British Arts Programme

Kenneth Clark's 13-part series produced by British Broadcasting Corporation's Channel 2 (BBC-2) in 1969 and released in the United States in 1970 on public television, remains a milestone in the history of arts television, the Public Broadcasting System, and the explication of high culture to interested laypeople. The series offers an extended definition of the essential qualities of Western civilization through an examination of its chief monuments and important locations. While such a task may seem both arrogant and impossible, Clark's views are always stimulating and frequently entertaining. Civilization, he suggests, is energetic, confident, humane, and compassionate, based on a belief in permanence and in the necessity of self-doubt.

As Clark would readily acknowledge, civilization is not always all of these things at once, which gives his chronological tour considerable drama inasmuch as episodes speak to each other; Abbot Suger enters into dialogue in the viewer's mind with Michelangelo, Beethoven, and Einstein. A self-confessed hero worshiper, Clark arranged each episode around one or more important figures, illustrating his Carlylean view that civilization is the product of great men. Given his exploration of the visual possibilities of television (not always acknowledged in previous arts programming) and his particular intellectual biases, the program draws its evidence primarily from art history, but takes a wider view than that description might suggest. In his memoir The Other Half he commented on the one hand that "I always . . . based my arguments on things seen--towns, bridges, cloisters, cathedrals, palaces," but added that he considered the visual a "poin[t] of departure" rather than a final destination: "When I set about the programmes I had in mind Wagner's ambition to make opera into a gesamtkunstwerk--text, spectacle and sound all united".

Clark's qualifications for the series included his position as a leading art historian and, beginning in 1937, his career as a pioneer of British television arts programming. He had also served in the Ministry of Information during World War II, an experience that seems to have contributed to his philosophy of arts television: "The first stage was to learn that every word must be scripted; the second that what viewers want from a program on art is not ideas, but information; and the third that things must be said clearly, energetically and economically," he wrote. Thus his first successful television series, Five Revolutionary Painters (which aired on ITA and which he discusses briefly in The Other Half), both allowed him to test his theory that the viewing public wanted to learn about individual artists and served as a kind of dress rehearsal for the more ambitious Civilisation. As Clark noted, "I might not have been able to do the filmed sequences of Civilisation with as much vivacity if I had not 'come up the hard way' of live transmission".

Following the social and political upheavals that marked 1968 in both Europe and the United States, Civilisation teaches that hard times do not inevitably crush the humane tradition so central to Clark's view of Western civilization. Indeed, when David Attenborough suggested the title for the series, Clark's typically self-deprecating response was, "I had no clear idea what [civilization] meant, but I thought it was preferable to barbarism, and fancied that this was the moment to say so." That the program offers a personal (and in some ways idiosyncratic) look at nine centuries of European intellectual life is thus a crucial part of its appeal, inasmuch as it argues that to follow cultural matters--and care about them--is within the reach of television viewers.

Clark's appreciation that television remains a performer's medium even when it deals with the abstract established the pattern for later pundit programs such as Alistair Cooke's America and Jacob Bronowski's The Ascent of Man, which were, like Civilisation, directed by Michael Gill. In all three programs the cultural cicerone and his locations are the stimulus for the presentation of ideas. "I am convinced that a combination of words and music, colour and movement can extend human experience in a way words alone cannot do," he remarked in the foreword to the book version of Civilisation. His series aired only two years after BBC-2 switched to full-color broadcasting and was intended in part as a dramatic introduction to the possibilities of the new technology.


Photo courtesy of BBC

Civilisation came at an opportune time for American public television, appearing in that venue after the BBC had tried in vain to place the series with the commercial networks. The program was underwritten by Xerox, which also provided $450,000 for an hour-long promotional programme (again produced by the BBC) to drum up business for the multipart broadcast. The nascent Public Broadcasting System received plaudits for carrying the programme, and Clark undoubtedly found his largest audience in the United States. The series's reach in America was demonstrated by the popularity of the precedent-setting Harper and Row tie-in book, which became a best seller despite its $15 price tag. Thus in addition to promulgating its comforting message about the survival capacities of a high culture besieged for a millennium by the forces of darkness, Civilisation had in the United States the serendipitous effect of demonstrating that high-culture television could in fact draw significant numbers of viewers.

-Anne Morey

Kenneth Clark

Michael Gill, Peter Montagnon


13 Episodes
23 February-18 May, 1969


Clark, Kenneth. Civilisation: A Personal View. New York: Harper & Row, 1969.

_______________. The Other Half: A Self-Portrait. London: John Murray, 1977.

A Guide to Civilisation: The Kenneth Clark Films on the Cultural Life of Western Man. Introduction and notes by Richard McLanathan. New York: Time-Life, 1970.

Secrest, M. Kenneth Clark: A Biography. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1984.

Walker, John A. Arts TV: A History of Arts Television in Britain. London: John Libbey & Company, 1993.

_______________. "Clark's Civilisation in Retrospect." Art Monthly (London), December-January 1988-89.


See also Attenborough, Richard