Audience viewing figures for the BBC’s Civilisations series are in free fall. This is not a surprise. Condescending and self-righteous, it is guilty of the very cultural supremacism it was designed to combat. Shoving an incoherent, unscholarly, multi-cultural mishmash down our throats for an evening’s TV viewing was never going to be a winner. The brilliance of the photography cannot distract from the noticeable absence of any coherent sense of direction.
What on earth is it all about? The only thread of sense and intelligibility is a vague notion that an element of artistic output creates a civilisation. Stunning as many Ice Age cave paintings may be, is that what they constitute? For all his presentational skills it was embarrassing to watch Simon Schama, in Programme 1, trying to make the case and to link it to a hoard of Chinese masks of which, he admitted, we know nothing.
And then, in Programme 2, we had Mary Beard explaining her incomprehension – ‘a real puzzle’ – when confronted by a gigantic 3,000-year-old Olmec stone head in the jungles of central America. Her peregrination around ancient Egypt, China, Greece and Italy informed us, more or less, that the quality of art was in the eye of the beholder. This assertion, though, did not excuse a lad from ancient times ejaculating on a nude statue of Aphrodite. Beard accused him of rape against the stone. We finished up back in the jungle with the giant stone head. Mary, like the rest of us, was in Monty Python mode, trying to work out what was it all about and what is the meaning of life.
Sir Kenneth Clark’s masterly original Civilisation may have had a slightly celebratory tone about it. This was because western civilisation has a lot of which it can be proud. This new pluralised version – Civilisations – is all about debunking the Clark thesis and replacing it with politically correct confectionery.
When the BBC’s own Arts Editor, Will Gompertz, awards the series only two stars out of five, you know that the corporation has gone seriously astray:
‘For all its faults (partial, dogmatic, occasionally dismissive), the Kenneth Clark written and presented originals had a clarity, structure, and coherent argument that made them fascinating to watch and easy to follow.
‘In contrast, from the programmes I have seen, Civilisations is more confused and confusing than a drunk driver negotiating Spaghetti Junction in the rush hour.’
How refreshing it is to see such honesty from within the BBC!
Unsurprisingly, some big guns have been brought in to defend the series. BBC Radio 4’s Civilisation: A Sceptic’s Guide by Professor Sir David Cannadine is the latest offering.
Cannadine is the most eminent of historians and is President of the British Academy. What he says matters, and what matters most in the context of the new BBC series is that is he embraces its vision – its denigration of Clark’s presentation of western civilisation.
He gives the Enlightenment’s Edward Gibbon a particularly hard time, ignoring the qualities of his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire to focus on the faults. For Cannadine, both the Enlightenment and the Renaissance were too Euro-centred to be of great importance to civilisations in a global sense. His radio discourse does, however, cite admiration for the Aztec empire. Strangely, it ignores those many thousands who had their still-beating hearts torn out of their bodies in bloody orgies of human sacrifice. Hunter-gatherer communities, instead, are praised for surviving for 40,000 years whilst so-called ‘civilisations’ have come and gone.
Cannadine has form when it comes to bashing traditional notions of history – especially British history. In 2011 he published The Right Kind of History. It was accompanied by a BBC Radio 4 programme entitled The Red Bits are British.
The BBC previewed the programme in these terms:
‘Over the past two years, historian Sir David Cannadine has led a ground-breaking research project at the Institute of Historical Research on the teaching of history on English state schools during the past century.’
Generally sympathetic to the knowledge-lite ‘new history’ approach that characterises history teaching in schools today, the 306-page book provided in-depth coverage of the debate about what history should be taught in our classrooms. Remarkably, Cannadine’s extensive research generated only a passing reference to a highly publicised dispute at Lewes Priory School in East Sussex in 1989. It was raised in Parliament on several occasions and was the subject of a debate in the House of Lords. A number of eminent peers backed the teachers, including Lord Charteris, formerly the Queen’s private secretary.
The issue at stake was history teachers losing their jobs for criticising the lack of knowledge required by what was then the new GCSE history exam. Cannadine, the ready critic of other historians, ignores completely the loss-of-livelihood-as-punishment part of the story and makes no mention of the parliamentary debate.
The threat of such treatment has ever since been a powerful incentive for teachers not to whistle-blow. The same incentive applies to other public services. In Parliament, East Sussex was compared to East Germany.
All of this, and more, appear to have escaped Professor Cannadine’s ‘ground-breaking research’. Was this because such evidence did not fit the narrative he wished to present? Does he have any credibility as the BBC’s chosen commentator on the relative merits of Kenneth Clark’s version of civilisation and the new worldwide, ragbag, multi-cultural version?