The man who brought ‘Civilisation’ to a mass market

Article-2611748-0001349600000258-119_634x512Michael Dirda at The Washington Post:

In 1969 the BBC aired a 13-part documentary entitled “Civilisation: A Personal View.” Hosted by an upper-class Englishman with crooked teeth and a penchant for tweed, it traced the history of European art, music and literature from the Middle Ages to the 20th century, ending on a note of slightly qualified despair. The humanist values celebrated in the series were being lost or forgotten. More and more, we worshiped the machine and the computer, and instead of living with joy, confidence and energy, we dwelt gloomily in the valley of the shadow of global destruction. Still, there had been Dark Ages in the past, and humankind just might squeak through, by — as the very first episode declared — “the skin of our teeth.”

Not surprisingly, no American TV network wanted to pick up an artsy-fartsy program highlighting a talking head who might be discoursing in front of Chartres Cathedral one week and discussing the sculptures of Bernini the next. Oh, ye of little faith! When Washington’s National Gallery of Art arranged a special screening of “Civilisation” in the fall of 1969, the queue to see the first episode stretched down the Mall and numbered in the thousands. The gallery quickly took to running each weekly installment multiple times. Finally picked up by PBS, “Civilisation” was a television blockbuster in 1970, its companion booksold a million and a half copies in its first decade and Sir Kenneth Clark — the subject of the superb biography “Kenneth Clark: Life, Art and ‘Civilisation’  ” by James Stourton — emerged as high culture’s classiest superstar.

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