A Civil Tongue

When Kenneth Clark’s ‘Civilisation’ first aired on BBC2, in 1969, it completely passed us by. It just wasn’t the kind of thing we watched, either as a family, or individually. It wouldn’t have been on the menu in the same way that university wasn’t mentioned beyond the name of the ‘University Challenge’ host, Bamber Gasgoigne. His moniker was part of the same limited household lexicon of exotica as aperitif, souffle, jodhpurs, debutante, etc. You get the picture.

In light of what might be regarded as a 49 year old missed opportunity to enjoy a cultural televisual feast, I was delighted to discover that the entire 13 part series is currently available in the iPlayer archive section. It’s a bit stiff and starchy but I’ve warmed to Kenneth Clark – a lifetime Labour voter, by the way– and his kindly method of presentation. It’s as if the programmes had been tailored for the benefit of working class families like ours, and I wonder what collective thoughts and opinions might have been aired in the living room, if we’d given it half a chance?

Religion, and Christianity in particular, is ever present as Clark explains his personal views of civilisation in the west. By the west, he means Europe, specifically. I guess he would have been given short shrift from a family who usually switched ‘Songs of Praise’ off every Sunday, barring Christmas, when carols were sung.

Not that we were an intolerant lot. I mean, we kept quiet while The Cliff Adams Singers sang something simple, and in return, there was no adult moaning while Pick of the Pops was on. All very civilised really, I suppose.

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