I Love Television History
There. I said it. Will it get me kicked out of the academy?
I also love historical novels, just to compound my sins. And with good personal reasons: historical fiction brought me out of the intellectual wilderness of my early twenties into the study of history (especially the late, great Dorothy Dunnett). (And I still turn to historical novels before TV dramas, on the whole.)
Here I’m talking about non-fiction programming (and the British programmes with which I'm most familiar). OK, as with historical fiction, there’s a lot of rubbish on our TV screens masquerading 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. It told a big story, boldly and creatively.
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 accompanied, and 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, and I'd like to have seen PBS's Colonial 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.
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Oscar Chamberlain - 9/22/2004
Balancing ratings and accuracy is difficult. One "solution" that I have seen repeatedly is a producer book-ending a quality documentary with a sensationalist opening and closing. That I'm willing to live with, except that I've probably missed some good programs because of the bad opening.
Sharon Howard - 9/21/2004
Thanks, Caleb. That's an interesting discussion. Obviously I haven't seen it - and I know nothing nothing whatsoever about the subject - but the programme makers seem to have managed to commit just about every sin in the book. Simplification is pretty much inevitable on the screen - from the point of view of specialists anyway (even in programmes I like I'll sometimes find myself saying, yes but what about that, and how could they ignore THAT...) - but this sounds pretty shoddy work. The downside of history becoming something that draws in TV audiences, of course, is that you get unscrupulous programme makers out for quick profits. Still, even amidst the criticisms, the point is made that it's raising awareness of a less well-known subject.
W. Caleb McDaniel - 9/21/2004
Sharon, you might be interested in a discussion on the H-SHEAR list concerning a recent History Channel film about the War of 1812. If you go here, you'll see a list of posts from September. The posts with "First Invasion (1812)" in the title are the ones you want. The first post in the thread is here.
Sharon Howard - 9/21/2004
Computers can do wonders for battle scenes (if that's what you're into). Getting reconstruction/re-enactment right does depend on a commitment to doing it right, writing good dialogue, putting in necessary resources. Though, as I've said about the opening battle scene of Winstanley, it's possible to do a great deal with very little if the makers have the imagination (in any case, that scene lasts only a few minutes). But what you say reminds me of a particular scene in the film Witchfinder General. It's a, um, horse chase... where both riders are riding the same horse. (Though my friends didn't notice until I, the one-time teenage pony freak, pointed it out.) The basic challenge with making documentaries about pre-film eras (ie, most of history...) is finding what to put on screen, of course. It's great that documentary makers have been finding more and more ways to do that; even if the majority of TV history will, no doubt, continue to be skewed towards the very modern and reliant on film archives.
Manan Ahmed - 9/20/2004
Nice post Sharon. A word on re-enactments: The History Channel has been doing these awesome Decisive Battles series which is re-enacted completely by Rome: Total War game engine. R:TW is the latest game in a Total War series (I won't even try to document the number of productive man-hours I spend with Medieval Total War). Cheesy dialogue/limited budgets is what makes bad re-enactments. My fav. example is Russia: Land of Tsars which has 5, yes, 5 horses for the whole 3 hour series. They kept showing them from different angles. Kinda hard to imagine the grandeur and majesty of the Tsar, don't you think. The cgi-engine makes all that obsolete as you can have brilliantly rendered hundreds of thousands of horses and landscapes and the talking head historians made all the more "human" when they interrupt the "action".
Oscar Chamberlain - 9/20/2004
Wonderful post. Great links.
It's quite possible that the aversion to reenactments goes back to the bad educational films of our youth. I loved good flicks and was thrilled when we got to leave the classroom. (I even learned how to load the film, a skill gone the way of the abacus.)
However, I cringed to the point of phobia through dreadful, stilted reenactments, cast perhaps with indentured grad students and professors who wanted to be actors but, thankfully, were not. I was literally embarrassed for them.
I'm not even all that fond of Civl War reenactments (though demonstrations of cannon will get me every time.)
I am interested in how many of my students get something out of the History Channel. And while some of those documentaries make me cringe (the odds are particularly bad on Biblical subjects), there really is a lot they can learn there.
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