...a blog by Richard Flowers

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Day 2070: Beautiful Things! Beautiful Things!


I have been making my Daddies watch CIVILISATION, the famous television series about ART and ARCHITECTURE.

It was written and presented by Lord Clarke, or K for Kenneth Clarke, who was the daddy of famous Conservatory LOON Alan Clarke who was famous because of his DIARIES, which were NOT very like mine AT ALL!

Lord K is a STRANGE old stick: like a piece of British stereotype who has gotten lost and wandered off with a camera crew in tow. He potters his way through Europe, showing us paintings and buildings and putting a lot of them to music.

It is important to realise that this series is his PERSONAL view of art and history; otherwise you might get all wound up by some of his more OPINIONATED opinions.

Monty Python star TERRY JONES had a bit of a go at Lord K because of his opinion about the Romans and the Barbarians. In fact, Mr Terry went so far as to make HIS OWN television series about the Barbarian in order to put the record straight – which is fair enough, and I will make daddy get that on shiny disc next! – but really, Lord K was an historian of the RENAISSANCE and in particular of LEONARDO DA VINCI so what he thought about the Romans was not much more authoritative than what you or I might think about them.

And apparently, critics at the time were OUTRAGED that he had virtually ignored SPAIN and the contribution of the Spanish, but that was mainly because he had his theory about the development of what HE thought was Civilised, and he was going to stick to it. The Spanish, with their bullfighting and Moorish influences did not fit in!

It is fairly clear to ME that Lord K thinks that the very height of Civilisation is achieved at the supremacy of the Catholic Church in Rome – indeed almost his definition of the DARK AGES is when Christians are pushed right to the very edges of Europe. So that's almost the whole of the first MILLENNIUM written off! His Civilisation only begins to recover when new churches and cathedrals start to be built. Religious architecture and art begins to flourish in France and Italy and the intercourse of MASONS and CLERICS begins the spread and exchange of IDEAS.

This leads to the development of GOTHIC architecture: huge buildings that demonstrate by physical bulk the POWER and DOMINION of god, all brightly painted in medieval frescoes (and not a sign of BLACK MAKE-UP, surprisingly).

In Italy, the rise of BANKING led to a new class of citizens with money to invest in their own civic architecture, and this was the beginning of the RENAISSANCE. In fact they began by building SMALL, and it was significant that they were on a much more HUMAN scale. Their art also became much more about representing PEOPLE rather than vast POWERS, and became more realistic and less symbolic.

After this came the REFORMATION, though Lord K is a bit disparaging about this, as the Lutherans and Puritans were all a bit sniffy about art. He prefers to return to Rome to the now ENORMOUS buildings being built by MICHELANGELO for the Vatican. The Catholic art here is very clearly a response to – and repudiation of – the Protestant arguments: the Lutherans said that decorated churches were idolatry, so the Catholics made the decoration of the Vatican more ornate than ever; the Lutherans condemned the keeping of relics, so the Catholics made all the corners of St Peter's Basilica into reliquaries, not to mention St Peter's bones being right in the middle; the Lutherans accused the saints of coming between man and god, so the Catholics covered the rooftops in thousands of them!

One of the most astonishing images of the series is that of Michelangelo's DAVID. You are no doubt familiar with the image as it has been endlessly reproduced, but the astonishment comes from the sight of the genuine statue standing on its plinth and then Lord K steps out from behind it and you realise the true IMPOSSIBLE scale of the thing!

In the seventeenth century, Lord K's attention moves to ENGLAND, in particular the England of the RESTORATION and the buildings of Sir Christopher Wren, and in the eighteenth he tends to focus more on MUSIC, the Baroque and Classical music of Bach and Hayden through to Mozart. The precise and mathematical order and the tranquil, unemotional and above all REASONABLE era of the ENLIGHTENMENT is clearly Lord K's most favourite time.

My Daddy Richard has very different tastes, preferring the emotion and excitement of the ROMANTIC period that follows to the twiddles and curlicues of the ROCOCO, but Lord K is NOT AMUSED. He links the unbridling of passions to the chaos of the age of REVOLUTIONS, American, French and even Russian. (Which is hardly fair as it wasn't Beethoven's fault we lost the colonies!)

The French Revolution, he dislikes because of the destruction of art and churches; the Americans he appears to disparage because they chose Washington as their first President instead of Franklin: the soldier instead of the architect and polymath.

As he draws close to our own time, he dwells on the industry and invention of his native Scotland, a creativity that drove the engines of the Industrial Revolution and made the new city of Edinburgh the model for the VICTORIAN age. He also covers the great NOVELIST, Mr Charles Dickens, whose life and writing was at least in part given over to transformation of the popular lot.

Perhaps because of his own life's experience, he does not include any MODERN art or architecture – no Le Corbusier, no Jackson Pollock's, no Jazz – and instead the twentieth century is represented by the New York skyline, the Lovell radio telescope at Jodrell Bank (where my Daddy's daddy works!), the Concorde and the urge to destruction of the World Wars.

Like the discoverer of HOBBITS, JRR Tolkein, Lord K has an obvious dislike of the MACHINE, and it is ironic that he sees the COMPUTER as an icon for totalitarian control. This, more than anything, marks the series as a product of its time before the coming of the personal computer and the Internet, one of history's greatest advances for the free exchange of information.

He concludes with a summary of his thesis: he believes in two things, really – Civilisation is driven by CURIOSITY and Civilisation is shaped by individuals of GENIUS.

He seems sad at the end, almost convinced that our civilisation is WINDING DOWN. Perhaps that is the inevitable ennui of end of empire. But you CAN sort of see his point. We should not regret the past, but be looking for the great SPARK that will drive us to the next movement forwards.

The story of how Civilisation came to be made is almost as interesting as the story Lord K tells itself, and is discussed in an EXTRA FEATURE on the discs: an interview with the man who INVENTED Civilisation, Sir David Attenborough.

Colour television was invented in AMERICA and they tried it first. But it was so RUBBISH that it went bust and closed down! So there was some UNCERTAINTY whether anybody would WANT colour television. Nevertheless, the clever boffins at the BBC had a look at the Americans' system, took it to pieces, threw it away and invented their own which was MUCH BETTER!

Mr Sir David had done some work on natural history documentaries but had been ENSNARED by the BBC management and put in charge of the new channel: BBC2. The idea was for BBC2 to be used as the testing ground for the next big thing in television, and so Mr Sir David was shown some of the colour tests and was convinced that IT JUST MIGHT WORK.

What he wanted, therefore, was something that would show up the GOOD QUALITY colour pictures to the best advantage in order to convince people to go out and buy the new television sets that they would need. It wasn't JUST colour that BBC2 was introducing, but also the new sharper "high definition" 625 line broadcast – up until then the BBC and ITV had both broadcast in 405 lines: check out some of the earliest DOCTOR WHO DVDs to see the difference.

He realised that what he was looking for was a series about ART, one that he could then show lots of beautiful pictures and play music composed in the period when the picture was painted. With that in mind, all he had to do was convince some passing buffer to front the show!

The series was to prove a little bit EXPENSIVE to make. Firstly, the filmmakers told Mr Sir David that in order to make sure the colour quality was the very best, they would have to use costly 35mm film instead of 16mm; having said that quality was paramount, he was unable to disagree. Then after filming for some months, they took him to the viewing room and showed him some rough cuts: "superb, excellent, that's EXACTLY what I wanted," he said, a little unwisely. "Oh good, they replied, now… could we discuss the cost overruns?"

Fortunately Mr Sir David hit upon a CLEVER idea: he thought that the series was SO GOOD that people would want to see it more than once. So he felt justified in scheduling a REPEAT of each episode in the week after its first screening on the Sunday. And thus instantly HALVED his per hour production cost!

He was to be entirely justified! Although he and Lord K and the filmmakers thought that the show was going PRETTY WELL, nothing really prepared them for the hugeness of the success when it broadcast! Colour televisions were RARE, so people started organising Civilisation Parties – sometimes two a week for different guests so more people could see it!

Mr Sir David had thought that Civilisation would be a SURE FIRE HIT in The United States, but to his surprise they turned him down flat. However, Lord K pulled a few strings and the National Gallery in Washington asked to screen the series, several showing to each episode. It was a BLOCKBUSTER, with the queues stretching all the way around the museum. When Lord K himself travelled to America to give a talk before one of the showings, he was cheered to the rafter by thousands of people and was so overcome he had to go and hide in the loo!

Meanwhile in London, the head of SCIENCE at the BBC came BURSTING into Mr Sir David's office and slammed a fist down on his desk:

"How dare you!" he cried. "How dare you! Call yourself a scientist? How could you give this series to the ARTS! There MUST be another to set the balance right!"

"Oh, WHAT a good idea!" said Mr Sir David.

And thus was commissioned the follow up, the completely brilliant THE ASCENT OF MAN with Professor Jacob Bronowski.

After that, it was inevitable that these series should continue and so it was followed by a history of AMERICA with Alistair Cooke.

By this time, Mr Sir David had been booted upstairs to the senior management of the BBC. After four years as head of BBC2 and another four years as director of programmes, though, he felt that he had done his bit (and paid off his mortgage) and so he resigned in order to go and do a quiet little series called LIFE ON EARTH.

And the rest is (Natural) History.

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