In 1969 the English art historian Kenneth Clark began a television tradition by asking the audience, "What is civilization?" He admitted he couldn't give a coherent answer. "But I think I can recognize it when I see it. And I'm looking at it now."
As he turned, the camera showed Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, the great 13th-century building, complete with flying buttresses and gargoyles. Clark proceeded to place it in the history of civilization as he saw it. Its design signalled the end of the Dark Ages, a herald of the Renaissance.
This opened Civilization: A Personal View, the much-praised beginning of a BBC tradition of ambitious, thoughtful inquiries into culture by the artists and intellectuals of Britain.
The poet John Betjeman called Clark "the man who made the best telly you've ever seen." The British audience for the first showing reached 2.5 million, the American audience twice that. The book version by Clark is still selling.
Civilization has since inspired many programs in Britain, including John Berger's highly influential and sharply controversial Ways of Seeing and the Robert Hughes essay on modern art, The Shock of the New. This season a new version of the original idea has been produced, titled Civilizations, the name now made plural to emphasize that this time many different civilizations will be illuminated. (It begins this week in the U.K. and comes to North America via PBS on April 17.)
Kenneth Clark, a scholar of wide learning in visual art, nevertheless left some viewers believing that his series would be a chronicle of mostly European art and its origins. The new series will focus also on the civilizations of Asia, Africa and pre-Columbian America.
These televised forays into culture are in themselves a product of civilization. They celebrate a coherent vision created by bringing together British scholars, producers and intellectuals in a shared work of analysis. The best of them exhibit authorial high spirits, a form of intensity, as if the hosts and other contributors to the programs couldn't wait to express their joyous recognition of civilization as a central human accomplishment.
We might like to see the CBC find its place in this rich television tradition, and in fact there was a time when Canadian TV makers were glad to learn from the British. But the wave of nationalism that flowed through our cultural systems half a century ago made many among us leery of anything that smelled of colonialism.
That was a mistake. The British tradition contains elements of subtlety and imagination worth emulating. At its best it exemplifies the large ambition that good public television requires. Canadians make documentaries, but they tend to be thin and easily forgotten. If they approached crucial Canadian themes -- Indigenous history, for example -- with the serious intent now common to the British, the CBC might go some distance toward justifying its existence.
Civilizations, like its 1969 model, expresses personal views, but instead of one host it has three: Simon Schama, who hosts five programs, and Mary Beard and David Olusoga, who each present two.
Beard is the best-known classical scholar in Britain and an especially articulate feminist, a passionate defender of women who are, like herself, middle-aged. Olusoga, a British-Nigerian historian and broadcaster, specializes in racial themes, as in his two-part documentary, Britain's Forgotten Slave Owners. He decided to be a broadcaster when he realized, in youth, that people with African origins are not often portrayed accurately in media.
Schama is best known for Citizens, his history of the French Revolution, and for his 15-part documentary, A History of Britain. Today he doesn't hesitate to discuss the atrocities being perpetrated in the 21st century against the evidence of past civilizations.
While the screen shows pictures of rampant ISIL destruction in the ancient Syrian cities of Mosul and Palmyra, Schama describes what happened to Khaled al-Asaad, the archaeologist who was head of antiquities in Palmyra for four decades.
Al-Asaad was publicly beheaded by the Islamic State when he refused to lead the intruders to the places where historic treasures were hidden. They beheaded him in a Roman theatre, suspended his body from a traffic light and put a sign on him: Director of Idolatry.
Or, as Schama says "Protector of what needs to be saved, cherished -- passed on as the work of civilization."