Tag Archives: Adam Curtis

Civilisation, the Sistine Chapel of BBC documentaries

23 Feb

1969 was the year British media changed forever. It was the year Rupert Murdoch bought The News of the World. More than any other press baron, he is responsible for the culture that still pervades the newspaper industry to this day. But 1969 should be remembered for a more important reason. It was the year Sir Kenneth Clark produced Civilisation, the greatest documentary ever aired. It was as if high culture had let out its final gasp, and what a heavenly gasp it was.

David Attenborough, controller of BBC Two at the time, commissioned the series. It was to be an overwhelming 13 episodes long, 50 minutes each. It set the blueprint for future programmes such as Alistair Cooke’s America (1972), Jacob Bronowski’s Ascent of Man (1973) and Sir David’s own Life on Earth (1979). It was David Attenborough’s bold move and the series’s subsequent popularity that made these three stirring oeuvres possible. If there has to be a hero of anti-elitism, it should not be Rupert Murdoch for his tawdry rags that insult the intelligence of the great British public; it should be Sir David Attenborough, the man who believed high culture should be made accessible to everyone, not just toffs.

What makes it so enjoyable to watch is the thought that it couldn’t be made today. If you pitched the idea of a series on the history of Western civilisation that was in toto nearly half a day in length, the BBC commissioner would sling you out before you could say Lorenzo de’ Medici.

And the style is completely different. Watch a clip: the camera stays focused without cutting away for far longer than any TV clip today. Television today – be it Come Dancing, reality TV, documentaries, dramas – is cut to such an extent it’s like watching a 24-hour Adam Curtis doc. The camera cannot stay still. Anyone would think humans had the attention span of an adolescent carp.

That’s what I love about it: it’s slow. I reckon half the film consists of Sir Kenneth Clark pausing, strolling, then pausing; the other half consists of the camera panning along some work of wonder as trumpets parp or choirs wail.

Sir Kenneth makes the film. Just so you know, Sir Kenneth is not the Tory rotundity in government today; he is the art historian and father of dirty diarist Alan Clark MP. He has plummy vowels, wears tweed in every clime and is unsure about next to everything. He starts most sentences with “I suppose”. He pronounces iron as “ahr-rn”. He is the private school tutor of every chap’s dreams.

He has quirks of genius. Which other BBC presenter would say, “Please allow me two minutes’ digression on the subject of tulips”? Who else could say with such de-haut-en-bas conviction, “Opera… is one of the oddest inventions of Western man”? He adds, “Why are people prepared to sit silently for three hours listening to a performance of which they do not understand a word?” He calls the upper classes of previous generations “ignorant as swans”. How many times have I wanted to say in a debate, “At this point I reveal myself in my true colours as a stick-in-the-mud.”

Wisdom seeps from his skin. I shall post up my favourite clips tomorrow. But for now, these words should be quoted to every economist, historian, commentator and ideologist. Perhaps they could be in the foreword to Mr Ferguson’s similarly-titled book:

We have no idea where we are going and sweeping, confident articles on the future seem to me the most disreputable form of public utterance.  Scientists who are really qualified to speak keep their mouths shut.

His thoughts on economics are most intriguing. He says, “I don’t say much about economics in this programme, chiefly because I don’t understand them.” But he does have an opinion. He pronounces capitalism as one might pronounce capitulation. And that is broadly his view.

He visits the Queen’s House in Greenwich, the edifice now overshadowed by Canary Wharf. “Every civilisation has its nemesis,” he says, looking over the empty space where the cathedrals of capitalism now lie. By chance Sir Christopher Wren founded the white wonders of Greenwich the same year the Bank of England was established.

And the light of experience narrowed its beam so that the grand design of Greenwich became simply a waste of money.

We come to a final question, one which niggles even the oldest of viewers: can we, in the 21st century, properly speak of “civilisation”? It seems to be one of those out-of-date words used primarily by British colonists to justify the expansion of Anglo-Saxon power. It marks the boundary between those the elite considered barbarous (Indians, Africans, Aborigines) and those considered civilised (mostly white, mostly educated, mostly tea-drinking sorts). Lefties would say the boundary between civilisation and barbarity, order and chaos, good and evil, lies not between nations but in our own hearts.

I have a great deal of sympathy with this position. But are we really to conclude from this, like Mrs T in her oft-quoted line, there is no such thing as civilisation? Surely not. I can think of many real and imagined bodies of men which are barbarous: a society which represses all forms of intellectual and personal freedom – that is barbarism; a nation which whips itself into bloodthirsty frenzies for war and conquest – that is barbarism; a people whose only goals in life are short-term gratification – that is barbarism. And if barbarity exists, so must its opposite: civilisation.

Let us not forget what Gandhi said when asked what he thought of Western civilisation: “I think it would be a very good idea.” Gandhi is not denying civilisation exists. His point is that it does exist: and the West isn’t one of them. How then do we define it? Sir Kenneth Clark defines civilisation in terms of “creative power” and “enlargement of human faculties”. That sounds like a good definition to me.