Presented by Kenneth Clark, Civilisation was the first ‘blockbuster’ pundit arts programme on British television. The broadcast of the series in 1969 aimed to show off BBC 2’s full-colour service, which had been put into effect two years prior. Although it should be noted that the majority of people in the UK did not have access to a colour television at this time, this technological advancement provided a means of transmitting images that represented art more accurately than black and white television services.
Clark uses art as a guide for exploring European culture from the fall of the Roman Empire to the age of industry. The art featured within the programme is interpreted in a way that does little to understand the social context and conditions in which it was produced. Rather, Clark favours glorifying exceptional individuals, and institutions such as the Church. Clark also fails to criticise the oppression that has paved the way for modern civilisation, favouring a positive interpretation of history that measures the morality of a civilisation by its willingness to transcend such barbarity.
Clark’s mode of address throughout the series is one that demands attention. His pieces to camera are often not heavily edited, leaving long periods of him addressing the audience directly. This sense of an immediate, intimate encounter with the presenter is also furthered by the lack of non-diegetic sound during these pieces. The viewer is given the impression of being spoken to on a one-to-one basis, although they are obviously unable to reply. This, along with his general demeanour, presents Clark as a voice of authority. Although the opening titles to the series state that the programme contains Clark’s personal views, there is still a sense that his viewpoint is grounded in fact.
Throughout the series there is a strong focus on religious, particularly Christian, imagery. The religious art shown on screen is often accompanied with obtrusive music reminiscent of that often heard within churches. This combination demonstrates how the audio-visual medium of television can be used to try and create a sense of seeing and experiencing art within its original context. As the entirety of the series was shot on location, Civilisation also provided viewers with a means of accessing art that may not have ordinarily been available to them. If the viewer were to see the artwork within its original context, they would experience it as something that is still and silent. However, this fundamental characteristic is altered by the medium of television itself. When presenting art on the television, the camera pans across the artwork, zooming in on certain details, making the viewer focus on certain aspects of the image. The soundtrack/narration accompanying the images also prompts the viewer to interpret the art in a certain way. Television as a medium is not just a way of allowing the viewer to access art; it also inherently changes the way art is experienced.
Civilisation’s mainstream success demonstrates how television as a means of communicating and sharing culture can popularise art. The influence of this landmark series can still be seen today in many modern day factual television series with the popularity of this pundit style mode of presenting information and on location filming.