back to article BBC rebuilds Civilisation in HD

Kenneth Clark's Civilisation was a genuine television event when it was first broadcast in 1969. Thanks to restoration work carried out on the more than 40-year-old film stock it may be about to repeat its success. The BBC has remastered the 13-part series into HD and will broadcast the critically acclaimed documentary on the …


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  1. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Civilisation in HD.

    sounds boring

  2. Samuel Williams

    Can't stand "docudramas"

    And I'm sure Horizon used to be good once too. Bring back Equinox, I say.

    1. Chris Miller

      Hear, hear

      TBF, the current series of Horizon is much improved - though not yet back to previous high standards, it's still worth watching.

      My other hobby-horse is the focus on the presenter to the detriment of the programme. A current case in point is Iain Stewart's 'Men of Rock', which includes long closeups of him trying to look suitably awestruck, while I shout "show us the bloody view you cretins, not his nostril hair" at the screen.

      One of my favourite series was Bryan Magee's 'The Great Philosophers', which consisted entirely of 30-minute interviews with the leading philosophers of the day. Who can imagine such a series being commissioned today?

      1. Steven Jones

        Science Documentaries

        Far an away the best science series in the last decade (and a bit) was Aubrey Manning's "Earth Story". It was a masterpiece in how to tell a compelling story of discovery without recourse to historical reconstructions or over-emphasis on the histrionics of the presenter. Simply superb, and a lesson to producers and directors on how to do this stuff.

        Horizon is still very, very patchy. The recent Ben Miller programme was an insult to the intelligence where he, as a Cambridge Physics graduate, and somebody who started a PhD, pretends to be incapable of explaining to some mythical woman at a dinner part what the 1 degree meant along with the concept of temperature (and later on, normal distributions and averages). It skittered along, larded with pointless shots of his Citreon DS and climbing a ladder to read a thermometer on the roof of his house, starting with some very simple illustrations to throw in a bit of quantum mechanics, superfluidity and nuclear fusion without adequately explaining some of the basics on the way.

        For instance, the importance of triple points as a standard temperature was emphasised, but they failed completely to explain the role of pressure which would leave a lot of confused folk wondering why they don't see this happening in nromal life. Indeed they didn't explain what a phase change was at all, something pretty critical to the understanding of what melting and boling point means (which they mentioned in passing).

        Frankly a fairly moderately educated primary school teacher can explain what temperature is in qualitative terms. The illustration they did use for temperature (dodgem cars moving faster) was OK in itself, but that's only a metaphor for temperature in a gas, not a liquid or solid.

        However, it wasn't primarily the poorly explained science and structure that got to me, it was Ben Miller being forced to go through this pretence that he couldn't explain this stuff perfectly well, and was forced to rely on a succession of world leading experts to do it. Indeed, I'm inclined to think that we might next find him in a brain-dead populist SF series looking something like a cross between Hollyoaks and Torchwood infest with malevolent time-travelling dinosaurs eating large numbers of the population without, apparently, coming to public attention. You mean somebody has thought of that already?

        1. Mike Richards Silver badge

          Big fan of 'Earth Story'

          Not only was it gorgeous (and at the time cutting edge geology). But they were very clever with Aubrey Manning as a presenter. He openly admitted he didn't know much about geology, but didn't go down the more common route of acting like a cretin. Here was a smart guy using his knowledge of a different area of science to explore another.

          BTW. Does Brian Cox's constant smile freak other Regitards as much as it does me?

        2. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Earth Story

          I have to agree. Earht Story was a brilliant series equivalent in standard to Civilisation, though in a different field. Aubrey Manning's global perspective was brilliant.

      2. Mike Richards Silver badge

        To be fair to Iain Stewart

        At least he's a geologist.

        The BBC is usually much happier to embark on 'celebrity led journeys of discovery'*, just think back to the buttock clenchingly awful episode of Horizon with Alan bloody Davies. It's not beyond the realms of possibility that'll follow that up with Barbara Windsor's Quest for the Higgs Boson.

        * their words not mine. It was used in cold blood at a pitching meeting I once attended.

    2. Stanislaw
      Thumb Up


      Never seen Civilisation, despite it cropping up all the time on "best TV series evah" type shows. I shall be very interested to have a look.

      More recently, I've been very impressed by the BBC's Ancient Worlds series - six proper university-grade one-hour lectures delivered by a man who had clearly decided his audience were interested in the subject, rather than in seeing men in costumes waving pretend axes about. It was refreshing to have a series that challenged you to keep up, rather than one that moved at the pace of the slowest. A bit more of that wouldn't go amiss.

  3. Peter Bond
    Thumb Up

    Well said!

    Will make a welcome change from lightweight know-nothings like Dan Snow delivering history for larger drinkers and Express readers. Michael Wood, Kenneth Clark and Simon Schama are in a class of their own when it comes to this sort of stuff. Well done the BBC.

  4. Andy Hards
    Thumb Up

    Really looking forward to this

    The Simon Schama made history interesting and exciting (if you like that sort of thing I guess) but I thought I knew a lot about history and learnt a hell of a lot from it. Never heard of it before but then I'm only a youngun so not surprising.

  5. Steven Jones

    Wrong series

    A lot of Civilisation was patronising, and in its implicitation that the arts virtually define civilisation, it misses out on the most important aspects. The discussions are largely those through the eye of the artist. The roles of civics, of education, of governance, of rationalism, of technology, of science, of philosophy, of mathematics are all subserviant to the visual arts. That's not to mention that the focus was narrowly on western Christian culture.

    To my mind, a far greater insight into the human progression and civilisation can be seen in Jacob Bronowski's Ascent of Man. Whilst this, inevitably, identifies with western rationalism, Bronowski being an archtypal modern inheritor of the enlightenment tradition. However, he allows space for other cultures and was certainly no philistine when it came to the arts. Prior to WWII he moved to Majorca to be near Robert Grave, he married a sculptress (who died only recently) and was a supporter of modern art. If you forgive the crude graphics, Ascent of Man has stood the test of time very well indeed.

    Bronowski was the man that I secretly suspect Richard Dawkins wished he was. We were the poorer for his early death. If anybody could communicate the important of rationalism, of secularism, of the nature of humanity without raising an allergic reaction, it was him. Also, Jacob Bronowski left us Lisa Jardine. Lord Clark begat Alan. Enough said I feel.

    Come on BBC, at least broadcast Ascent of Man again, and think that there's more to civilisation than that seen through the eye of an artist.

    1. Martin Silver badge

      Don't entirely agree...

      I'd rather be patronised than treated as an idiot, which is what happens with most TV documentaries today.

      I agree it focussed on the visual arts and on Western civilization almost exclusively. But I still found it thoroughly fascinating, and it'll be interesting to see it again.

      But no arguments about The Ascent of Man - that was landmark TV.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Your first para

      That is why it was called Civilisation.

    3. BigBadWolf
      Thumb Up

      Bronowski programme on BBC Four omorrow

      A programme about Bronowski, starring his daughter, is on BBC Four tomorrow night:

  6. DrXym Silver badge

    Are they going to crop it?

    The World at War was recently remastered and supposedly looks pretty good in HD on Blu Ray except for one bizarre thing. The picture was reframed (cropped) from 4:3 to 16:9. So you get to see 30% less visible picture such as the picture lopping off the top of Albert Speer's head.

    What the hell is the point in lovingly restoring a television programme and then doing that?

    BTW The Prisoner must represent the best looking remastering in HD. Everything was shot on 35mm and it looks epic in HD.

    1. Mike Richards Silver badge

      35mm remastering

      If they've done it with 'The Prisoner' maybe they'll do it with 'The Avengers' which was also shot on 35mm.

      Sorry the thought of Diana Rigg in HD has left me utterly incapable of working for the rest of the day.

    2. Joe 3

      Cropping - wrong wrong wrong!

      I couldn't agree with you more about the cropping, it's very annoying. If the footage was shot in 4:3, show it in 4:3 for goodness' sake! I love BBC Four for documentaries but they're always doing this and it's really annoying.

      (I know that cretins who want everything to fill the screen perfectly will complain that there's black bars at the side, but they can always stretch it like they probably do to everything anyway.)

  7. JeffyPooh

    How about "Connections" ?

    That guy with the huge head...

    1. Ken Hagan Gold badge

      Re: That guy with the huge head

      James Burke.

      I enjoyed Connections at the time, though I was about ten and my father (who had a somewhat older perspective) felt that the connections were often no more than cover for the script's limited attention span.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      re: connections

      I recall really liking it age 13, although now I can't recall any actual details. The one memory I have is of one episode starting with the battle of Hastings (and a side of beef suspended from a tree being hacked to bits with a longsword) and ending with the invention of the lightbulb. Without the bits in between, the memory has a rather Blackadderesque quality.

  8. probedb

    Aspect ratio

    I wonder if they kep the correct aspect ratio or zoomed stuff in like they did with World At War?

  9. Nigel Brown


    Never mind all this highbrow claptrap, when are they going to a HD makeover on all the archive footage of topless darts and Naked News?

    1. Cameron Colley

      Bad news.

      They decided to do Naked Jungle with Keith Chegwin.

    2. chr0m4t1c

      Oh my

      That brings back some memories.

      I wonder if Rusty Goff ever fell off that trampette doing the Bouncy Weather.

  10. Anonymous Coward

    Patronising? Not a bit of it!

    "So Mr Chumley-Warner how did poor people live many years ago?"

    "Well it was probably something like this."

    Cut to scene of typical slum dwellings with people in cloth caps emerging from outside toilets!

  11. Jedibeeftrix

    will the programme still stand up?

    "Technical jiggery-pokery aside, will the programme still stand up? Clark was a toff - he was a Knight of the Realm and sat in the House of Lords - and an art historian of the old school, "

    of course it will, the man was a genius and the program a work of art.

    i shall look forward to it.

    p.s. i would rate David Starkey above Simon Schama every day of the week!

  12. AndrewG

    I always thought another walking with would be good

    After walking with the caveman I wouldn've liked to see "walking with the citybuilders" each episode covering a different pre-roman culture or civilisation focussing on what they innovated towards modern civilisation (writing, taxes, agriculture, boating, pets etc.).

    Just seemed like a logical follow on

  13. strum

    Worth noting

    ...that Civilisation was commissioned by David Attenborough (as was 'Ascent of Man').

    1. carl 10
      Thumb Up

      David Attenborough

      He also wrote and presented The Tribal Eye which was an excellent series studying tribal art and its meaning around the world.

      Although originally broadcast well before my time, I recently watched it on DVD (re-released as a box set) and it is very good indeed.

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