Civilisation: Is the West History?

Oh for the days of the fusty media don.

Civilisation: Is the West History?
Channel 4
Wonders of the Universe

When I worked on my student newspaper two decades ago, we once put together a special supplement - Dons, we called it, imaginatively - about the weird and wonderful teaching staff of the university. It was super-interesting but it wasn't the, er, sexiest magazine we'd ever produced. Among many other words one might have used to describe the fellows inside were: crusty, dusty, musty, tweedy, hairy and beaky. There were plenty of bad teeth, comb-overs and sweaters that looked like they'd been knitted with puy lentils.

Do such peculiar birds still exist? Of course. Sadly, though, one catches sight of the Lesser Bearded Don in the media only rarely these days. He will appear in a Newsnight or Panorama "package" on the grounds of his expertise but for two minutes max, because (the producers think) who wants to stare at some whiskery old guy with hummus in his teeth for longer than that? In 2011, the hair of a don on TV must be on his head, not his face, and if he is in possession of a knitted tie at all, it will come from Paul Smith and be worn ironically. When he is on screen, he will not use jargon, or even words of more than three syllables. Nor will he mutter. He will sound more movie voice-over artiste than lecturer. His theories will be grand and sweeping and, as he expounds them, he will stand on top of some far-off glacier or sky-scraper, not in front of a bookshelf.

Step forward Professors Niall Ferguson and Brian Cox, both of whom have big new series on the telly. Ferguson's is being billed as Niall Ferguson's Civilisation (Sundays, 8pm), as if he invented progress all by himself, and tells the story of the rise and imminent fall of the west. The tidy-bottomed historian's argument is that China will soon be The Greatest in economic terms, just as it was 500 years ago. And how did Europe, dark, dirty and plague-ridden, rise up and beat the east, home of gunpowder, ink, matches and suspension bridges? Ferguson says it was all down to six "Killer Apps": competition, science, democracy, medicine, consumerism and the work ethic. Each week, he expounds on one of these "apps"; how Europe used it over the course of the past five centuries and how China is using it right now (or not, in the case of democracy).

What do I think of his thesis? It seems fair enough. The trouble lies in his delivery, not his message. It's not only that his appropriation of the word "app" is so silly. Ferguson, a Scot, has spent years in the US, and this has left him sounding like the bastard child of Loyd Grossman and Alex Salmond. His tone is madly over-emphatic and he never talks to anyone else, with the result that his films have no light and shade (like China, this is a series in which dissent apparently does not exist). The constant movement - one minute he's on a bridge in Beijing, the next a lift in the Lloyds of London building - is exhausting and distracting. Add to all this that most of us are thinking about the Middle East right now, rather than China, and the result is a series that performs like a powerful sleeping draught. It had me yawning like Bagpuss.

Over on BBC2, we have the gorgeous, pouting particle physicist Brian Cox and his Wonders of the Universe (Sundays, 9pm). Cox also does a lot of travelling - Peru, Costa Rica, Namibia; his air miles must be fantastic by now - and I'm sure this makes a nice change from Manchester. But while he wins the competition on the "big theme" front (where Ferguson dishes up only "civilisation", Cox plates the entire universe), his series is every bit as dull. The script is laughably banal, and rather desperate. As the old Steve Martin joke goes: some have a way with words, and some... not have way. Every other word is "profound" and every other sentence begins with the word "interestingly", and the net result is that, after a while, one begins to suffer a kind of profundity-interest overload, whose chief symptoms are heavy eyelids and a deep longing for the next episode of Masterchef. l

“Civilisation" runs until 10 April and “Wonders of the Universe" until 27 March

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 14 March 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Who owns the world?