Aidan Smith: There’s a real problem with our ‘Civilisation’

Critics seem obsessed with the appearance and dress sense of Professor Mary Beard, seen holding her OBE medal (Picture: Getty)
Critics seem obsessed with the appearance and dress sense of Professor Mary Beard, seen holding her OBE medal (Picture: Getty)
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Professor Mary Beard is perfect for the BBC’s Civilisations and Boro lass Steph McGovern is TV gold, writes Aidan Smith.

“I have two words for you,” said Oscar-winning actress Frances McDormand, “inclusion rider.” Everyone at the 90th Academy Awards knew what she meant – well, after they’d Googled the words, that is – and everyone heartily agreed with the sentiment. Except perhaps in Middlesbrough and Ancient Rome.

It’s not that Steph McGovern, BBC presenter and Boro lass, and historian du jour Mary Beard wouldn’t support McDormand’s view that performers should have a clause in their contract requiring that the production on which they’re working meets a certain level of diversity; I’m pretty sure they would. But this pair might wonder if inclusivity can ever be properly realised. And they might both legitimately ask: “Don’t I bring enough diversity already?”

McGovern is a rising star of the Beeb but complains that she’s paid less than privately educated colleagues because of her working-class roots. Beard is bringing a little bit of ‘Civilisation’ to the seriously dumbed-down airwaves only to be slagged off for her appearance.

READ MORE: Frances McDormand asks all female nominees to stand in powerful Oscar speech

Let’s deal with Beard first. Her new series is called Civilisations and tells the history of art, just like the original Civilisation back in 1969, which is always referenced as a televisual high water-mark whenever nude dating shows pop up in the schedules. Reviewing the opening instalment, the TV critic of a serious newspaper confessed to being unable to watch more than 20 minutes of this important work from the state broadcaster. Nevertheless she felt sufficiently informed to conclude it was “straight-up, gold-plated, five-star nonsense”. The only consolation was that at least Beard has “had a boil wash and is thankfully wearing someone else’s clothes”.

This is not the first time Beard’s appearance has been criticised. It’s not even the first time in this particular newspaper as the critic’s predecessor declared she should be “kept away from cameras altogether”.

Okay, so the learned prof might give the impression she spends many long afternoons in gloomy rooms with big, brain-hurting books, but isn’t that what we expect/want our academics to look like? Would we rather this was “Civilisations with Professor Holly Willoughby”? (You might like that, I suppose. In fact you’re probably already contemplating the terrific fnar-fnar potential of Holly being positioned underneath towering statues of naked men).

Back in 1969 the presenter was Kenneth Clark. He was a patrician; he lived in an 11th century castle. He wore tweed suits seemingly made out of board covered in barbed wire and the impression given was that these art treasures all belonged to him and that he’d only stepped outside his castle to talk about them because the roof was leaking or his errant son had got into some costly bother (well, he was the father of future Conservative minister and roue Alan Clark).

READ MORE: Dani Garavelli: no excuse for Mary Beard misogyny

You see what I did there? I criticised a presenter’s appearance. Easily done. But 49 years ago, in a different age, Clark was right for Civilisation just as Beard is right for Civilisations. She’s not haughty, doesn’t talk down to her audience or use esoteric language. “Come and have a look-see,” she’ll say. Sure, she can be a bit potty about the subject under discussion but that draws the audience in rather than pushes it away. And I couldn’t have told you what she was wearing the other night as she marvelled at some culturally seismic graffiti down by the banks of the Nile. I had to re-watch on iPlayer to check that her long grey ‘witch’s tresses’ hadn’t actually been given an outre makeover by Lady Gaga’s chief stylist. Of course they hadn’t.

Both Beard and McGovern have taken on challenging, some might say thankless, tasks. For many, art history in 2018 is potentially as big a turn-off as business news any time. When McGovern joined the Beeb’s Breakfast programme, she was told: “You’ll have to ask questions of a boring man in a suit who’s had the last vestige of personality removed by his media training supervisor. You’ll have to do this while the pair of you are sat on high stools like you were on a particularly awkward blind date in a 1980s wine bar. But don’t worry, this will only last three and a half minutes and then we’ll be returning to our brilliant anchors on their iconic sofa.”

Guess what? McGovern turned those three and a half minutes into gold, or since we’re talking early morning, Golden Nuggets. She did this with warmth, sparkiness and a cracking regional accent.

Yet the presenter claims the BBC has a problem with class, having been once told by a manager that she was “too common” to make it as a presenter. She obviously has made it, though her “posh” peers will invariably earn more than her.

If this is typical, then it suggests the Corporation has only been paying lip service to the way lips move in different parts of the country. Recruiting from the regions but not paying them as much as, say, Oxbridge types with their received pronunciation.

But what McGovern brings to the – Breakfast – table is authenticity. If that producer couldn’t see this then he’s obviously an idiot and I assume he no longer holds the position. She could go head-to-head with Sunderland’s Lauren Laverne in a battle of the English north-east’s most comely accents (and before any other idiot producers think I’m serious, my name is not Alan Partridge).

Presenters, actors, politicians – lots of them have modified the way they talk, rounded out flat vowels, removed all trace of flat caps, in their eagerness to get on. Maybe they could claim that the world, for them, wasn’t inclusive or diverse enough. Some progress in these areas has been made, but as Beard might tell us, Civilisation has got a bit to go yet.