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What went wrong with BBC2's Civilisations?

"I have loved it (in parts) and been infuriated by it (in larger parts)": David Butcher on why the BBC's landmark series just hasn't worked

Mary Beard presenting Civilisations, BBC Pictures, SL
Published: Thursday, 26th April 2018 at 1:21 pm

So how was it for you? BBC2’s Civilisations ends tonight and if you’re one of the hardy, arty souls who stuck with it all the way, you deserve some kind of medal. Possibly a bronze Etruscan medal with an exquisite relief on it of a kind Mary Beard could enthuse about.


But let’s face it, for such a whopping series, Civilisations was a whopping let-down. I have loved it (in parts) and been infuriated by it (in larger parts). Some criticism of the show has been daft and wrong-headed, but the trouble is, so were many of the editorial decisions that went into it. The whole affair left presenters Beard, Simon Schama and David Olusoga looking like they were unsteadily perched atop the broadcasting world’s most well-intentioned white elephant.

But let’s start with the one thing that wasn't wrong with Civilisations – the thing conservative critics complained of – that it was wrong to include so much art from around the world: 'Kenneth Clarke, in his original 1960s series, never climbed Inca statues or tried to interest us in Maori portraits!' 'It’s multiculturalism run riot!' 'It’s tired BBC political correctness!' 'Sack the DG!'

Nonsense, of course. The idea that you could do a landmark cultural history series in 2018 and only talk about canonical artworks from Western Europe, maybe with a nod to North America, would never wash. Going global isn’t an excess of PC, it’s getting real.

No, that wasn’t what was wrong with the series. But plenty of other things were. For brevity’s sake, let’s have a numbered summary…

1. The slow beginning

It started badly: the first two programmes were the weakest. Things got better, with Olusoga (when he finally turned up) delivering sharp programmes and Schama hitting peak form. But by then half the audience had left. You can’t afford to open a series this important on a low.

2. The patchwork of presenters

It was bizarre to shuffle presenters. In the end Civilisations was mainly Schama’s show, with guest spots from Beard and Olusoga. But why? If you must share it around, at least give them each the same number of episodes, or have them take turns. This felt like an all-star art-history tag-team. Who’s up this week? Who knows?

3. The overwhelming volume

They tried to cram waaaay too much into each edition, making it dense and stodgy as a viewing experience. There was no light and shade, just one gorgeous thing after another: “Behold this exquisite artefact from Venice…Behold this exquisite artefact from India… Behold this exquisite artefact from Delft…” and so on for an hour, until we felt like geese force-fed a glut of aesthetic goodies, or tourists on the world’s most exhausting gallery tour.

4. The pitch

The producers were so keen to defend against possible charges of dumbing down, they made the show high-minded and serious to the point of being a turn-off. I love nothing better than a highbrow doc, but Civilisations started to feel like a lecture, like we should take notes and think of smart questions to ask.

5. The obvious omissions

Ranging across cultures and continents was essential; digging out gems most viewers would never have seen before – bronzes from Benin, Japanese erotica, Bavarian ceilings – was great. But the programme wilfully ignored the obvious. OK, so you might feel Constable is a cliché but not to mention him at all in a British programme about landscape art felt perverse.

6. The grandiosity

The series trumpeted that it was all about “the best things our species is capable of creating” and “the light from humanity’s vital spark”. No, it was about a part of that: art and architecture. There’s no mention of music, literature, theatre, poetry, dance – also some of the best things people create – which would be fine if the series made clear what its scope was and didn’t claim to be about the whole span of, ah yes, civilisation.

I could go on. But the series has taken enough of a kicking – not least in the ratings, which have declined to around 700,000 viewers. For a series that took four years to come to the screen and burnt through a very thick wad of BBC budget, that’s not enough.

I loved Kenneth Clarke’s original series and was hugely looking forward to this sequel. And for all its failings, I’d still recommend watching tonight’s finale on art in the contemporary world. It’s flawed and frustating, but one brilliant scene where Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang creates a new work using coloured gunpowder makes it all worth it.

In the end only the BBC could create a televisual folly on quite the scale of Civilisations because only the BBC would try. Maybe we should be glad it still does.


Civilisations concludes on Thursday 26th April at 9pm on BBC2. Civilisations on Your Doorstep – a companion programme hosted by Mary Beard – airs on Saturday 28th April, also at 9pm on BBC2


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