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?