This ‘Civilisation’ update misses the point

Civilisations (BBC)

Civilisations has arrived. The Beeb’s “landmark” documentary series is billed as a sequel (of sorts) to Kenneth Clark’s seminal series Civilisation, which aired in the late 1960s. With a presenting team of Simon Schama, Mary Beard and David Olusoga, this nine-parter sees each episode offer up a globetrotting essay on art history. Schama has been given five hour-long slots to present, with the other two presenters fobbed off with a couple each.

Much of the art on show in the three episodes I watched, including cave paintings in northern Spain, Olmec statues and ivory masks from Benin, is stunning. Unfortunately, the analysis is all rather scattershot and, at times, too superficial.

Beard is particularly guilty of making banal observations where deep insight is called for. She bases the entire second episode on the groundbreaking idea that the viewer is as important as the artist. Her conclusion on the Terracotta Army? It was a display of imperial might, in case you weren’t sure. She also throws in a ludicrous suggestion that a man who defiled a statue of Aphrodite was a rapist because the goddess “hadn’t given consent”.

Clearly a lot of cash has been chucked at Civilisations. At times, with its grand soundtrack and sweeping shots of jungles and deserts, it feels like an episode of Planet Earth, except in this one the camera doesn’t come to rest on a pride of lions out hunting, but on Simon Schama staring earnestly at a bit of Mayan wall.

And the series as a whole completely misses the USP of the original Civilisation, in which Clark mapped out the development of Western culture, offering trenchant opinions on the quality of the art along the way.

Clearly this sequel, with its continent-hopping approach, is a response to the criticism that Clark’s version was too Eurocentric, that it ignored the art being created in other corners of the globe.

Yet, in trying to broaden the scope, Civilisations sacrifices the unity of voice, argument and chronology that made its predecessor so good. It would have been more sensible for, say, Olusoga to have had an entire series to explore the history of African art. At least then we’d have been given something coherent to follow.