Artful History. A wonderful look at Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation and the creation of a genre

Clark is a formidable but amiable host. He was a highly respected art historian before making a late career in television. The immediate impression he gives is rather patrician — well-cut suits and tweed jackets, polished accent, bald pate accentuating a high brow above strangely narrowed eyes, just a pair of dark slots. But listen to that refined voice for just a few minutes and you realise you are in the company of a superb and benevolent intellect. His wit and perception surprised me time and again, lifting insight from this cathedral facade or teasing intention from the pose of that statue. This was a subtle and supple mind, one that reached into places I didn’t even know existed.

Clark’s pieces to camera are complemented by lengthy visual segments accompanied only by music. These may be too slow for some. At times Civilisation contrives to make Sagan’s thoughtful meander through the Cosmos look indecorously rushed. The camera pans slowly through the interior of a church, or drifts admiringly over the contours of a sculpture, or closes gradually on a detail from a painting as choirs sing or orchestras play. But the pace has been well measured for its purpose: appreciation.

Even so, the richness of the narrative is staggering. I found I had to watch each episode twice to absorb the better part of the detail. I was consoled to learn that the programs were originally broadcast twice a week, in part to justify the extreme expense of the production but also because Attenborough rightly perceived that people would be hungry to see it again.

This is a fabulous post. I’ve hated TV for years, but have found many series on the BBC here in London excellent, and some of them deeply moving. Here’s why, and how it got started.


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