Remaking and reviving a revered and much-loved television hit from another era is a gamble than can go either way. The BBC is doing it at the moment with ‘Poldark’, forty years on from the original series that was one of the 1970s’ most iconic period dramas. I won’t deny it; I’m a fan of dashing Robin Ellis as Ross and exquisite Angharad Rees as Demelza. But I gave the new version a try on the first episode and I thought they did a pretty good job – good enough to make me watch again every week since, anyway.
The Beeb is not having as much success in remaking one of its genuine landmark productions from an even earlier era, however – Kenneth Clark’s highbrow documentary series, ‘Civilisation’. Produced in part as a means of inducing the purchase of newfangled colour television sets in 1969, Clark’s lavish history of western art and architecture set the bar and threw down the gauntlet for the classic series that followed, such as Jacob Bronowski’s ‘The Ascent of Man’, Alistair Cooke’s ‘America’ and David Attenborough’s ‘Life on Earth’. Why the need to remake something that still stands as a high watermark of British broadcasting isn’t entirely clear, but that is the intention – only, they can’t find anyone to present it.
Numerous distinguished names have been bandied about, but none of them want to do it. Melvyn Bragg is the most recent to refuse the alleged offer, and some of the BBC’s elder statesmen such as Dimbleby and Paxman appear reluctant to step into the shoes of Kenneth Clark, sensing they’re on a hiding to nothing. It almost feels as though Mick Jagger has left the Stones and the band are auditioning for a replacement. Yet, the irony is that the BBC currently has an abundance of intelligent, charismatic communicators bringing history to life, and most of them are hidden away on what is arguably the corporation’s finest channel, BBC4.
Bettany Hughes, Amanda Vickery, Mary Beard, Alice Roberts, Lucy Worsley, Janina Ramirez, Kate Williams, Suzannah Lipscomb and Helen Castor have all presented history series on either BBC4 or BBC2 (and on the odd occasion, Channel 4) over the past decade, all of which have illuminated specific and often overlooked eras of history. The fact that none of them have a penis may not have escaped your attention, but it’s interesting that only a tiny percentage of the programmes they’ve written and presented have focused on ‘the female experience’ of history, as rarely told as that has been on television. Instead, they have proven to be as versatile and as capable of painting the bigger picture as any Schama or Starkey, so why so few of their names have led the list of prospective presenters for the new ‘Civilisation’ is curious. Perhaps if they too were asked, they’d be smart enough to know anyone selected to present it would be in a no-win situation.
Viewed from the perspective of far slicker twenty-first century presentation, ‘Civilisation’ can appear a bit creaky; Clark presents the programme with all the detached, donnish air that was true to his own character and makes no attempt to dumb down for the plebs; instead, I feel that his approach forced the viewer to make the effort to clamber to Clark’s level rather than expecting him to descend to theirs. After all, isn’t that was a teacher is supposed to do, anyway – to raise the pupil onto another intellectual plane? It would’ve been ridiculous to expect Clark to play the trendy vicar or take the politician’s route of pretending they cook their meals in kitchens as miniscule as those belonging to the ‘ordinary’ electorate; and it was a sign of Clark’s broadcasting times that he demanded the viewer put a bit of work in as well.
Making a subject such as history accessible needn’t require the presenter to appeal to the lowest common denominator; otherwise, the script may as well be dispensed with altogether and the host could simply rap the story of the Norman Conquest in the manner of a ‘Horrible Histories’ sketch. If I’m to be told a historical story, I want the teller of it to be an authority figure whose rich knowledge of (and passion for) their subject is evident in their demeanour and presentation. They don’t necessarily have to be a tweedy lecturer, but simply to convey their message without resorting to the hyperactive mannerisms of a CBBC continuity announcer. Trying to tell such a story by using the lazy language of the masses is both condescending and dishonest.
Channel 4’s recent coverage of the Richard III reburial – admittedly, a fairly unique and once-in-lifetime event with no precedents to fall back on – was an occasionally awkward mix of solemnity and triviality. The service itself I found quite moving and the sense of genuine history was palpable; but to fill the gaps in between necessitated the kind of banal fluff usually found on ‘The One Show’, although David Starkey being characteristically rude to the woman whose dedication to the cause located the grave beneath the Leicester car-park provided an uncomfortable highlight. The producer attempted to make the programme accessible to all, not merely those with an interest in the Plantagenet dynasty, and so reliance on authentic images from the era gently panned by a rostrum-camera were kept to a minimum in favour of live chat constantly emphasising the excitement of the occasion; that some of these live chats included men in medieval armour occupying the daytime TV-type sofa undeniably added a Pythonesque touch to proceedings, inadvertently upping the entertainment ante.
The idea of even remaking ‘Civilisation’ rather than attempting something entirely new, however, is inherently problematic and seems to tap into the same lack of imagination and/or unwillingness to gamble on uncharted waters that has become a hallmark of Hollywood and its chronic sequel-itis. When the original series was proposed, there were many within the BBC who thought it madness; it would be more expensive than any other documentary series ever produced and would also be shot in colour when only a small and select amount of people owned colour sets and when both BBC1 and all the ITV companies were still broadcasting in black & white. That the programme went ahead regardless demonstrates the devil-may-care attitude prevalent at the corporation in the 1960s; the creative spirit housed in Shepherd’s Bush was fuelled by a belief in the potential of a young medium to continually stretch its boundaries and break new ground instead of playing it safe by resorting to tried-and-trusted formulas.
The original ‘Civilisation’ has a sedate charm that modern viewing sensibilities wouldn’t allow; every shot today in which the presenter isn’t addressing the camera has to encompass a sweeping aerial panorama of the landscape, along with accompanying sweeping strings. It’s as though the programme-makers fear a static camera will cause the viewer to immediately reach for the remote control. God knows how they’d react if confronted by the test card! But, again, it’s the timidity when it comes to challenging the conventions of presentation that underlines the difference between then and now. And I think the wealth of history presenters at the BBC’s current disposal probably all know this would be the fate awaiting any remake of the programme that essentially created a genre that has provided them with a living.
As with performing a cover of a classic song, attempting to replicate the original always fails; equally, trying to update it with flashy contemporary technology is futile. The key is to come up with a version so different that it becomes a new idea altogether. By all means, have a crack at something that possesses the same pioneering spirit that ‘Civilisation’ had; just don’t call it ‘Civilisation’.