A sumptuous TV tour of the history of art

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Mary Beard and friends

ON FEBRUARY 23rd 1969 Kenneth Clark, a British art historian and museum director, told the nation’s television viewers that he could not define civilisation. “But”, he said, standing in front of Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, “I think I can recognise it when I see it.” Clark’s haughty didacticism typified the BBC’s 13-part series outlining the history of Western art and architecture from the Dark Ages onwards. In Britain the programme helped launch the colour-TV set. There was much to be admired, even if his fogeyish views led the newly ennobled presenter to be mocked as ‘Lord Clark of “Civilisation”.’

One of his enthusiastic viewers was Tony Hall, then 17 years old. When he was appointed as the BBC’s director-general in 2013, Lord Hall, as he had by then become, announced his aim to update that formative series. “Civilisations” will be broadcast in Britain from March 1st. The additional “S” is dropped onto the end of…Continue reading

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