Thursday, 30 December 2010


I just missed out on Kenneth Clark's iconic series, Civilisation, when it was first shown in 1969. I was a student at the time and the digs I was in couldn't run to the expense of a television that could receive BBC 2. And, if I'm brutally honest, I don't remember being that concerned about the fact. I suspect that my mind was far too occupied with live theatre to be really concerned with what I probably then classified as 'dead' art.

So, it was a real joy this Christmas to find that one of the presents under the tree was a box set of the DVDs and over the last couple of days I've watched the first two episodes, the first discussing the period between the fall of the Roman Empire and the Norman Conquest and the second focusing on what he calls the sudden re-awakening of European civilisation in the 12th century, particularly the building of the great Romanesque and Gothic cathedrals.

However (you could hear that coming, I'm sure) while I certainly haven't been disappointed in the programmes I have been struck forcibly by the way in which they have dated both in respect of documentary techniques and in terms of the approach adopted towards the historical periods discussed. Compared with a twenty-first century documentary they are so slow. A programme made now would cover two or three times as much material and there would be far fewer of the long, lingering, panning shots, especially those of fields of rape flowers which seem to have no bearing on the contents at all. What I found even more unsettling was the way in which Lord Clark dismissed the period after the Roman Empire as one with little or no art worth discussing other than such well known examples as The Book of Kells. Definitely for him, The Dark Ages.

Our understanding of this period has changed enormously over the intervening period. Just yesterday, when I was in the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, I was looking at pieces of beautiful jewellery taken from the Anglo-Saxon hoard found locally a couple of years ago. Almost entirely made of gold set with stunning garnets they are examples of exquisite workmanship and no one seeing those could possible claim today that they came from a time when beauty and art were not appreciated. It made me go on line to see if the television series that was made on The Dark Ages quite recently was available, but it doesn't seem to have been released, mores the pity.

I shall go on watching the Kenneth Clark programmes but with as much of an eye towards the ways in which they have become history themselves as to what I can learn about history from them.


  1. That sounds like a very interesting, if sometimes disheartening project -- to think about how the programs have aged. You can learn a lot about the late 60s, as well as about much earlier civilizations.

  2. The other aspect that is quite hard to get to grips with is the presentation style of Kenneth Clark. He looks and speaks like someone who has just walked out of a Conservative Government Cabinet Meeting of the 60s. If this was re-shown now he would have viewers turning off before they'd given him a chance to prove just how knowledgable he actually was.

  3. It was interesting to hear your views. I love the Civilisation series, and even though it is dated I particularly enjoy Sir Kenneth Clark's presentation. Presenters of documentaries today seem so intent on making themselves the focus of the story, and frequently they are presenting a show that someone else has researched. When I think of this series and Robert Hughes' Shock of the New, I am amazed by the depth of their knowledge, and aware that their comments are considered and worth listening to.

  4. Karyn, that's a very interesting observation about the lack of the celebrity culture impinging on this series. I hadn't thought about it in those terms, but of course, you're correct. Lord Clark had nothing to gain by selling himself and that does come through.