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San rock paintings (6000 BCE-1900 BC), South Africa (©BBC/NUTOPIA)


What is striking about these series, broadcast in the 1970s, is their confidence and ambition — big historical stories told in multi-part series, either 13 or 26 episodes, unfolding in chronological order. This was not unique to television. Think of major 20th-century books on the history of culture: Van Loon’s The Story of Mankind, Auerbach’s Mimesis, Gombrich’s The Story of Art and his Little History of the World. They all start in the distant past and move forwards to the present.

There was an obvious problem with these books and TV series. They were all written or presented by white European men and they largely told a Eurocentric story. They were too white, too male and too Eurocentric. They didn’t have much time for other cultures or for women (though The World at War obviously gave due prominence to the campaigns in North Africa and the Pacific). Civilisation, in particular, has come in for growing criticism for these omissions since it was first shown.

When the BBC came to produce a new version of Civilisation the first decision was to change the title, emphasise diversity and  choose three presenters, one white man, one black man, and one woman. Civilisations would be as much about Islamic, Indian and Chinese art as it would be about European art. So far, so good.

But how to slice the cake? They obviously couldn’t produce one episode on Islamic art, one on Indian art, and so on. And what about chronology? How could they connect developments happening in different places at the same time?

Civilisations tried to solve these problems with a set of different essays which more or less move forward through time. The problem, though, is the lack of a clear narrative. In episode 2 Mary Beard looks at the human figure from Olmec statues, 3,000 years ago, to Egyptian figures in the Nile Valley, to Greece, Roman Egypt and the Chinese terracotta army, before returning via Greek sculpture to the Olmec statues. What do these have in common apart from the fact that they are all ancient civilisations, albeit thousands of miles and thousands of years apart? What do the Chinese terracotta soldiers have in common with the great Egyptian statues of the Nile Valley? What is interesting about the differences between them? Beautifully filmed, the programme just feels like one thing after another, a sort of crazy Swan Hellenic Cruise, five civilisations in 60 minutes.

It doesn’t help that the analysis is curiously old-fashioned. There is a dig at the pernicious legacy of Winckelmann’s idealisation of Greek civilisation, “a narrow way of seeing” (see this issue's Underrated on Winckelmann) but otherwise much of this could have come from Clark’s series almost 50 years ago. Beard is a feminist, but perhaps the most powerful sequences in the programme are about male figures: Rameses II, a brutalised and scarred Greek boxer from 300 BC, and The Dying Gaul. The critique of Winckelmann, with two very short clips of Clark on the Apollo Belvedere, is over in a few moments. It raises an important question but it doesn’t make for a sustained critical engagement and is the only time Civilisations explicitly refers to Clark’s series.
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