The BBC, and Civilisation

Kenneth Clarke in front of the Pazzi Chapel, in a still taken from the series Civilisation

There’s an interesting response that David Attenborough always gives when asked where his interest in the natural world comes from. He says that every child he’s ever met has an interest in the natural world. He never lost his own interest, so what happened to the rest of us?

He pretty much hits on exactly this point in the video below, where he’s being interviewed by Barack Obama. And it says something for his level of fame that it’s Obama interviewing him and not the other way around. (His remarks on becoming interested in nature start from Obama’s question, at about the 6:10 mark):

I’ll add as a side note that as an Australian, that Obama and Attenborough sat in the White House discussing the health of the Great Barrier Reef is fantastic. Even if the reef isn’t, anymore.

Attenborough came to fame with the documentary series Life on Earth, in 1979. What isn’t as well known is that he’d been a high-ranking BBC manager before this. In 1965 he became controller of BBC2 and in 1969 he was made director of programs, putting him in charge of both the BBC television channels. He was spoken of as a future director-general.

I mention all this because of the serendipity that Attenborough was in charge of BBC2 when it became the UK’s first colour channel in 1967. Partly to take advantage of the new medium he commissioned the documentary series Civilisation (1969), America (1972), and The Ascent of Man (1973).

I’ll discuss America some other day. I was a fan of the late Alistair Cooke’s Letter from America on the BBC World Service until 2004 and the documentary series is well worth anyone’s time.

What I really want to talk about are Civilisation and The Ascent of Man. Both are now old but have held up well, Civilisation especially. I have not yet watched any of Ken Burns’ documentaries and believe they are brilliant, and likewise I really mean to watch the whole of the 1980s documentary The Silk Road that was made by Japan’s NKH and China’s CCTV; but for the moment Civilisation is one of the best things I’ve ever seen.

Presented by Kenneth Clark, it was specifically about Western Civilisation. The documentary was criticised for this and Clark’s response was that he knew perfectly well that other civilisations existed – he was an art historian and could hardly not have known – but nonetheless the documentary was about Western Civilisation only.

The actual conceit was that it was a history of Western Civilisation as told through beautiful objects, an idea that sounds like it shouldn’t work but emphatically did.

One fascinating detail is that Clark turned in his first script for the first episode and the producer, Michael Gill, immediately rejected it. Gill said the quality wasn’t good enough. Presumably he was right and the rest is history.

The Ascent of Man was made in a kind of response, to cover the scientific side of history as opposed to the artistic side. And it stands beside Civilisation as a feat of film-making and the documentary art.

My question is, why can’t the BBC do anything like this today? The BBC Natural History Unit is famous for its excellent documentaries. But the rest? Where is the programming of the quality of Civilisation, America or The Ascent of Man? They seem incapable of producing it. I have no idea why.

The Melancholy Roman

How to make a sow’s ear out of a silk purse

Ecce Homo before and after. From

Back in 2012, in the north eastern Spanish town of Borja, a local woman volunteered to restore a church’s Ecce Homo painting. The result was so bad it made headlines around the world.

In this case the notoriety was unexpectedly rewarded. The messed-up painting became a tourist attraction in its own right and the church started charging admission fees. In almost a definition of chutzpah, the woman responsible suggested that she should get a share of the income generated.

More recently, last month the restoration of a wooden statue in the town of Estella, in a different part of Spain, left it looking cartoonish. Bright colours were used and the statue’s face now resembled Tintin.

There is clearly a restorations problem in Spain.

I move on to the (English) National Theatre’s 2010 production of Mikhail Bulgakov’s The White Guard. I saw and enjoyed this play, the scale of the sets being particularly memorable. But amidst all the critical praise for the production there was a dissenting voice. A critic named John Morrison wrote on his blog that the production wasn’t really Bulgakov’s work at all. Bulgakov had written The White Guard as a novel and had adapted it into a play called The Days of the Turbins. This was the play the National Theatre was staging but Morrison said there’d been too many changes for it to really be the same piece.

For example, there was a scene where a badly wounded soldier was taken behind the lines to get medical help. When I saw it, another soldier deliberately shot the wounded man, killing him instantly.

According to Morrison, in the original play the injured soldier wasn’t shot but was cared for and given medical help. In other words, the actual story had been changed in the National Theatre production.

Which gets me to the Melbourne Theatre Company’s recent production of The House of Bernarda Alba.

I originally saw this play in London in 2005, at the same National Theatre I mentioned above and indeed, on the same stage.

At the time I had a Monday-Friday job and went to the theatre nearly every weekend. I often bought tickets at the half price outlet in Leicester Square and would see shows on spec. Plays I discovered this way include Journey’s End by R.C. Sherriff, The Constant Wife by Somerset Maughan, and The Lieutenant of Inishmore by Martin McDonagh. Also on that list was The House of Bernarda Alba by Federico García Lorca.

A year later I was studying in Granada, Spain. One day one of the teachers wrote “La Casa de Bernarda Alba” on the board and I slowly realised that it was the same Lorca play I’d seen. “La Case de” translates as “The House of.”

I learned that Lorca had been a poet. He’d also been gay, politically outspoken, and had been murdered near the outset of the Spanish Civil War. A combination of that and the brilliance of his writing means that he remains the most famous Spanish playwright of the 20th century. The House of Bernarda Alba is his final work and is considered his masterpiece. He never saw it produced.

All this history I learned in Granada and after and left me wanting to see it again. I was delighted when I discovered that the Melbourne Theatre Company would be staging a production.

Alas, the promotional material said it was “adapted by Patricia Cornelius after Federico García Lorca” and this made me nervous. Adaptations are nothing new and indeed, the production I saw in London in 2005 had been translated by David Hare. But I was uneasy because the publicity notes said that the setting of the play had been moved from Andalucía to Western Australia and I couldn’t see a reason for the change.

This is not to say that Patricia Cornelius is a bad playwright. Just the opposite, for she has a good reputation. But you mess with the classics at your peril.

So I went to the theatre and I sat down to watch the play. And it rapidly became clear that some changes had been made. Some of the characters had vanished completely.

Perhaps that was for budgetary reasons. After all, actors are expensive. But I also noticed that whole scenes had been rewritten and I think that at least one scene was repositioned so that it came earlier in the play.

The result of all these changes was that some of the power had been lost. To me, the play I saw wasn’t quite The House of Bernarda Alba.

Casting my mind back to The White Guard and those botched Spanish art restorations, I concluded that the Melbourne Theatre Company had unfortunately pulled off the same trick. They’d managed to make a sow’s ear out of a silk purse.

The Melancholy Roman