Civilisation (TV series)


Title card from Episode 1, "The Skin of Our Teeth"
Also known as Civilisation: A Personal View by Kenneth Clark
Genre Documentary
Developed by Sir David Attenborough
Presented by Lord Kenneth Clark
Composer(s) Edwin Astley
Country of origin United Kingdom
Original language(s) English
No. of episodes 13
Producer(s) Michael Gill
Peter Montagnon
Running time 650 minutes
Picture format 4:3
Audio format Mono
First shown in BBC2
Original release 23 February (1969-02-23) – 18 May 1969 (1969-05-18)

Civilisation—in full, Civilisation: A Personal View by Kenneth Clark—is a television documentary series outlining the history of Western art, architecture and philosophy since the Dark Ages. The series was produced by the BBC and aired in 1969 on BBC2. Both the television scripts and the accompanying book version were written by art historian Lord Clark (1903–1983), who also presented the series. The series is considered to be a landmark in British Television's broadcasting of the visual arts.

The BBC remastered the original films onto HD in 2011. The series was re-broadcast on the BBC HD channel from 9 February to 4 May 2011, and shortly after was released on Blu-Ray.[1][2] In 2014 the BBC announced that it intended to make a new version of the series, sparking some debate as the best approach to take.[3]


Civilisation was one of the first United Kingdom television documentary series made in colour, commissioned during Sir David Attenborough's controllership of BBC2. For technical reasons, colour television was to come to BBC2 before BBC1 and, as a channel aimed at a more highbrow audience, it was appropriate to commission a major series about the arts.[4] It was Attenborough who prompted the title, but because of time constraints the series only covered Western Civilisation. Clark did not "suppose that anyone could be so obtuse as to think I had forgotten about the great civilisations of the pre-Christian era and the east", though the title continued to worry him.[5]

The series was directed by Michael Gill and co-produced by Gill and Peter Montagnon. The cinematographer was Kenneth McMillan. The music was composed by Edwin Astley.

At first, Clark's patrician attitudes annoyed Gill and the project was almost abandoned. However, Gill eventually formed a great respect for Clark's aesthetic judgement. During the filming on location, they formed an enduring friendship.[6] Civilisation was shot on 35mm film stock to ensure high-quality images. The production was carried out over a three-year period using locations in eleven countries,[7] the sequences shot in Paris were undertaken during the May 1968 riots.

The series was replayed on BBC Four and released in the Region 2 DVD area in 2005; a Region 1 set followed in 2006. The DVD release included a short interview with David Attenborough about the commissioning and production of the series.


The series won many awards and was sold to over sixty countries. The book which accompanied the series became a best seller in both the United Kingdom and the United States. The American sponsor Xerox paid $450,000 for a single film compilation of the series. Clark earned a peerage on the strength of the series;[6] taking the title Baron Clark of Saltwood; he was referred to by Private Eye and others facetiously as "Lord Clark of Civilisation".[8]

Some have criticised the series for using the title "Civilisation" when it dealt more narrowly with the civilisation of Western Europe. In this context, the series was considered by some to be Eurocentric, with African works of art acknowledged but seen as the products of superstition, rather than rational thought, and not evidence of civilisation. In the first episode of the series, "The Skin of Our Teeth," Clark acknowledged the vitality of Celtic art and the dynamism of Celtic society, but found that these were not enough to constitute what he meant by 'civilisation'. In the same episode, Clark made it clear that the series would be concerned with Western civilisation.[3] Furthermore, the series' subtitle, "A Personal View by Kenneth Clark", reinforced the subjectivity of the thoughts he expressed.

The series had difficulty at first in finding a home on American television, but success was assured after the National Gallery of Art in Washington put it on at lunchtime in the gallery theatre. This seated 300 people, but on the first day 24,000 turned up.[6] In 1970, the newly established Public Broadcasting Service aired the 13-part TV series in the US to high ratings.

The series' groundbreaking format, in which an expert presenter was combined with a lavish budget for a crew accompanying him around the world to illustrate his thesis over many episodes, with a heavily illustrated book version, became a template for later programmes such as Alistair Cooke's America (1972), Jacob Bronowski's The Ascent of Man (1973), Life on Earth (1979) and sequels by David Attenborough, and Robert Hughes' series on modern art The Shock of the New (1980).[9] John Berger's BBC series, Ways of Seeing (1972), was partly a response to Clark's views from a radical/Marxist viewpoint. A few years later Clark made a similar but shorter TV series, The Romantic Rebellion (book 1973), on the art of Romanticism.

Lord Clark attended an early public screening of one of the programmes and was received with huge applause and cheers. He was so overwhelmed by this recognition that he hid himself away in the lavatory and wept for fifteen minutes; he had long been respected in academic circles but was utterly taken aback by the response of the public at large.[4]

The heavily illustrated book of the series, Civilisation: A Personal View, essentially consisting of the TV scripts lightly adapted for this different format, was also a great success, and remains in print in 2013.

Series outline

Clark's accompanying book to Civilisation

1. The Skin of Our Teeth. In this the first episode Clark - travelling from Byzantine Ravenna to the Celtic Hebrides, from the Norway of the Vikings to Charlemagne's chapel at Aachen - tells his story of the Dark Ages, the six centuries following the collapse of the Roman Empire. Referred to in this episode:

John Ruskin Notre Dame de Paris Île de la Cité Île Saint-Louis Viking Ship Prow at the British Museum
Apollo Belvedere Maison Carrée at Nîmes Carlisle, Cumbria Pont du Gard Greco-Roman mysteries
Poem by Constantine P. Cavafy Barbarians Island of Skellig Michael Island of Iona Saint Columba
Celtic Christianity Book of Kells Lindisfarne Norsemen Saga
Romanesque art Alfred the Great Baptistère Saint-Jean Francia Clovis I
Charles Martel Charlemagne Alcuin of York Gokstad ship Gregory of Tours
Hagia Sophia Constantinople Basilica of San Vitaleat Revenna Aachen Cathedral Treasury Harun al-Rashid
Cross of Lothair Cologne Cathedral Cathedral of Trier Virgil Catholic Church

2. The Great Thaw. Clark tells of the sudden reawakening of European civilization in the 12th century. He traces it from its first manifestations in the Cluny Abbey to the Basilica of St Denis and finally to its high point, the building of Chartres Cathedral in the early 13th century. Referred to in this episode:

Indus River valley Ancient Egypt Ionia Canterbury Cathedral William II Sánchez of Gascony
Durham Cathedral Tournus Anselm of Canterbury Lanfranc Cluny Abbey
Hugh of Cluny Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Taranto Moissac Santiago de Compostela Church of Souillac
Bernard of Clairvaux Cistercians Pilgrimage True Cross Sistine Chapel
Reliquary Conques Saint Faith Antigone Bernard of Angers
Minstrel Jerusalem Byzantine Empire First Crusade Peter Abelard
Peter the Venerable Héloïse d'Argenteuil Vézelay Divine law Gothic architecture
Autun Cathedral Gislebertus Toulouse Cathedral Predella Tympanum (architecture)
Cluniac Reforms Judas Iscariot Eve Basilica of St Denis William Cornelius Van Horne
Canadian Pacific Railway Suger Godefroid de Claire Porphyry (geology) Louvre
Stephen, King of England Paul the Apostle French Revolution Plato Timaeus (dialogue)
Triforium Jesse Chartres Cathedral Tōdai-ji Siphnian Treasury
Romanesque architecture Henry of Blois Aristotle John of Salisbury Desiderius Erasmus
Charles the Bald Adoration of the Magi Saturnin Lazarus (bishop of Milan) Mary Magdalene
Dante Alighieri Parthenon

3. Romance and Reality. Beginning at a castle in the Loire and then traveling through the hills of Tuscany and Umbria to the cathedral baptistry at Pisa, Clark examines both the aspirations and achievements of the later Middle Ages in 14th century France and Italy.

4. Man: The Measure of all Things. Visiting Florence, Clark argues that European thought gained a new impetus from its rediscovery of its classical past in the 15th century. He also visits the palaces at Urbino and Mantua and other centers of (Renaissance) civilization.

5. The Hero as Artist. (List of Renaissance figures) Here Clark takes the viewer back to 16th century Papal Rome—noting the convergence of Christianity and antiquity. He discusses Michelangelo, Raphael, and Leonardo da Vinci; the courtyards of the Vatican; the rooms decorated for the Pope by Raphael; and the Sistine Chapel.

6. Protest and Communication. Clark takes the viewer back to the Reformation—to the Germany of Albrecht Dürer and Martin Luther and the world of the humanists Erasmus, Montaigne, and Shakespeare.

7. Grandeur and Obedience. Again in the Rome of Michelangelo and Bernini, Clark tells of the Catholic Church's fight against the Protestant north—the Counter-Reformation—and the Church's new splendour symbolised by the glory of St. Peter's.

8. The Light of Experience. Clark tells of new worlds in space and in a drop of water—worlds that the telescope and microscope revealed—and the new realism in the Dutch paintings of Rembrandt and others artists that took the observation of human character to a higher stage of development in the 17th century.

9. The Pursuit of Happiness. Clark talks of the harmonious flow and complex symmetries of the works of Bach, Handel, Haydn, and Mozart and the reflection of their music in the architecture of the Rococo churches and palaces of Bavaria.

10. The Smile of Reason. Clark discusses the Age of Enlightenment, tracing it from the polite conversations of the elegant Parisian salons of the 18th century to subsequent revolutionary politics, the great European palaces of Blenheim and Versailles, and finally Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello.

11. The Worship of Nature. Belief in the divinity of nature, Clark argues, usurped Christianity’s position as the chief creative force in Western civilization and ushered in the Romantic movement. Clark visits Tintern Abbey and the Alps and discusses the landscape paintings of Turner and Constable.

12. The Fallacies of Hope. Clark argues that the French Revolution led to the dictatorship of Napoleon and the dreary bureaucracies of the 19th century, and he traces the disillusionment of the artists of Romanticism—from Beethoven's music to Byron's poetry, Delacroix's paintings, and Rodin's sculpture.

13. Heroic Materialism. Clark concludes the series with a discussion of the materialism and humanitarianism of the 19th and 20th centuries. He visits the industrial landscape of 19th century England and the skyscrapers of 20th century New York City. He argues that the achievements of the engineers and scientists—such as Brunel and Rutherford—have been matched by those of the great reformers like Wilberforce and Shaftesbury.

Proposed BBC Remake

In 2014 the BBC announced it was looking to re-make a new version of Civilisation. This announcement led to a great deal of debate in the media as to who would be capable of fronting a programme like Civilisation today.[10] with Craig Henderson,[11] Mary Beard,[12] and Griselda Pollock[13] and others being suggested.[14] Later reports suggested the BBC was interested in the remake of Civilisation reflecting the move in academia away from a single point of view in history towards a pluralistic approach by appointing several presenters.[15] However the proposed remake has been criticised in its entirety by the historian David Starkey, who claimed it showed the BBC lacked ideas and imagination.[16]



  1. The Register, "BBC rebuilds Civilisation in HD"
  2. Cumming, Ed. (9 February 2011) Kenneth Clark's Civilisation returns in HD. The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 13 February 2011.
  3. 1 2 Catherine Bennett, The Observer, 29 March 2014, "The BBC arts coverage goes back to the future"
  4. 1 2 Civilisation: A Personal View DVD set, disc 4 (Extra features David Attenborough talks about the programme's development).
  5. "Civilisation", Kenneth Clark - John Murray, BBC, pxvii, 1969, SBN 563 08544 4
  6. 1 2 3 Obituary: Michael Gill, Daily Telegraph, 26 October 2005
  7. Walker, John A. (December 1988/January 1989). Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation in retrospect. Art Monthly / artdesigncafe.
  8. Miranda Carter, The Daily Telegraph, 28 Jun 2003, "A civilising influence"
  9. Robert Hughes The Shock of the New, London: Thames & Hudson, 1991 [1980], p6
  10. Philip Hensher, 'The return of Civilisation: who’s a pretty polymath, then?', in The Daily Telegraph (UK Newspaper), 24 March 2014
  11. Tim Walker, 'Craig Henderson is in talks with the BBC to present Civilisation' in The Daily Telegraph (UK newspaper), 2 July 2014
  12. Chris Hastings, 'Push for outspoken classicist Mary Beard to front remake of BBC's ground-breaking series Civilisation' in The Daily Mail (UK newspaper), 27 April 2014,
  13. Tim Walker, 'Griselda Pollock in running for Civilisation role' in The Daily Telegraph (UK newspaper), 3 June 2014
  14. Ben Dowell, 'Melvyn Bragg rules himself out of presenting the BBC's Civilisation remake' in The Radio Times (UK newspaper), 2 March 2015
  15. Patrick Kidd, 'BBC tightlipped about Civilisation remake' in The Times (UK newspaper), 30 May 2014
  16. Sebastian Shakespeare, 'TV historian Dr David Starkey attacks BBC remake of Civilisation as 'bad and lazy' in The Daily Mail (UK newspaper), 1 July 2014
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