Kenneth Clark is a testament to the fact that having an Oxbridge education makes you perfectly suited to spouting bullshit with confidence standing in front of pretty pictures, as funded by BBC largesse.
Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation is held up as a ground breaking documentary series, both in presentation and content. And it is indeed impressive, even almost fifty years on, with gorgeously filmed landscapes, buildings and art. But actually watching the first episode was a crashing disappointment. I knew that it was very much an old school approach to history, that this would be European and European history only, Whiggish and with very definite ideas on what civilisation entails. But still.
Clark starts out from the Fall of Rome, which is presented as an unalloyed disaster, causing the flame of civilisation to almost burn out. He then moves on to how it did manage to survive, in England and France, how new challenges arose as the Vikings came raiding and how Charlemange saved civilisation. The various successor states of the western Roman Empire are dismissed as barbarians, the Arab and Muslim civilisations barely mentioned, even the Byzantine Empire is sneered at as not quite the done thing. It’s such a narrow minded, boring view of history it set me against watching any of the rest of it.
What a difference Carl Sagan’s Cosmos makes. Sagan’s deeply humanist approach to science and astronomy sees him traveling the world to explain the history of his discpline, from ancient Greek scientists in Egypt, to meeting Japanese fishermen who refuse to eat crabs with carapaces resembling samurai to tell about natural selection, to visiting the monuments the Anasazi left behind as proof of their astronomical measures. There’s a joy and kindness in his narration that makes me want to keep watching.
This is actually my first time watching Cosmos: if it was broadcasted on Dutch television when it was originally released, I was too young for it. Yet Cosmos was very important to me growing up, as the accompanying book was translated into Dutch and available at my local library and I must’ve read it half a dozen times as a kid. It was reading this that helped make me an atheist, as in it I found a much more logical and appealing explanation for the world around me than some all powerful god having created it all from scratch.
Clark’s view of history is dour and joyless, unappealing in the extreme by comparison. Glad it was Sagan that got his hooks in my brain back then.