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TV review: Civilisations, and BBC Panorama: Weinstein: The inside story

09 March 2018


Simon Schama in Petra, Jordan, in Civilisations (BBC2, Thursdays)

Simon Schama in Petra, Jordan, in Civilisations (BBC2, Thursdays)

THERE was a curious BBC conjunction on Thursday of last week. BBC2 launched its cultural blockbuster Civilisations, while BBC1 gave us an hour-long edition of Panorama: Weinstein: The inside story.

There may be some linkage in subject-matter. Harvey Weinstein has been, by any reckoning, one of the most creative film-makers in recent years: his Miramax company produced movies that Hollywood wouldn’t touch — they explored issues and themes previously considered taboo; and, in terms of enlarging the United States’ moral compass, he has been one of the good guys, prepared to go out on a limb for a liberal cause. But, as the programme chronicled, all this virtue appears to have been built on a hollow foundation.

In his business affairs, he has been described as a constant bully: domineering, yelling, and screaming in meetings if thwarted. As one of his associates ruefully admitted, why did it occur to none of them that this same behaviour could characterise his relations with women, too?

The heart of the programme was distressing testimony from woman after woman, who all told the same sordid story that we’ve read in the papers: one of him abusing his position and power to manoeuvre his way into receiving sexual favours. We may have read the stories, but seeing them told by the women themselves and witnessing the level of distress that is still experienced brings home the message that such action wrecks lives. And that includes the lives of those who com­pletely repulsed his advances.

The link I make concerns the relationship between the creative artist and what he makes. Does hearing what we now hear about Mr Weinstein — which, at the moment, is untested accusation, but the cumulative effect is powerful — affect our judgement about the integrity of his films? Does the despicable behaviour alleged undermine the radical liberal stance of what he created?

These are questions that would surely interest Simon Schama, who presents Civilisations (BBC2, Thursdays), which deliberately seeks to place artistic creation in its wider context, not as isolated art objects, but as emblems of their culture and society. It is deliberately a contemporary riposte to Kenneth Clark’s great series all those decades ago, with a far more multi­cultural approach, evinced by the plural title: there is no one normative civilisation.

Schama began with religion-inspired terror: the decapitation of Khaled al-Asaad, chief curator of the ancient glories of Palmyra, by the obscene assassins of Islamic State. So he laid down the two contrasting human impulses: the desire to make and the terrible urge to destroy.

Religious ritual surely lay behind the artistic impulse that we saw in ancient cave painting. How interesting that, just as for Clark, civilisation — how we live in cities — is really about art, which was made for millennia before any city existed.

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