempt in which it was held by the sedately poisonous mandarins who were Wheldon’s epigoni.
When in 1989 Yentob, by now head of Music and Arts, invited me to move from Channel 4 to BBC2, one of these charmers approached me at a party and hissed: “See you’re doing a series for us, Jonathan. Friendly with the Yid, are we?” I mentioned this to Yentob. He grinned and replied: “Yes – but he’s going blind, isn’t he . . .” Indeed, one of the defining characteristics of this area of the BBC is – or, rather, was – the attritional animus of the reportorial faction towards the creative faction, the latter being the people whom A A Gill, son of Michael (Clark’s producer on Civilisation), calls “Tristrams”. Today, however, the Tristrams are being squeezed out of an increasingly formulaic medium whose executives’ mistrust of intelligence, cleverness and originality is nothing less than a trahison des clercs.
The fate of a recently discovered and never-aired 1968 Betjeman film about Victorian Leeds is all too telling. An couple of excerpts were shown on a magazine programme exclusive to Yorkshire. They were accompanied by Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower” and an airhead reporter’s observation that the late 1960s was the era of free love. There are no plans to broadcast the film in its entirety across the network. Betjeman is no doubt chortling.
“The Jonathan Meades Collection” is available on BBC DVD (priced £34.99)

This article first appeared in the 16 March 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The year of the crowd