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1 March 2018

Having feared the worst from the BBC’s Civilisations reboot, I was pleasantly surprised

The series, fronted by Schama, Mary Beard and David Olusoga, is more diverse and relativist than its predecessor.

By Rachel Cooke

How many drones were used in the making of the BBC’s “highly anticipated” (not my words!) reboot of Kenneth Clark’s 1969 series Civilisation (9pm, 1 March)? Did the production team rent them continent by continent, or did they pack the same one each time, in with the mosquito spray and the pressed powder (for those moments when, wandering ruins, the presenters find themselves perspiring less lightly than is helpful)? Either way, Civilisations’ director appears to be addicted to them, bookending every scene with an aerial shot, whether of the Honduran jungle or the top of Simon Schama’s head. Combine this with the series’ ineffably bland yet pompous soundtrack and the overall effect is more British Airways pre-flight video than global-history-of-art by numbers.

Still, you can hold the nut-free mini-pretzels for the moment. Amazingly, I’m not going to slag off Civilisations. I admit I feared the worst. I’ve written before of the internalised condescension I detect in much of the BBC’s arts programming, and this series, more diverse and relativist than its predecessor, seemed on paper to guarantee plenty of fatuous talking down. But while its frantic restlessness is undoubtedly wearying – and queasy-making: I might invest in one of those anti-travel sickness wristbands before part two – there is, I think, no doubting the sincerity of its writer-presenters (Schama, Mary Beard and David Olusoga). If, having watched it, I’m still less than wholly fascinated by Nabatean goat herders, that’s probably my failing not theirs.

Schama, fronting part one, didn’t attempt to define civilisation (Clark began by quoting Ruskin). But he spoke of knowing its opposite when he sees it, using as his example not only the destruction of Palmyra by Islamic State thugs, but their beheading of its 83-year-old keeper of antiquities, Khaled al-Asaad, in 2015 (“director of idolatry” read the sign they laid at his corpse’s feet). This was punchy stuff, and as he entered a Castilian cave, flashlight in hand, I wondered how he’d keep up the pace. He did, though. There was something almost lyrical about the way he spoke of the hand stencils on its walls as a “long distance greeting” from 3,000 BC; ditto his description of a piece of agate on which a Minoan had carved a fight scene (“this was 700 years before Homer”, he said, wonderingly). Schama’s greatest gift is his ability to concertina time, contracting and expanding it at will, the centuries falling away like dominoes.

I wouldn’t mind – oh Lord, I’m Michael Gove – a few more facts; Civilisations’ scope is so madly wide you’re left with no sense of who fits where (in this, it reminds of the O- level history syllabus at my right-on comprehensive, a series of disconnected modules ranging from Aboriginal medicine to Custer’s last stand that were the opposite of educative). But what it lacks in chronology it makes up for in feeling, and perhaps this is all that matters in the end. Spark people’s interest; leave it to museums and libraries to fan the flames of their enthusiasm.

Anyone still struggling to understand Ryan Murphy’s $300m move from Fox to Netflix (Murphy is the showrunner best known for Glee) obviously hasn’t seen his latest show, The Assassination of Gianni Versace (9pm, 28 February). Or maybe they have, and I must accept that this festival of campery and bling might have been written just for me. I have powerful memories of that day in 1997 when the designer was shot outside his Miami mansion. Specifically, of Versace’s British PR, Lady Aurelia Cecil, telling me and my colleagues on a Sunday newspaper that she couldn’t confirm her client was “actually” dead, even though the news had been all over the wires for hours.

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Seriously, though, this show is marvellously beady: here is the FBI confusing the victim with Liberace; there is Donatella Versace (Penelope Cruz) proprietorially adjusting one of her brother’s marble busts even before his lover Antonio (Ricky Martin… yes, that Ricky Martin) has had a chance to change (he’s Jackie O, minus the pink pillbox). And the clothes! Che favoloso. I’ll be with this one until the final ciao. 

Civilisations (BBC Two)
The Assassination of Gianni Versaci: American Crime Story (BBC Two)

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This article appears in the 28 Feb 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The rise of the radical left