Culture House Daily

Civilisation doesn’t need a woman presenter – and it doesn’t need to be remade!

1 May 2014

3:40 PM

1 May 2014

3:40 PM

I was pleased to see that June Sarpong had added her weight to Kathy Lette’s petition to get a woman to present the BBC’s remake of Civilisation. I’ve often wondered what became of her after Five Go Dating, a show I used to watch religiously, and one which – if you’re listening, Channel 4 – equally deserves to be resurrected.

Lette’s letter is in yesterday’s Times. She complains that Kenneth Clark’s original had little to say about women (true) and that because of this, a ‘female historian’ should take the reins this time. ‘A female presenter’, argues the Australian novelist, ‘would ensure that the series is not just about History but also Herstory. It’s imperative that women also have a voice in the story of our world.’

As well as Sarpong, the motley crew of signatories includes Shami Chakrabarti, Caitlin Moran, Bianca Jagger, Sandi Toksvig, and ex-Peak Practice star, Haydn Gwynne. There are no men among the 50-odd names. Either no man agreed to sign a letter that included the word ‘herstory’, or none was asked.


The potential presenters Lette throws into the mix are: Mary Beard, Sue Perkins (only joking), Lisa Jardine, Amanda Vickery, Marina Warner, Bettany Hughes, Frances Stonor Saunders, AS Byatt and Hermione Lee. It’s not a bad list, most of them are intellectual heavyweights. I’m unconvinced AS Byatt is a natural TV presenter, but then neither was Kenneth Clark.

What I find offensive is the idea that only a woman can ensure that women would be fairly represented. It’s sexist and patronising, to women and to men. It also shows a fundamental ignorance of the original series, which focused on western art, architecture and philosophy – not the whole of history. And which was famously subtitled ‘A Personal View’.

More problematically, it’s all very well saying women’s contribution to history and the arts should be reflected, but how’s that going to work in practice, given that women were prevented from contributing much to civilisation? Will the episode on the Enlightenment be dedicated to Mary Wollstonecraft? Insist on an anachronistic equality agenda and you risk overstating the significance of particular women – aka the Mary Seacole effect.

And why stop at women? I’m still waiting for Owen Jones’ petition for a working-class presenter who can ensure working-class people’s contribution to civilisation is accurately recorded. Let’s not forget all the poor craftsmen who died during the building of Chartres Cathedral. And while we’re at it, how about a Muslim presenter, as only they would be capable of giving Arab civilisation its due?

I loved Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation (watch it on YouTube NOW). Which is why I think Tony Hall’s idea to remake it is a stupid, broadsheet-pleasing idea that smacks of a nostalgic, Govian approach to broadcasting. If it has to go ahead, my vote is for Grayson Perry. But why not save a few million quid and just repeat the original?

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Show comments
  • Andrew Smith

    What’s the obsession with “authoratitive” documentaries hopsing to give the final word on everything. Clarke and Pevsner sought only to give a short view on what they held to be significant. That these programmes became classics is only due to the quality of their learning and presentation, not from any form of claim to encylopediality or universality. Why not just make a film about the bits they missed out. We would soon see which was more interesting.

  • Liz

    “Will the episode on the Enlightenment be dedicated to Mary Wollstonecraft?”

    I would have though Caroline of Ansbach would be more appropriate seeing as she introduced it to Britain.

  • The_greyhound

    “It’s not a bad list, most of them are intellectual heavyweights.”

    For women that is.

    At least there will be more coverage of shoes if they have some bint to do it.

  • IainRMuir

    So what has changed since the original Civilisation to justify this remake? Has Atlantis turned up? Has the Sistine Chapel been redecorated? Has Florence been redeveloped? Has someone discovered another half dozen symphonies by Beethoven?

    No doubt the BBC simply wants a change of emphasis. I can see where this is heading. Glad I still have the original.

    • Liz

      What’s wrong with a remake with a change of emphasis? Why would anyone only want to look at history through one victor prism?

      • IainRMuir

        So make something new instead of being parasitic on the original.

        • Liz

          So “Civilisation” has been done now?

  • Liz

    It would be lovely if men could represent women, but unfortunately they neither can, nor do.

  • Donafugata

    If June Sarpong and Kathy Lette say so, it definitely needs a man and one of scholarship.

    Dr. James Fox would be my choice.

  • Colin56

    It’s yet another multi-million £ boondoggle for the presenter(s), director(s), producer(s), cast and crew who couldn’t earn an honest wage if they went out and tried. Why is it that the BBC seems to think it best to replicate (‘re-make’ in W1A-speak) the great ideas of yesteryear, in the faint hope that the formula might possibly work again? Where’s the original thinking, the innovation, the quality programming that these motley hangers on are paid good money by the poor benighted licence-fee payer to produce? Clear evidence that the denizens of Portland Place are clean out of ideas; and the grinning ‘Lord’ Hall and hopeless ‘Fatty Pang’ need to spend more time with their cocoa and slippers.

  • La Fold

    Well when the presenter of T4 says something I know I listen