How many Civilisations do we need?

I am ploughing my way through the BBC series Civilisations and not much enjoying the experience. Nor are many other people. Ratings have nosedived since the first episode. The whole series was put on iPlayer early in its run, which looks like an admission of defeat.  

Nonetheless, I continue to watch it. I do this because I love the BBC, for all its numerous faults, and think it admirable that it continues to commission series with such ambition and to put them on prime-time TV. The least I can do in return is to spend an hour a week helping the BBC to feel better about itself.

While the series is on, and in the absence of much that is compelling on the screen, the mind has ample time to wander, and to ponder why the series is so flat and how it might have been done better.

One might as well start with the blindingly obvious. It is now unacceptable to have such a series presented by one ageing white man, along with his patriarchal and Eurocentric baggage. So let’s balance him with an ageing white woman, to deflect some of that criticism. Not good enough. Still too old and too white. So let’s also have a younger black guy to make sure we’ve covered all the bases.

Presenters are always a matter of taste. I was encouraged when Simon Schama began the first episode with a magnificent tour de force on why Isis’s destruction of Palmyra matters. Since then, to this viewer, he has become progressively more grating and contentious. In fact, of the three, only David Olusoga can be said to have enhanced his reputation. The main problem with the presenters, however, relates not to their individual merits, but to the use of all three of them, interspersed between episodes. The result is not a coherent narrative that happens to have three presenters, but a complete hotch-potch.

It is significant, and strange, that all three presenters are historians. Both the new and original series have focused on art, architecture and artefacts as exemplars of culture and civilisation. It is therefore odd that, this time, the BBC has chosen three presenters none of whom can count any of these subjects as their primary passion. The original Civilisation illuminated history through the study of art. This one features three historians using art as a prop for their historical viewpoints.

There have been complaints about adding the ‘s’ to Civilisation. Here I disagree with the critics. One change for the better since 1969, when the original series was aired, is our awareness of other civilisations, past and present. We live in a multi-cultural society. For the BBC to have produced, now, an update of the ascent of white, western culture, would have been absurd.

But that change has created problems that go to the heart of what is wrong with this series, and the clue is in that very ‘s’. Were it the case that there has been a single, unified civilisation from the dawn of time to today, and that, in our conceit, we recognised only the European element of it, that could have been corrected by a broader treatment and with no ‘s’ on the end. But there has not been one unified civilisation. There have been many. Hence the ‘s’.

In one sense, there have been too many civilisations. If it is no longer acceptable to present the story of a single culture which – despite its recent broadening – still embodies civilisation for most people living in Europe, where does one draw the line? How many civilisations do we need? Logically, it should be one of them or all of them. The approach adopted by this series is to remain Eurocentric, but with a smattering of everything else to leaven it.

Some civilisations have influenced others and there has been a degree of cross-pollination. But mostly each one has stood alone, in its own part of the world, in its own moment of time. That is why the plural is needed. The understanding of different global cultures is largely a recent phenomenon, as is the process of their intertwining. To compare the expressions of one culture with the expressions of another, or by the standards of another, when neither would have had much awareness of the other, is essentially meaningless. Time and again, this problem is evidenced by the tenuous links between sequences in the episodes.

As the series switches back and forth, from one part of the world to another, from one epoch to another, from one artefact to another, it suggests to the viewer a connectedness that is misplaced and does not convince because it is not true. The story of civilisation should be the stories of the birth, rise, flowering and eclipse of individual civilisations over time. Of those stories, we get almost no sense. The result is confusion.

But the biggest criticism relates to perspective. There isn’t one. The standpoint of Kenneth Clark was personal, passionate and coherent. It was criticised for its elitism, even at the time, and it would not be tenable today, at least without a counterbalance. But the new series is neither personal (from an overall point of view), nor passionate, nor coherent, and that is worse.

To a large extent, this again stems from having three presenters and, moreover, presenters who do not interact in any way. If one person cannot be trusted to represent civilisation, how many does it take? Whatever the answer, it is not three. It could be hundreds, if the budgets, the airtime and the public interest existed. In their absence, it is best being one. Or, perhaps, several minor series, each presented by a single person, developing a personal, impassioned narrative. Passion is the point.

While Civilisations has been on air, I have been re-watching Andrew Graham-Dixon’s Art of Spain and Art of France, both immeasurably better programmes. The BBC is fortunate to have one of the most knowledgeable, most accessible, most impassioned art historians of this or any other age. How it has contrived to make Civilisations without him is incomprehensible. Do we have a turf war between BBC2 and BBC4 to thank for this?

I look forward, in the near future, to seeing a whole series of W1A devoted to the making of Civilisations. It will be vastly more interesting, and more revealing, than the series itself.