You’re history

Comparisons across 40 years are especially odious. But two history strands, on current on BBCHD and one recent on BBC4, tell us much about the history of the art history series: Civilisation, presented by Kenneth Clark, and Romancing The Stone: The Golden Ages Of British Sculpture, presented by Alistair Sooke. (The latter, a three-parter, has finished airing, and I’m catching up on Sky+. Civilisation‘s most recent episode is available on iPlayer, although they’re only keeping the most recent one up for a week.)

I grew up knowing about Civilisation, though I never saw it. I was too young when it aired on BBC2 in 1969, but when I grew up, it was already legend. Clark was mentioned in a couple of Monty Python sketches (and maybe even pictured in one of the books?), and the moment the BBC started making documentaries about itself – my guess, starting around the 70s and early 80s, when the Corporation’s 50th and 60th birthdays were marked – I became aware of a man in a tweed suit standing in front of churches and declaiming, fruitily, to camera. (Around the same time, I became aware of a man called Jacob Bronowski and The Ascent Of Man, another BBC 13-parter which I’ve still never seen.) When Alan Clark MP rose to prominence in the 80s, I made the father-son connection, and probably allowed the son’s rather nauseating fancy for Margaret Thatcher and all-round rogueish manner to put me off his dad. Well, it turns out his dad is as much of a Marxist-hunting Tory as his son. But what a teacher he makes!

Sooke – a search for whose name is probably always destined to elicit the response, “Did you mean: Alistair Cooke?” – is the deputy art critic at the Telegraph, and, it says, started there as an assistant in 2003, which I guess ages him at very early thirties. At any rate, he’s around half the age of Kenneth Clark when he wrote, produced and presented Civilisation in 1969, who was 66. Which is not to do Sooke down – he’s one of those young or comparatively young, boyishly and girlishly enthusiast academics in their thirties and forties that modern TV loves: Tristram Hunt, Dan Snow, Bettany Hughes, Neil Oliver. I’m not tilting at ageism here – my beloved Andrew Graham-Dixon is 50, Matthew Collings and Tim Marlow are already well into their fifties, and even Professor Amanda Vickery is in her late forties (a figure belied by her cherishable, youthful energy), and they still send Michael Wood off, and he’s 62 – but my guess is that in 1969 the idea of a history programme being presented by a thirtysomething would have been unconscionable. I mean, where would our instant respect spring from?

Thanks to a seriously mind-blowing clean-up job on the original film footage, Civilisation is back, basically to advertise the BBC’s HD service. It’s a crying shame it’s not showing on BBC4 concurrently, but there you are; it’s doing its job, because the pictures, almost as old as me, are stunning. Clark reminds me of those old photos taken in the late 60s and early 70s of my grandparents on the beach, in which my granddad is wearing trousers, shirt and tie. On the beach. Similarly, Clark treads the highways and byways of Europe, in clement weather, trussed up in tweed, the button of his jacket not even unbuttoned for ventilation. He’s even wearing a cardy underneath the jacket. In Florence. What’s most strikingly different about the way Civilisation is presented and the presentation of Romancing The Stone, or to pluck another recent example: Neil Oliver’s chunky and windswept A History Of Ancient Britain (just finishing on BBC2 but all four eps still on iPlayer for a few more days), is that Clark’s is flagged up in the credits as a “Personal View”, whereas these days a personal view is the least we’d expect. Oh, and by the way – Romancing The Stone? What a blinking dreadful and meaningless title. It seems that BBC4 has caught the bug from its neighbours at BBC3 and fears we won’t watch a programme about sculpture unless it’s sexed up.

I guess that in 1969 a history strand that was “personal” needed explaining, or even disclaiming. Now, if it’s not personalised, it’s not on the telly. Personality is everything. The irony is, Clark helped define personality presenting of academic programmes. Without him, perhaps no Life On Earth? (David Attenborough was actually head of BBC2 when Civilisation was commissioned.) He is our guide: knowledgeable, inspired, eloquent, intellectually equipped and authoritative, but at the same time personal. If he’d taught history at my school, I might not have got a “U” at O-Level. In 1969 it was enough to set up the shot of a church or a fresco or a library and have Clark stand or sit in front of it, or, if the director was feeling especially cavalier, have him walk into shot. There are no camera tricks. The camera never comes off its tripod or rostrum. Clark does not speak to anybody but us; unlike Sooke, or Oliver, who are duty bound to consult micro-experts or help cast something in bronze in protective gear, Clark looks but does not touch. He often gazes in awe, but he does not say, “Wow!”, which modern presenters must do. Watching Civilisation, you are the one saying, “Wow!”

I enjoy history programmes on TV. The best ones send me to my bookshelf or the Internet to find out more. The enthusiasm and articulacy of presenters like Sooke and Oliver definitely inspire. But all have Clark to beat. What these presenters all have in common is locked-in knowledge. None appears to be reading from an Autocue or cards. Clark declaims as if giving a lecture, once or twice stumbling over words, stopping to suck down the spit he’s worked up – and there is an assumption you will be paying attention; Sooke and Oliver make more effort to engage and connect, they huddle right in with the camera, and technology allows us to go into caves with them, or peer into crypts. Civilisation is built largely from still shots of art and architecture and sculpture; the camera lingers as we might in a gallery or cathedral. The camera today probes and ducks and dives.

I don’t wish to come across as a grumpy old man here; I embrace the modern style, and understand why it dominates. But thank God Civilisation survives, and in remastered form, too. It is The Wire of history programmes: dense and demanding, almost foreign in its language, and when one episode finishes, you want to watch the next one straight away. Get the box set.

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3 thoughts on “You’re history

  1. Very nice blog post, makes me want to watch Civilisation (too many distractions, not enough time!). I just want to be grumpy about something at the end…it’s a ‘boxed set’, not a set of boxes 😛

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