Friday, March 04, 2011

CIVILISATION: A PERSONAL VIEW BY KENNETH CLARK was a groundbreaking series anyway you look at it. However, it is only the first of about 3 or 4 documentary television series which made a huge impact on my life. I love documentaries and watch a ton of them; but documentary series on TV are a relatively rare breed sadly and I don't know why. And unfortunately, they have been co-opted in recent decades by the rather execrable, historically inaccurate Ken Burns fiascoes. But when it comes to my favourites -- ones I revisit again and again -- I would number among them Sir K's CIVILISATION, Carl Sagan's COSMOS in 1980, the GREAT BOOKS series from the 1990s narrated by Donald Sutherland and Simon Schama's 2000 HISTORY OF BRITAIN. I first saw CIVILISATION in the early 80s (after, in fact, having first seen COSMOS during its original 1980 premiere) and it was probably my first REAL encounter with art history. It no doubt heavily influenced my decision to minor in art history in college.
CIVILISATION burst forth in glorious colour in 1969 on BBC-2 in a deliberate effort to bring colour television to the masses; up till then the idea of colour TV was held to be a dubious prospect with fears of garish colour dragging down all efforts. However, David Attenborough, then head of BBC-2 programming, was determined to do colour and do it right. He therefore set about launching an arts programme in cohoots with director Michael Gill and co-producer Peter Montagnon to be shot in incredibly-more-expensive 35mm. But who to write and host the thing? Attenborough had no other thought than Sir Kenneth Clark (later Lord Clark) whose impeccable reputation as a preeminent scholar (based on seminal books on Leonardo and "The Nude") seemed ideal. Sir K, however, was a bit of a hard sell. For some reason, he had gotten it into his head that his fast approaching 70th birthday would spell the end of any and all meaningful contributions to art scholarship. His wife, Lady Clark, also was dead set against his wasting time on a television series while there were more "important" projects her husband could be devoting himself to. Sir K actually turned the TV project down . . . gently and none too definitively. A lunch in the BBC canteen convinced Clark that the Beeb was solidly behind the project and he relented; especially when the concept of the series being "a personal view" was floated. This would eliminate Sir K's reservations as to how he could possibly cover everything in a 13-part series. Whatever didn't fit (such as most of Spain's contribution to Western Art) was simply ignored! Yes, they got a lot of stick for that policy but there was really no other way to carry on with the series.
The companion book to the series which I've had since the early 80s.
The "Personal View" angle of CIVILISATION is probably what appeals to me most. After all, 3 of the 4 documentary series I mentioned above feature an on-screen host taking you through the programme; that host, whether Kenneth Clark, Carl Sagan or Simon Schama, can also be described as "quirky" and a little bit eccentric. More the better! Clark's obvious credentials as an authority of Western art were never in doubt but its his (sometimes barely contained) enthusiasm for his subject which carries the viewer through the series and spurs a lively interest for the subject at hand. How could one hope not to be charmed by Clark's enthusiasm for Rodin's statue of Balzac or his genuine hurt over the Protestant habit of knocking the heads off carvings of the Life of the Virgin in a Catholic Church? He genuinely cares and, through him, we care as well. And more, we understand what we're looking at and why it's good. And also there are the priceless moments when Sir K lets fly with his "quirky" observations. At one point he describes a painting of wild grasses by Durer, "much admired", he states, as reminding him of the back of a box containing a stuffed animal toy. Or when Clark states that the fact that Lord Byron wrote quite a lot of bad poetry isn't as bad as the fact that it was his bad poetry that brought him great fame! Priceless. And this attitude, far from seeming stodgy, shows Clark is down-to-earth despite his patrician aura. In the final episode, he even describes himself as a "stick in the mud". Someone who takes himself too seriously would not make those kind of comments. The art, however, he takes very seriously . . . if it is worthy.
The other aspect of the series that cannot be overstated is the wealth of marvelous art lovingly poured over by the camera. Some wag at the time poked fun at the series by lampooning Clark's on screen hosting in this way: "Here I am in front of the beautiful gothic Cathedral of X which you can't see because I'm standing in front of it". This, of course, isn't true. . .we always get a supremely good look at every painting, sculpture and building. Then there is also the extreme care taken with the music; chosen from the same time period as the artwork we are seeing and complimenting the visuals perfectly in every instance. When it comes to that rare instance when civilisation brings us to England, Clark presents Shakespeare to us by actually presenting Shakespeare -- we get renowned Shakespearean actors like Eric Porter and Ian Richardson (as well as an unbilled, impossibly young Patrick Stewart) performing scenes from KING LEAR, MACBETH and HAMLET. The HAMLET sequence in particular has always been a favourite of mine and I wish the BBC had filmed a complete Richardson HAMLET performance of the play at the time. Hell, Sir K even manages to make my intense dislike for Rococo art mellow to a mild distaste. That's the mark of a true miracle worker!
CIVILISATION is a treasure trove of Western art and one can only wish in vain that there had been 26 episodes instead of a mere 13. The series was not only a very respected triumph in TV programming but it was also a huge hit with the casual viewer. Attenborough describes (in a new interview on the dvd) how, at the time, the rarity of households with colour TV sets saw the rise of "Civilisation viewing parties" each week as friends and neighbours would gather to watch each new episode -- and Attenborough sneakily got round the huge budget the programme was costing the BBC by scheduling each episode to air twice in one week thereby halfing the show's budget. Sir K also travelled to America where the series was shown multiple times a day in Washington's National Gallery. Lines stretched around the block and Clark was cheered, applauded and swarmed by an admiring public. So great was the adulation by the "man in the street" ordinary viewer that, according to his memoirs, Clark had to hide himself away in the men's room where he sat and wept for 15 minutes before composing himself. Such warmth and appreciation from the TV viewer was well-deserved. CIVILISATION, even today, stands as one of the finest, most satisfying television experiences ever aired.

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