Singularly Pluralistic

By Ben Felsenburg

What a fuss there’s been over Civilisations (Thursday, BBC2, 9pm). How dare they tamper with the template that had millions of us gazing in wonderment at our TV screens in 1969 as that archetypal privileged white male, Kenneth Clark, lectured the world on art and culture for week after week in the series Civilisation?

Such was the cry from the fusty fuddy-duddies, as the addition of an ‘s’ to make the title into a plural sparked accusations of cultural relativism. The new series has changed into far more than a repeat of the original exercise. Yes, it’s a survey of all that’s best about humanity and our works, but now the focus is more global than just the West. And there are three presenters: Simon Schama helms most of the nine episodes, while fellow historians David Olusoga and Mary Beard take care of the rest.

But much has stayed the same as last time around, and in a good way, for this is what the BBC is about at its best, using its matchless resources to edify and educate in a delightfully accessible way. The first episode, fronted by Schama, takes us back, right to the start of the story – the cave paintings daubed by some unknown hand tens of thousands of years ago. It’s a sight to make you shiver with awe at what our species is capable of – and a welcome antidote to the horrific destruction of the ancient treasures of Palmyra by jihadists, with which the series opens.