Thursday, 29 March 2018

We have invented nothing...

Two surprisingly good bits of TV have come our way recently.

First, Troy: Fall of a City which, for Saturday night telly (and for someone who spent last year teaching Homer's Iliad) is actually rather fine.

Second, Civilisations. Don't forget the 'S', because we've been here before (with Kenneth Clark) as you can see it for yourself right here:


The old patrician, slightly patronising delivery dates terribly, and reminds you that presenters can get in the way of what they want to show you. Some of them still do!

While I've not always appreciated Simon Schama's sometimes idiosyncratic syllables, it has to be said he is masterful in this new BBC series. Not least, I suppose, because of the subject matter in the first episode - prehistoric cave art from up to 40,000 years ago.

When Picasso visited the famous Lascaux caves in France he is supposed to have declared, 'we have invented nothing'. Some of these prehistoric paintings are as vital, as real, as expressive as anything from any artistic epoch. It's astonishing to imagine its creation in such an otherwise primitive society living a hand-to-mouth, hunter-gatherer existence.

But then, as the opening sequence of episode one also shows, we've learned next-to-nothing in terms of respect for art and culture in the last 40,000 years either.

As a species we seem as determined to destroy as we are to make. Vladimir the Inpaler Putin chose the week of the series airing to announce new ways of achieving mutually assured destruction. And as the first episode of Civilisations shows, the extremists of Isis did unspeakable damage to ancient treasures - as well as murdering their guardian - in Syria.

Not that long ago it happened here, too. Go round almost any parish church and certainly most cathedrals and you'll find signs of the damage done either by one Cromwell (in the name of the King) or another (in anyone's name BUT!).

It is, as dear old Kenneth Clark said at the start of his series fifty years ago, only by the skin of our teeth that we're still here, reading books, admiring paintings, listening to music... watching television.

And finally, on the subject of television and this series in particular, a footnote. It’s decidedly 'off' to say anything negative about Mary Beard and I do so reluctantly. But her faux Estuary English glo’al stops - a trait she doesn’t exhibit much in voice-overs but which peppers her pieces to camera - do get a tad irritating in episode two. (Mind you, so does Schama’s odd pronunciation of mountayne’ and ‘fountayne’ so perhaps it’s me.)

Come back, Kenneth, all is forgiven! One way of getting yourself in the way of the subject you're espousing is as bad as any other. Maybe Picasso was right after all. As far as the presenters are concerned, we really have learned (almost) nothing.
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