The BBC’s Civilisations may be confusing but it cannot be accused of dumbing down

The BBC’s remake of its 1969 documentary series Civilisation was always going to be ripe for criticism. Written and presented by the well-respected art historian Kenneth Clark, the original thirteen episodes gave his personal view on the history of western European civilisation. It is widely considered one of the greatest programmes the corporation has ever produced.

The BBC’s re-make is not only an attempt to match a much-loved classic, it also aims to cover a far more ambitious range of cultures. For in changing the title from the singular Civilisation to the plural Civilisations, the programme-makers are signalling that 2018’s version will not be limited, as Clark’s had been, to Europe alone. The programme’s website boasts that it spans 31 countries across the continents and includes more than 500 works of art. Somehow this all fits into nine episodes, a shorter-time frame than Clark’s thirteen.

(Left to right) Historians David Olusoga, Mary Beard and Simon Schama | © BBC
(Left to right) Historians David Olusoga, Mary Beard and Simon Schama | © BBC

Since its initial broadcast at the beginning of March, which coincided with the release of the whole series on iPlayer, Civilisations has received mixed reviews. One of the most striking came from the BBC’s own Arts Editor, Will Gompertz. He gave the show a mere two stars, complaining that it was rambling and lacked a coherent argument. This is difficult to dispute. The incredibly broad scope of Civilisations means that its episodes tend to sprawl, jumping at random between continents and eras. The sixth episode ‘First Contact’, for example, zooms between the 13th-century Benin Bronzes, 18th-century Japanese painting, the Dutch Golden Age and 19th-century Indian painting. There is often little time to dwell on individual artworks, and it feels as though we are only scraping the surface of their underlying subtleties. Viewers need a line of argument or ‘story’, otherwise you risk losing their attention.

This is in sharp contrast to Clark’s original series. Whereas the new Civilisations series has three presenters (Simon Schama, Mary Beard and David Olusoga), meaning their respective episodes take rather different approaches. Clark was the sole narrator in his 1969 original. He provided a single, chronological thread that was easy to follow.

Kenneth Clark in 'Civilisation' (1969) | © BBC
Kenneth Clark in ‘Civilisation’ (1969) | © BBC

Yet it would be difficult for the BBC to defend simply replicating the 1969 Civilisation series. Aside from the fact that there is little point in creating a copy when we can easily turn to the original (Clark’s whole series is currently freely available on iPlayer), there are a number of problems with Clark’s version. Although a single narrator has the benefit of providing clarity, it also means that we only get a single point of view; we only see artworks that he thinks are worth including.

This is remarkably restricting. In the fifth episode, for example, Clark narrows his focus onto not only a specific time and place – papal Rome in the early 16th century – but onto only three individual artists: Michelangelo, Raphael and da Vinci. Naturally, Clark can justify dedicating this much airtime to these artists since he viewed them as ‘individuals of genius’, and many would agree with him. But the assumption that their art is ‘great’ also comes with an unsaid implication that anyone who finds it difficult to connect with (which, created in a time and place quite different from the present is not that implausible) is simply wrong. As sole narrator, Clark has undue authority that risks shunning viewers whose tastes differ from his.

The broad scope of Civilisations has led to accusations that it has ‘no standards at all’. This may be true if you buy into the canon of ‘great’ art created by the likes of Michelangelo, Dante, Shakespeare, Beethoven and Picasso, to name a few individuals that we persistently hold up as ‘geniuses’. But if you are open to discovering objects created outside of the familiar then Civilisations is incredibly rewarding. What we should appreciate most about the series is how it introduces fantastic artworks that we would never have come across otherwise. These include some astonishing landscapes by the German Albrecht Altdorfer (c. 1480–1538), and the beautifully subtle Cracked Ice by the Japanese painter Maruyama Ōkyo (1733–95). Other viewers may disagree but this does not mean that the show excludes them. The programme’s massive breadth means that something else will draw them instead.

'Landscape with a Woodcutter' (c. 1552), Albrecht Altdorfer
‘Landscape with a Woodcutter’ (c. 1552), Albrecht Altdorfer

This still does not get around the thorny issue of how mind-bogglingly broad Civilisations is. Yet this should not be dismissed as a weakness as it sets it apart from other art documentaries. The past is confusing, mind-boggling and massive; putting it into a neat, easily-digestible, chronological story is a distortion. Mary Beard has spoken in an interview about how in Civilisations she treats her audience as she would her undergraduates. She assumes they are intelligent and seeks to challenge them. The numerous criticisms of Civilisations indicate that the BBC has succeeded in producing a boldly demanding programme. Its bewildering scope makes for more difficult viewing than we are used to, but it cannot be accused of ‘dumbing down’.