Posted by: Gregoryno6 | September 6, 2014

Revisiting Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation.

I could have said ‘reviewing’ instead, but ‘revisiting’ seems more appropriate. 45 years after it was first broadcast, watching this series feels like a travelogue from another planet.

But there are moments too when Clark could be talking about the right here and now.

Kenneth Clark

Looking at those great works of Western man, and remembering all that he has achieved in philosophy, poetry, science, law-making, it does seem hard to believe that European civilisation can ever vanish. And yet, you know, it has happened once. All the life-giving human activities that we lump together under the word “civilisation” have been obliterated once in Western Europe – when the barbarians ran over the Roman Empire.

For two centuries, the heart of European civilisation almost stopped beating. We got through by the skin of our teeth.

In the last few years, we’ve developed an uneasy feeling that this could happen again. And advanced thinkers who, even in Roman times, thought it fine to gang up with the barbarians, have begun to question if civilisation is worth preserving.

This is why it seems to me a good moment to look at some of the ways in which man has shown himself to be an intelligent, creative, orderly and compassionate animal.

Clark’s view was unashamedly focused on Europe. He made no secret of that. The full title of the series was Civilisation: A Personal View. And though he was criticised, there was not much effort that I’ve found by his critics to answer him. John Berger’s book and tv series Ways of Seeing were intended as a sort-of reply, from the Marxist viewpoint. There is an excerpt from Berger’s book here. If there’s one reason why Clark is remembered and Berger is mostly forgotten, you’ll find it at that link (hint: typical leaden Marxist academic prose.)

The BBC has plans to remake the series. Why? The answer may partly be that Ken just isn’t right for today’s viewers. In the words of Douglas Adams, Kenneth Clark is so unhip it’s a wonder his bum doesn’t fall off. But the man speaks with authority, and lucidity, about that which he knows and loves. Civilisation is the work of one who wants to share something precious with his audience.

I’ve tried watching a few docos from the BBC recently – I can’t even remember what they were about now. The lasting impression is of a tidy half hour’s worth of material padded up to an hour with fancy camera work and me-me-me commentary from the presenters. The presenters have been convinced somehow that they are the stars of the show. I don’t think it required much work. This is their adventure, kiddies, and we’re just lucky they’re taking us along for the ride. One particularly obnoxious host is a self-proclaimed atheist and vegetarian, which makes her a great asset to both the Vatican and beef exporters worldwide.

It was the cretinous pronouncement of Senator Whish-Wilson that we should avoid the word ‘terrorist’ that sent me back to Clark.  There’s a line from later in his opening comments that seems to be addressed in W-W and his ilk. A polite if oblique warning against condemning that which has nutured you.

People sometimes tell me that they prefer barbarism to civilisation. l doubt if they’ve given it a long enough trial.

Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation is available on DVD, as is the book derived from the series. Your local library or video hire might keep them. Recommended.


  1. No form of barbarism in the past in Europe of anywhere else ever matched the modern barbaric civilization currently prevailing in Africa. Semantically you can of course not say that the words barbarism and civilization are synonyms but in practice the worst of the two is now the norm.

    On 9/6/14, The mind is an unexplored country.

    • Are you talking about Boko Haram, Ike?

  2. No Greg, I was not referring to Bokkom [that’s how we call him] but his kind is what I had in mind in a way.

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