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Inside the Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna, Italy  (c. 526-547 AD). All images ©BBC/NUTOPIA

There is much to enjoy and admire in BBC2’s series, Civilisations. It looks beautiful, from Simon Percy’s opening titles to the directing and photography. The programmes capture the gorgeous colours of art, from Titian and El Greco to 19th-century Japanese woodcuts, from Islamic art to Matisse. Some of these sequences are breathtaking, bringing the great art, sculpture and architecture of different civilisations to life.

There is also the geographic and historical range, from ancient cave paintings, 40,000 years old, to 21st-century artists. At their best, these programmes show us how civilisations have connected and influenced each other: the influence of 19th-century Japanese art on the Impressionists, of Islamic art on Matisse during his time in Tangier, of African art on Picasso. Perhaps best of all is the enthusiasm of the three presenters and the quality of some of the individual readings. For almost three minutes Simon Schama speaks with terrific passion about Van Gogh’s Starry Night Over the Rhône, looking at land, water and sky “all melting and dissolving together”. David Olusoga shows how a seemingly interior, domestic space in a painting by Vermeer is full of objects from all over the world.

Finally, there is the politics and history. Olusoga describes the catastrophic encounters between Western conquerors and natives from the Americas to Tahiti. One of the highlights of the series comes when Mary Beard describes how “a distorting and sometimes divisive lens” has deeply affected “the way people in the West have encountered and judged the art of very different civilisations.”

If all this is so good, then why is Civilisations such a mess? Why has it received so much critical flak?

There are always two questions which dominate every major TV historical series. First, where to start? Second, how to slice the cake? When Kenneth Clark set out to present Civilisation, he wrote down 15 subjects (later reduced to 13) on one page of a red notebook. This became the outline of the series. When Jeremy Isaacs produced The World at War, a television history of the Second World War, in 26 episodes, he met the Director of the Imperial War Museum, Noble Frankland, and asked him to write down 14 military topics that any series on the war could not ignore. Isaacs later claimed that this was written down “on the back of an envelope”.

In both cases, Clark and Isaacs knew where they wanted to start and the story they wanted to tell. Crucially, they both wanted to tell a chronological story, moving forward through time. Jacob Bronowski and his producers did the same with The Ascent of Man, telling the story from the evolution of man from apes to modern physics and genetics in 13 one-hour episodes.
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