Civilisation and The Sopranos


My addiction started with the Sopranos. It was indeed Tony who singlehandedly pulled me into the realm of binge watching. And I haven’t stopped since. So far I have binged my way through Dexter, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, The Wire, Sherlock, GoT, Fargo, House of Cards (until youknowwhat), Stranger Things, Sense8, Six Feet Under, Ray Donovan, Black Mirror, The Crown (I know), Godless, Mindhunter, The End of the Fucking World, but to name a few. And don’t get me started on culinary shows.



Binge watching is a relatively new development. I still consider it a luxury, not having to wait for a broadcaster to decide for me what I can watch, when and where. Like the joys of online shopping. Sorry Mr and Mrs Shopkeeper but your opening hours do not coincide with my retail therapy urges so in comes Mr. Bezos.

buy now


That being said, waiting and anticipating still now has its appeal. I am waiting right now for the much publicized new Civilisation series, to be aired by the BBC, next March. Not that I will see this in March, as I don’t have access to the BBC. So unless somebody puts it on YouTube, which is illegal and equals theft, despite it being Art with a capital A, I will have to wait for the box.


Anyway. The new series, presented by Simon Schama, Mary Beard and David Olusoga is a modern – don’t you hate that word?- take on Kenneth Clark’s ‘Civilisation, A Personal View’ from 1969. I have the complete series, emphasis on ‘complete’. Four discs, eleven chapters, 663 minutes.

Try bingeing on that baby, baby!’

‘Civilisation’, a masterpiece at its time, now terribly outdated.


Visually antiquated and musically overburdened, the series has an old-fashioned, dare I say, stifled feel to it. Clearly, we, the viewers, have moved on. Bombarded as we are with images and colours, we need more. Speed, movement, flow. And then there is Clark, the over-confident, upper class, Western Burberry patrician who, offers us his ‘personal’ view on civilisation. How wonderful it must have been, living and working in an era that allowed for such liberties. For when Clark says ‘personal’, what he really means is selective, according to his preferences. Clark was allowed to focus on what, to him, mattered most. He could, singlehandedly, like Tony, dispensing with entire civilisations. Philosophers? Who needs them? Writers? No thank you. Enlightened and subversive thinkers? I don’t think so. The series, bizarrely, starts off in Ireland; Skellig Michael no less, the very same island where fifty years later Rey would face Luke Skywalker.


From there, through the very dark Middle Ages, Clark hobbles into the Gothic to gracefully slide into the Renaissance. Rome or Greece hardly mentioned. Vikings as seafaring rapists. Not one reference to Spain. Moors? Ah yes? Byzantium? Okay. But never Constantinople.

‘Civilisation.’ All that is singular and unique. In a world where woke was not a word yet.

Do not take me wrong. I appreciate Kenneth Clark and will be forever grateful for him, saving some eighteen hundred masterpieces from the National Gallery on the eve of the Second World War. But now, I believe, like John Berger in his 1972 ‘Ways of Seeing’, that it is high time for a new take on civilisation.

The new series is aptly named ‘Civilisations’, with the added ‘s’ a relief. But also a concern. How will the makers of the new series handle the political correctness standards of our time. Where will politeness, sensitivity and deference cross the embarrassing truths of history? How will Clark’s barbarians, savages and all those ‘others’ he barely mentions find their own, rightful place in an overview that, as Schama says, ‘gets us from the Ice Age to last week’. And how will Clark’s ‘Christian, predominantly white, Western’ man fare amidst the encounter between the world’s nations and cultures?

We will see. And eventually binge. Or not.

I like to extol the pleasures of binge watching. In truth, it is an addiction. Unlike the book you can’t put down, bingeing is a passive activity that takes us out of reality into a fantasy of gigantic proportions. Binge long enough and one gets convinced that behind that flat screen, there is actually a Westeros. And a neurotic, moody, anxious mob killer. I clearly remember how, upon hearing of the death of James Gandolfini, the first thing I thought was ‘Sh@#, now we’ll never have a sequel’. So much for commiseration. James had become Tony. All lines suddenly blurred.

Blurred also the lines when we talk about civilisation. For despite lectures and books and TV documentaries, nobody can exactly define what civilisation is. Clark maintained he knew what it was when he saw it, keeping his eyes turned to the Notre Dame in Paris. It is never that simple. Perhaps the true definition of civilisation lies beyond our grasp. Perhaps it is merely a word that only has meaning in its elasticity. Or perhaps we only know what civilisation is and means when we feel it is under threat, when we recognize its ephemeral qualities.

Let’s binge on that for a while.