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BBC rebuilds Civilisation in HD

Seminal 1960s documentary restored for transmission

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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. ®

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