Civilisations (Episode 1, BBC2 Thursday 1st March, 9:00pm) is about history in two senses. On the one hand there is the story of the hard-to-define stuff we call civilisation, now quite rightly pluralised to include other cultures, on the other there is the history of television itself. It is nearly fifty years since Kenneth Clark fronted his series and in doing so defined an emerging television genre: factual. Not the same as documentaries, please note, factual programmes, at their best, reflect and even question all aspects of our history and culture. Civilisation, together with its stylistically slightly more innovative sibling, The Ascent of Man (please make your own allowances for the gendered title), created the archetype for the new category. Suddenly it was possible for television to present official culture in a digestible form. In pubs, conversations could be overheard concerning the psychological impact of quantum mechanics in the early twentieth century, or the nature of Giorgione’s unique approach to composition. Well, you get the idea.
So the question must be, how will Civilisations bridge the gap between its singular antecedent and the present? How does Simon Schama compare with Kenneth Clark? Uniquely, the series does have two other presenters, Mary Beard and David Olusoga, of whom we have every right to expect great things, but it is Episode One which sets the tone of the series and so it is on the shoulders of Schama (who gets an extra consultant credit) that the burden must rest.
Clark was sometimes accused of being condescending but in fact all he did was to present from the standpoint of someone who knew more than the viewer. He was, after all, mostly right about that and he did manage not to look smug about it. His series in fact ends not with Western triumphalism but with a note of concern. He is worried that the faith in industrial capitalism (which he calls Heroic Materialism) has failed, leaving in its place an effervescence of contradictory and shallow beliefs.
In the intervening fifty years contradiction and shallowness have not abated while, in the world of the small screen, in corner offices and cutting rooms, factual television has been allowed to crash. The genre has filled up with presenters who simper and grimace while dressing up for no reason, posing archly and repeating platitudes. In every shot they walk with desperate purposefulness while spitting at the camera, claiming that they are on some otiose, imagined journey to find their ‘favourite Pharaoh’. Trivial, commonplace facts are repeated over and over and then (where appropriate) repeated all over again after the ad break. Frantic excursions to learn how to make pasta or to dress up as a surgeon (looking at you, Professor Beard) only serve to advertise the programme makers’ lack of faith in their content. Don’t get me started. OK, there are still honourable exceptions but they have to swim hard against the rip tide of mediocrity that now informs the factual genre.
Now something unexpected happened in the making of Civilisations (Ep 1): Schama actually listened to the advice of the shade of Lord C, who was presumably perched on his shoulder. It probably helps if you are a ghost if you want to accomplish that trick. It is in matters of style that the programme most displays a resemblance to its ancestor. No desperate walking and talking. No pointless repetition. No ‘tease’ – that is the term they use for the bit at the beginning where the presenter tells the audience everything of interest that is going to be in the programme (it’s often a short sequence). This programme kept a steady pace, managed to say things only once, most of which were interesting, and never felt the need to employ the word ‘incredible’. Incredible.
Even the subject matter is strikingly Clarkian. Despite a nod to China and Mexico the story is really about the development of Art in the West. Schama does seem to conflate civilisation with art whilst making no acknowledgement that that in itself might be problematic. This introductory episode, therefore, turns out to be an interesting summary of the current state of knowledge about the prehistoric origins of what we commonly call art.
Credit must go to director, Tim Neil, and film editor, Andrea Carnevali, for distancing us from the most irritating aspects of Schama’s presentation. He has a jumpiness and tendency to overuse street language that, left unchecked, begins to smack of desperation. Thanks to intelligent lighting and the complete lack of walking and talking we are able to sense his enthusiasm while still being able to listen to the dialogue. You see, you can do it if you try.
The programme even included segments in which moving pictures and music are left to carry thoughts and feelings without the aid of commentary. Such sequences were once common in factual programmes; the original Civilisation has many. Now they have all but disappeared. The reason is that veteran executive producers from Current Affairs, steeled in the school of Panorama, fear the commentary-free sequence just as dodgy politicians fear the anger of the mob. In both cases the unregulated outflow of feelings threatens their authority. But nobody gets injured in a music sequence, as viewers of Civilisations may now verify.
Most of my praise of this episode has been negative: there is a pleasing absence of awfulness. And I must confess that this is not an innovative film, but it may yet be a sign. If someone up there really does understand what not to do when making a factual programme then perhaps that knowledge will trickle down, with beneficial results for viewer and programme-maker alike. Hope so.
All images ©BBC