Saturday, 3 March 2018


Mary and a fine early Greek lass

Well, I've watched the first two episodes of the BBC's new 'landmark series' Civilisations - the first by Simon Schama, the second by Mary Beard - and I thoroughly enjoyed them both, in a hazy sort of way.

They passed a couple of hours of my day very pleasantly. 

Yes, they weren't anywhere near as thought-provoking or profound or original or as startling as the wonderful Kenneth Clark in his still-magnificent, beguiling and intellectually challenging Civilisation but, Hyperion to a satyr as that old BBC programme surely is to this comparatively dumbed-down new BBC programme, Simon Schama and Mary Beard are both excellent story-tellers - and, as you'd expect, the programme is an absolute treat for the eyes...

...(except for when the BBC's camerapersonages are made to do that annoying out-of-focus gimmick they've obviously been asked to do on behalf of Professor Beard). 


On the BBC bias front...

...Dividing the presentation between three reliably left-wing, 'progressive' historians - all of who could be relied upon to drop in the occasional hint about the value of immigration and multiculturalism, or to talk critically about "gendered" art, or to take the odd potshot at Kenneth Clark's 'Eurocentricity' - was a very 'BBC' decision.

In fact, you might even cite it as an absolute proof of BBC bias.

And, yes, although I didn't feel as if I was being continuously hit over the head by a huge BBC-shaped haddock in these first two episodes, I did notice the programme's 'progressive' hints.

And, yes, it was indeed a divisive decision to make the presentation of the programme a purely, left-wing 'progressive' affair... demonstrated by the following pair of articles (the first from the Right, the second from the Left):
Ed West: Civilisations is right-on and rather underwhelming
Yasmin Alibhai BrownThe BBC’s Civilisations is wonderfully multicultural – and the usual suspects are fuming.

Mary and the Chinese lads

Despite enjoying what I've seen so far, no blogger worth his or her salt could ever resist trying to best a BBC historian, so I'm going to indulge myself here by using my avid reading of ancient Chinese history in order to try and discredit Mary Beard.

See how I get on below....

One thing I know about China's famous 'First Emperor' - the Mao-like monster. who began reigning supreme over the Chinese heartland in 221 BC and who was responsible for the Terracotta Army and the founder of the Qin dynasty - is that his name wasn't 'Qin' and that he wasn't the 'Emperor Qin' despite Mary Beard repeatedly calling him that!

He was born either Ying Zheng or Zhao Zheng and became - like Bruce Forsyth before him - the King of Qin (a joke that only works if you know that 'Qin' is pronounced 'Chin' - hence 'China').

He's known to history, after brutally destroying every over Chinese warring state and becoming the first emperor of China as Qin Shi Huang - a title not a name. It simply means 'First Emperor, from the Qin dynasty'.

No one, except for Mary Beard, so far as I can see, has ever called the First Emperor 'Emperor Qin' before, for the very good reason that there never was a Chinese emperor called 'Emperor Qin'.

Still, to be fair to her, at least she didn't call him 'Emperor Ming', or 'Ming the Merciless'.

Would Kenneth Clark have made such an error? And wouldn't the BBC of the 1960s, unlike the BBC of now (which seems to know a lot less), have prevented such lapses from going out even if he had?

The First Emperor of Mongo


Reviews for the programme have been mixed - some enthusiastic, some tepid, some brutal.

Very oddly, one of the most brutal reviews (a mere two stars our of five) came from the BBC's own arts editor Will Gompertz on the BBC News website...

...and the BBC News website has given it a good deal of prominence. 

It's astonishingly rude. 

So rude that it positively invited rudeness in return....

As noted by MB on the Open Thread, Will's criticism is curious and very 'BBC'. Why? Because despite attacking a BBC programme, it weirdly employs PC to pile in upon another form of PC. 

Personal pique (Civilisations without Will Gompertzmight be the explanation.

UPDATE: A little Twitter exchange involving the BBC's Nick Higham:
Willard Foxton Todd: Is there anything more BBC than spending millions on an incredibly high profile series and then having your own arts editor give it a 2 star review on the front page of your website?
Nick Higham, BBC: As the BBC’s erstwhile bad-news-about-the-BBC correspondent, I defend to the hilt the right/duty of BBC reporters to make independent judgements about BBC policies/actions. Whether we should be *reviewing* stuff (programmes, plays, films etc) I’m less sure...


  1. My observation was purely statistical - whenever BBC staffers criticise the BBC (whilst still in employment), it nearly always involves personal pique or personal interest (e.g. the stringent criticisms of the BBC's gender pay gap by female presenters).

    It's difficult to understand Gompertz's two star review without an element of personal pique. I am sure he would have said yes had they asked him and can only imagine they never did... :)

    I've only seen a bit of Civilisations...but tend to agree with you Craig, it's pleasurable viewing if you are already interested in the past, in culture, in social development and art. Personally I just tuned out Schama's emoting and PC platitudes, thinking occasionally about his mega-expensive permanent residence in New York and his hatred of us plebs who voted for Brexit in the land he no longer lives in.

    You could hardly fail in a programme of this sort if you've got a big budget and camera drones.

    My own take on civilisations is that rarely have I been that impressed when I've investigated other non-European cultures (the whole of the English speaking world is part of European culture I would say).

    Some years ago I was intrigued by Japanese and Chinese art having seen a few reproductions of art work from that part of the world...but you soon realise when you do some research there's a reason why it's the same old stuff (e.g that wave!) that you see time and time again...there really isn't that much of real quality there.

    The uncomfortable non-PC truth is that there is nothing to compare with the European tradition in art (or indeed science). The European cultural output is aboslutely astonishing in its profusion, its depth and its quality. That's why there are hundreds of thousands of people in the Far East who are dedicated to classical music and why there are virtually no people in Europe dedicated in the same way to Far Eastern music.

    Effectively the European cultural tradition has become the world cultural tradition, to the extent that you can speak of a world culture. European culture has spread to North America, the Antipodes, India, Japan, Korea and many other parts. It's quite strong now in China even (cf Wei Wei).

    Only Africa, via its musical contribution, rivals Europe in terms of world culture I would suggest.

    Why Europe's culture should be so more impressive is difficult to say. A combination of several factors I expect including the Greek and Roman inheritance - especially the spirit of open inquiry; the Christian emphasis on the individual and their personal quest for salvation (which in turn led to humanism); the fragmented nature of political power (numerous competing states); and the symbiotic relationship of art with science.

    1. This book explains the conundrum admirably:

    2. Yes, I doubt Mr Stark would get the gig either - not a BBC type! Sounds like he has certainly identified some of the key factors in Europe's prodigious record in the arts and sciences, which the whole world can now join in.

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    4. Dear Monkey Brains,

      Your comment betrays racist white supremacist ideology.

      There was one time when there was a small tribe in Africa that carried the ancestors of all of Europe with them, basically every human's ancestors are African, & your name is apt, because we are all descended from the mother of all apes.

      The uncomfortable non-PC truth is that Europe, eg. England, was once an uncivilised jungle type place, while the torch of human civilisation was being carried in Africa.
      In addition life in England, for eg, was so 'nasty, brutish, & short' that they imposed brutality & suffering on materially richer (India), & other intriguing cultures.

      Regarding prolific artistic output, I would dig deeper, & single out Italians (1st), & Dutch (2nd), although I am not an expert in that matter yet).

      The uncomfortable non-PC truth for the BBC/ British establishment, & people with white supremacist views such as your own, is that Europeans are the perpetrators of the most glaring crimes against 'other' people in human history, no matter the merits of their 'civilisation' or artistic output.

      I think that it is more beneficial to use the term 'Indo-European language speakers'.
      What European civilisation do you have without language?

      Sanskrit is the most ancient Indo-European language I believe, & still in use. Indo-European output includes spirituality espoused, & pioneered in the Indian sub-continent, including, but not limited to, meditation, mindfulness, yoga, Sikhism, Hinduism, Sufi-ism.


  2. Shama, Beard and co., have put their heads on the block with this series. There will be the inevitable comparisons with Kenneth Clark and John Berger, whose “Ways of Seeing” indoctrinated generations of art students for decades. I didn’t always agree with Clark - he was in my opinion weak on Modernism. Berger’s politics, which coloured much of his writing was to me, repugnant. But above all else they really knew their stuff.

    So in making the claim that “Civilisations” will somehow surpass all that has gone before is extravagant to say the least. The plural in the title says it all. We know what to expect. The original “Civilisation” was an unapologetic celebration of Western Art, clearly an anathema to the delicate PC sensibilities of todays BBC. So the new one must be better, right? But the main problem is the presenters themselves. Shama and Adetayo Olusoga are historians and Beard is a classicist. None of them are experts on art. I an aware that Shama believes that he is. Like most academics he is keen on subject matter and “meaning”, which in his case is highly subjective, but he doesn’t have a deep understanding of the process of making art. I once found myself in shouting at the screen whilst watching him intellectually dissect a Rembrandt self-portrait. I expect much the same from Beard and Adetayo Olusoga. Clark on the other hand was completely immersed in the subject. Civilisation was always about the art. Civilisations, on the strength of the first episode, was about Simon Shama.

    Yes, it was fairly enjoyable viewing. Visually beautiful of course but I am afraid I would largely, agree with the review by Will Gompertz linked to by Monkeybrains in the Open Thread. Until, that is, I read the bizarre passage criticising the inclusion of the footage of Isis fundamentalists destroying Palmyra. The paranoia around appearing Islamaphobic seems to have blinded Gompertz. It was the most powerful part of the whole episode. We don’t need to be reminded of the destructiveness during the Reformation, as Gompertz suggests, this brought the whole horror of it to life and right up to date.

  3. I find that the photography, although a masterpiece in itself, is a distraction leading the viewer away from study of the subject being described. Was the destruction of artefacts filmed in HD? Or, have the images been enhanced using CGI processes? Phone footage of such acts of destruction would have been equally if not more telling, and horrific - because of its inherrent grainy shaky and tonal qualities.

    Similarly, all the aerial shots give an incongruous perspective that the originators of these works could never have dreamed of. Perspective should have been limited in the first instance at eye-level, not filmed as a journey through space and time accompanied by thunderous music. Therefore, what we are seeing is an exhibition of 21st C photography, where the subject matter is secondary to the medium.

    In 1969, I watched the Kenneth Clark Civilisation in black and white on a decidedly low-definition TV set. The photography of the day was matched perfectly to the earnest lecture-theatre style of Clark's delivery. He taught us what to look for in art and architecture, and how to read the subject.

    From what I have seen, Civilisations is more akin to a 5-star Trip adviser recommendation. I never thought I'd say it, but this time I agree with Will.

    1. So you're part of the Max Wall Impressionist fan club then? Lol

      I think you make some fair points.

      But then when we see something like swordfish filmed from above we are not really see them in their proper aquatic context. Still looks great filmed from above, though. I would also argue that since many of these great monuments were designed for gods believed to live "up there" somewhere, their designers must have had in mind a kind of drone's point of view...e.g. the sacrifice on top of an Aztec pyramid was presumably meant to be open for the gods to view...That's why the buildings were designed that way and now with drones we can give full expression to that initial design concept.

      That said, I personally am a fan of old style lecture TV - I can remember AJP Taylor's idiosyncratic history lectures. I think if TV revived some serious talking heads TV they would find it much more popular than they expect.

    2. We are seeing Civilisations as presented to us through a cinematic filter, which is 21st C, super-real, and dare I say - Hollywood. The point made earlier that this new interpretation of Civilisations should concentrate less on western renaissance art, and more on the history of other cultures, is immediately negated by a sugar-sweet present day artistic style of delivery.

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