Arts Arts & Books

Why Civilisation has lasted 50 years

Kenneth Clark’s TV masterpiece was about man’s fight against a loss of faith, says Ed West

“What is civilisation?” an erudite English gentleman asks the camera. “I don’t know … but I think I can recognise it when I see it.” And then, turning around to Notre-Dame de Paris behind him, he adds: “And I’m looking at it now.”

It was 50 years ago this month that BBC Two viewers were first treated to Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation: A Personal View, a show that came to define the new highbrow channel, inspired similar epics by Alistair Cooke and Jacob Bronowski, and is today one of just two 20th-century documentaries in the Amazon bestsellers list (the other being The World at War). Only last year the BBC commissioned a sort of re-boot starring Mary Beard, and it’s a rare old TV series that gets long New Yorker articles discussing what it means.

This lasting popularity is despite the fact that Civilisation is itself almost a relic from another culture, of a patrician figure extolling a succession of white males in an unambiguous celebration of Western culture. Indeed, even at the time it was rather out-of-touch for a BBC that had fully embraced the great 1960s social changes under director-general Hugh Greene.

Clark came from a Scottish family which had grown rich from cotton, and his father was among the Edwardian “idle rich”: the perfect environment in which a young boy could develop an interest in art history. At 27, he was appointed director of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, and only three years later was running the National Gallery; after which King George V himself asked Clark to take charge as Surveyor of the King’s Pictures, personally visiting him after he had initially declined.

The future television celebrity changed the idea of what galleries should be, from mere places of conservation to centres of the public imagination. He opened up the National Gallery at weekends and evenings, turning it into a public treasure. This rather contradictory patrician elitist – who loved bringing art to the masses – would later take this same skill to television.

In the 1950s Lew Grade at ITV intuitively saw that Clark would shine as a presenter, and the latter went on to make several documentaries for the station. Then, when BBC Two was launched with the intention of elevating the public’s minds, the controller David Attenborough invited Clark to lunch and asked him about making a programme. According to biographer James Stourton, Clark “was munching his smoked salmon rather apathetically when Attenborough used the word ‘civilisation’ ”. Clark then “felt what used to be known in books of devotion as ‘a call’ ”.

After filming in 117 locations across 13 countries, and at a cost of £500,000, episode one, “The Skin of Our Teeth”, went out on February 23, 1969. It is compelling television, and concludes at Skellig Michael, the inhospitable island off the coast of Kerry where the image of birds perilously clinging to the rock, surrounded by a dangerous and unforgiving sea, stood as a metaphor for the perilous situation facing Latin Christendom after the Romans had grown bored and tired. “If a new civilisation was to be born it would have to face the Atlantic,” Clark says. “For 100 years after 550AD groups of monks huddled off the coast of Ireland.”

Clark described himself as “a stick-in-the-mud”. He said: “I hold a number of beliefs that have been repudiated by the liveliest intellects of our time.” Among them was “the God-given genius of certain individuals”.

He was, quite obviously, sympathetic to Catholicism and deplored the vandalism wrought by Luther’s followers. At one point during filming, while carrying the Cross of Lothair, dating from about AD 1000, to the altar of Aachen Cathedral, he broke down in tears, to the shock of the crew. It is perhaps no surprise that, after a lifetime of studying the great Renaissance artists, Lord Clark sent for a Catholic priest on his deathbed.

John Betjeman said of Civilisation that it ‘‘is the best telly I have ever seen’’, and it was hugely popular with the public, with Clark receiving hundreds of adoring letters. Among these were more than one from suicidal viewers who said the show gave them renewed reason to live; Clark cried when he read them.

This does not seem so excessive, for while Civilisation is a visual feast, from the Gothic cathedral of Chartres to the early Renaissance palace at Urbino, Clark’s masterpiece is essentially about the real meaning of civilisation, a struggle against despair, boredom and loss of faith. Civilisation requires confidence, he told us, “confidence in the society in which one lives, belief in its philosophy, belief in its laws, and confidence in one’s own mental powers”. I suspect that this deep – and troubling – truth explains Civilisation’s enduring popularity, half a century later.

Ed West is a journalist and author. His latest book, The Path of the Martyrs: Charles Martel, The Battle of Tours and the Birth of Europe, is published by Sharpe Books