It can happen to the best of us. Perhaps on a weekend city-break. We trudge dutifully around a respectable building, whiling away the tedious hours before the night’s themed pub-crawl, and are confronted with some work of superlative ancient craftsmanship and finery. Unwontedly it pulls us from the exercise of fine tuning the plan for our alcohol fuelled assault on the city’s sensitivities, and gives us a small sense of the full panoramic vista of our own personal historical ignorance. From the mental wings trundles in the old cliché: it is not the known unknowns that bother us so much as the unknown unknowns. Maybe we even get a sneaking sense of remorse. Perhaps we ought to be able to name at least one event in any given 100 year period over the last millennium. We start to read a bit more deeply into background and significance of the artefact. Then, a sudden moment of sheer inspiration. Out of nowhere, we remember that guy who strapped loads of shot glasses to a vest on his chest and rocked up to that party as the Suicide-Jager-Bomber, our fancy dress plan is finalised and traditional sense of priority is restored.
In this way the comfortable armour of 21st century self-absorption can be lamentably perforated at times. And, if you are at all prone to such moments of weakness, I recommend facing the problem head on and watching the BBC’s classic 1969 series, modestly entitled “Civilisation”. By then, the Americans had had colour on the telly for a long while (albeit in inferior quality), and, indeed, the BBC had been broadcasting in colour for 5 years. But the Brits, with a resistance to change which, back then, was still quite characteristic, had not been flocking to pick up their coloured TV sets in sufficient droves. “Who wants to see things in colour when we’ve got our lovely grey-scale?” was the querulous cry of inertia. The beeb’s response: an epic survey of visual culture achievement, shot by the finest cinematographers available and scripted and presented by one of Britain’s greatest art historians, intellect and all-round culture vulture, Kenneth Clark. It worked wonders and is still the best way for you to get an overview of the history of artistic and intellectual developments in Europe from the dark ages to just after WWII.
Hands up! Despite the grandiose title, these 14 x 1 hour long instalments will give you nothing on antiquity and nothing on the civilisations beyond Europe. This was neither ignorance on the part of the filmmakers, or some staggering statement of Euro-centred tunnel-vision. They just wanted a snappier title and, back then, could get away with playing a bit fast and loose. Another limitation: there is no detailed coverage of events in the ‘just-one-thing-after-another’ sense of History. While we are at it, some of the camera work may seem a bit conservative when viewed by an audience today and patience is also required in unpacking Clark’s protein-rich commentary. Like with any genre to which we are unaccustomed, a bit of time and effort is required to adapt to the visual conventions and styling. The long term pay off is well worth it however.
The wide variety of wonderful buildings and works of art and their expert contextualisation and interpretation is not the only attraction of the series. In the first episode, Clark comments that ‘If I had to say which was telling the truth about a society, a speech by the Minister of Housing or the actual buildings put up in his time, I should believe the buildings.’ If you agree with him that the aesthetic and artistic products of an era provide one of the best sources for really understanding its psychology, motivation and quality of life, then ‘Civilisation’ provides a magnificent basis for getting to grips with the history of the West from around 500AD onwards, in manageable (if not exactly bite-size) chunks.
It has provided me with a framework into which knowledge gained on subsequent visits to culturally significant buildings and museums could be placed and accumulated, and so greatly enhanced my enjoyment of such excursions. More importantly, from a television documentary filmmakers perspective the series remains a classic of its type which, like its own subject matter, forms an achievement of the past against which all subsequent endeavors will be measured. Watch it on YouTube by clicking the piccy above.