BBC rebuilds Civilisation in HD
Seminal 1960s documentary restored for transmission
Kenneth Clark's Civilisation was a genuine television event when it was first broadcast in 1969. Thanks to restoration work carried out on the more than 40-year-old film stock it may be about to repeat its success.
The BBC has remastered the 13-part series into HD and will broadcast the critically acclaimed documentary on the BBC HD channel next month.
While Civilisation was produced for transmission in standard definition - and in black and white, to boot - it was considered sufficiently prestigious to be shot entirely on 35mm colour film.
Almost all other television film footage at the time, and for many years after, was shot on 16mm film.
The bigger frame size would have given the Corporation's technicians a better source for digitising the work, having sonically cleaned the film stock and scanned it using something like the Spirit one-light telecine system used so effectively in the BBC's Doctor Who DVD restorations.
Manually and automatically cleaning up remaining dirt and grain, will have generated a top quality digital copy which can then be re-graded to restore the colour vibrancy.
Technical jiggery-pokery aside, will the programme still stand up? Clark was a toff - he was a Knight of the Realm and sat in the House of Lords - and an art historian of the old school, disdaining most modern works, when the programme was made. His conclusions won't match those of a more down-to-Earth colleague making such a show today.
But it will a good to get away for a moment from the current vogue for filling historical programmes with dramatic reconstructions - do extras dressed up as Goëring or Roman legionaries really help us understand history more? - and return to the old style talking heads approach, something only Simon Schama's A History of Britain production team has ever quite managed to come close to.
Civilisation will be shown in weekly parts from Monday, 21 February. A Blu-ray Disc release will almost certainly follow. ®
A lot of Civilisation was patronising, and in its implicitation that the arts virtually define civilisation, it misses out on the most important aspects. The discussions are largely those through the eye of the artist. The roles of civics, of education, of governance, of rationalism, of technology, of science, of philosophy, of mathematics are all subserviant to the visual arts. That's not to mention that the focus was narrowly on western Christian culture.
To my mind, a far greater insight into the human progression and civilisation can be seen in Jacob Bronowski's Ascent of Man. Whilst this, inevitably, identifies with western rationalism, Bronowski being an archtypal modern inheritor of the enlightenment tradition. However, he allows space for other cultures and was certainly no philistine when it came to the arts. Prior to WWII he moved to Majorca to be near Robert Grave, he married a sculptress (who died only recently) and was a supporter of modern art. If you forgive the crude graphics, Ascent of Man has stood the test of time very well indeed.
Bronowski was the man that I secretly suspect Richard Dawkins wished he was. We were the poorer for his early death. If anybody could communicate the important of rationalism, of secularism, of the nature of humanity without raising an allergic reaction, it was him. Also, Jacob Bronowski left us Lisa Jardine. Lord Clark begat Alan. Enough said I feel.
Come on BBC, at least broadcast Ascent of Man again, and think that there's more to civilisation than that seen through the eye of an artist.
Can't stand "docudramas"
And I'm sure Horizon used to be good once too. Bring back Equinox, I say.
TBF, the current series of Horizon is much improved - though not yet back to previous high standards, it's still worth watching.
My other hobby-horse is the focus on the presenter to the detriment of the programme. A current case in point is Iain Stewart's 'Men of Rock', which includes long closeups of him trying to look suitably awestruck, while I shout "show us the bloody view you cretins, not his nostril hair" at the screen.
One of my favourite series was Bryan Magee's 'The Great Philosophers', which consisted entirely of 30-minute interviews with the leading philosophers of the day. Who can imagine such a series being commissioned today?