Tuesday, December 25, 2007


Civil Service

Ruskin said: "Great nations write their autobiographies in three manuscripts, the book of their deeds, the book of their words and the book of their art. Not one of these books can be understood unless we read the two others, but of the three the only trustworthy one is the last." On the whole I think this is true. Writers and politicians may come out with all sorts of edifying sentiments, but they are what is known as declarations of intent. If I had to say which was telling the truth about society, a speech by a Minister of Housing or the actual buildings put up in his time, I should believe the buildings.
That truism by the great British art historian, Kenneth Clark, comes from the opening of the grand BBC documentary Civilisation: A Personal View by Lord Clark. The first major project undertaken by David Attenborough at BBC Two, this groundbreaking merger of education and television was to influence a generation and more of documentaries, including those authored and hosted by Attenborough himself. Filmed in color at the very dawn of color television, the device of a knowledgeable guide visiting and interacting with the places and objects and people he or she was discussing would become a familiar one in such subsequent efforts as The Ascent of Man and Cosmos.

The BBC has lost its collective mind and is selling this monumental 13 part series for a mere pittance ($58.49 US on Amazon). I watched the first episode today an can report that it is every bit as wonderful as my aging memory recalled. The original film is transferred well to the DVD, with the color very vivid and the sound quality excellent.

I have to agree with Clark:

People sometimes tell me that they prefer barbarism to civilisation. I doubt they have given it a long enough trial.
If you want a trial of the civilisation side of the equation, there is no better place to start than this series. Take advantage of the Brits before they come to their senses.

Civilisation was a wonderful and illuminating series and I well remember being glued to the TV (only black-and-white for us in those days, alas) when it was on, just as I was for Ascent of Man. My only slight reservation was with Clark himself. There was no doubting his scholarship and he was the very model of an urbane, if patrician, academic. It was just that, rightly or wrongly, I felt there was a snobbishness about the man that rubbed me up the wrong way occasionally, something I never noticed with Bronowski.
My memory either isn't that good or I took away a different impression at the time or I simply ignored the snobbery in favor of the glories being shown. It'll be interesting to see which it is as I watch it again.

But you're right about Bronowski. There wasn't a snobbish bone in his body.
I think I'll have to get this series.
Considering the modest price, I have no hesitation heartly recommending that you do.
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