OK, there’s a lot of crap on our TV screens under the title of historical documentary. I particularly dislike the ones that tell us how everyone until now has got subject X all wrong and now this programme will in fifty minutes tell us the TRUTH. Blah blah blah. Or there’s all that heavily-trodden superficial ground of ‘The most evil men in history’ type rubbish (Channel 5, are you listening?). But I’m currently reading History and the media (ed. David Cannadine, Basingstoke, 2004), and I can only agree with Tristram Hunt in ‘How does television enhance history?’:
The question should no longer be, does TV enhance or diminish history?; it should be, how do we produce the highest quality history programming? (p. 99)
To which his answer is that we as academic historians must be involved working with programme makers and that we need to ‘assume as much editorial control as possible’. (Though I didn’t much like Tristram’s style on the box, if I’m honest. Shouty shouty, look at me, aren’t I a pretty blonde boy. Go away, brat. Er, I think I might be showing my age.)
TV history cannot do the same things as carefully, deeply researched and debated written history. Fine. It has other strengths. It can bring to a wide audience the fruits of that scholarship; it can engage the public with their past. It can tell stories about that past in different ways; it can often be more sophisticated in showing the problems of source material and interpretation than it’s given credit for.
One of my recent favourites was a recent Channel 4 programme – part of its Georgian Underworld series (2003) – on the Peterloo Massacre of 1819, which was unusual in being entirely a dramatic reconstruction, based on court records. (Well, we all love a courtroom drama, don’t we?) It was beautifully written and acted, deeply moving and utterly compelling. Or there was Channel 4’s Plague, Fire, War and Treason series (2001); moving away from my period, the BBC’s superb Pompeii: The Last Day (dramatic reconstructions – a great cast – as well as amazing CGI effects); I’ve written (gushingly) before about Meet the Ancestors and Terry Jones’s Medieval Lives; and now there’s Tony Robinson’s Worst Jobs in History (both the latter using humour to convey some serious messages; but there was a lot less piss and shit in Terry’s series…). Simon Schama’s History of Britain series had its faults, but it was nonetheless great viewing, and brought a wide sweep of British history to a vast audience.
There’s always something new and wonderful to watch, a vast array of techniques and a huge range, too, in terms of intellectual depth. And, as many of these links show, the TV programmes are increasingly complemented by high quality websites that provide background, develop their subjects and, at their best, also provide outstanding stand-alone learning resources (Channel 4’s Time Traveller’s Guides are wonderful, though mostly restricted to British history; the BBC’s History website is a wide-ranging treasure trove).
Considering the examples I’ve just given, it strikes me that ‘reconstructions’ of various kinds – by actors, by amateurs in ‘reality’ shows (which can be extremely variable, I agree, but I really liked The 1940s House), using computers – has really come of age in recent years. Reconstruction seems to have been considered deeply inferior as a technique by those who brought us the seminal documentaries of the 1960s to the 80s (The Great War, The World at War, etc).Working mostly in recent history, they created a formula that revolved around archive footage, interviews with participants and talking heads. Reconstructions were a last resort to be used only when ‘primary source’ film footage (which also had the virtue of being cheap) was unavailable, and industriously avoided even when it wasn’t. Jeremy Isaacs in the History and the media volume, comments on making a series about Irish history in the late 70s: ‘We set our face against reconstructions’ (p. 48) – problematic since half of the series covered the period before the invention of film.
Of course, bad reconstructions are really bad things, but good reconstructions bring home the ‘living’ past in a way that nothing else can. That’s why I so loved the Peterloo programme; or in a totally different vein, when Tony Robinson rolls up his sleeves and, trying not to gag – or in a few cases, freeze with fear – gets right in there to show us just what those awful jobs (many of them vital for society’s survival; or filthy tasks that made possible things of sublime beauty) really involved.
And all of that is why I love television history.
Originally posted September 2004, this seemed apt following my post the other day. (I haven’t checked that all the links still work.)