The problem with Civilisations? Too many words, not enough structure

The BBC documentary series needs to cut the volleys of verbiage and find a story, says Radio Times deputy TV editor David Butcher

Civilisations (BBC, EH)

There’s a scene in episode three of Civilisations when the great Simon Schama stands in front of an ancient Chinese painting and worries aloud: “When you’re in the presence of a bona fide masterpiece, which this is, words somehow struggle to be formed.”

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Oh, do give over. Schama isn’t someone whose words ever struggle to form. He’s a gushing font of ideas, and always has been.

When Schama addresses the camera, he speaks in those exquisite paragraphs that are laid out like formal gardens for us to stroll through and admire. (I met him once and he was much the same in person, I’m glad to say.)

No, the problem here is anything but words struggling to form. They’re forming all over the place, filling the programme from start to finish. Great big ones come flying at us like shells from a howitzer: “equipoise”, “algorithmic”, “superabundance”. Chains of adjectives rain down: “ecstatic, radiant, mystical, passionate…” Stop! It’s too much!

Bear in mind, I love this stuff. I was massively looking forward to Civilisations. But in practice I’m finding it heavy-going. Lovely, obviously, and very high-minded, but it feels like eating old-school porridge – good for you but not a treat.

Even typing those words makes me feel sad and slightly disloyal to a BBC that is clearly going the extra mile to “dumb up”.

The catch is: yes, the programmes are terrifically edifying and easy on the eye but… there’s no life to them. They’re like extracts from classy gallery tours cut and pasted together. (I don’t think it’s Schama’s fault, by the way; Mary Beard’s episode last week had the same problem.)

What’s the structure supposed to be? In each programme we see great cultural gems arrayed before us like a string of pearls, except there’s no thread, no story, just one thing after another.

So this week, Schama enthuses about the landscapes of Chinese master Wang Meng; then he enthuses about Islamic garden carpets; then he enthuses about Veronese frescoes; then Brueghel, Jan van Goyen, Winslow Homer, Ansel Adams…

(Interestingly for a programme on landscape, there’s no mention of Constable or Turner, which may be a deliberate bid to avoid obviousness but seems odd in a British series.)

Normally, I tend to switch off during the bits of TV filler in docs. You know, the scenes where they show the presenter strolling thoughtfully down a street or up some temple steps, or a superfluous shot of sunlight glinting on a river. But in Civilisations I was dying for some of that, anything to break up the volleys of verbiage.

Few people on the planet enthuse more persuasively about art than Schama and Beard, but if that’s all they do for an hour solidly, this viewer starts to wilt. It’s meant to be TV, not a lantern lecture.

I hate to say it, but as missed opportunities go, this looks like a whopper.

Civilisations continues Thursday at 9pm on BBC1

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This article was originally published in the 10-16 March 2018 issue of Radio Times magazine