TV's History Stars Criticised for Ignoring Tales of Ordinary People; Britain Seen as England, Says Welsh Professor

Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales), May 23, 2003 | Go to article overview

TV's History Stars Criticised for Ignoring Tales of Ordinary People; Britain Seen as England, Says Welsh Professor


Byline: David Williamson

ONE of Wales's most notable historians has attacked popular history programmes for failing to tell the stories of real men and women. Professor John Davies, au-thor of The History of Wales and presenter of the BBC's History Hunters, criticised celebrity historians such as Simon Schama for contributing towards a vision of the past, in which Britain can seem synonymous with England.

Prof Davies is concerned that recent decades of scholarship which strived to tell the history of peasants, minorities, and ancestors of the vast majority of people alive today, are increasingly being abandoned in favour of glamorous depictions of the lives of the privileged. Schama has signed an exclusive four-year deal with the BBC thought to be worth around pounds 3m. The History of Britain presenter will create two new BBC2 series and their associated books under his new deal. Prof Davies said, ``Queen Elizabeth in all her finery is prettier television than showing peasants digging in 1300. ``It seems to be an idealised history. When [people] place themselves in the past, they place themselves as somebody quite wealthy.'' Prof Davies also criticised Simon Schama's A History of Britain for referring in its index to Wales under a single entry - ``Wales, wars with''.

He believes this reflects a tendency to view Wales as an entity attached to Britain, rather than a vital part of it.

Prof Schama has visited Cardiff University and sought to show that his book does present a vision of Britain which takes account of Wales's contributions.

But Prof Davies's greatest concern is that popular historians are ceasing to strive to record the social experiences of ordinary men and women and instead concentrating on the exploits of the powerful.

This, he believes, undermines the hard work of groups such as the Society for the Study of Welsh Labour History through their publication Llafur, and is damaging to the development of a democratic culture in which the welfare of individual citizens is prized.

He said, ``I was a student in Cardiff in the great days when kings and queens were going out and the idea was you ques-tioned society. It came as a democratic wave.

``That movement needs to be defended again. I've seen some works which marginalise the discovery that the Third World had a history, too. If you come back to being Royalistic, that can be quite dangerous.''

Prof Davies looks across the Atlantic for the source of the spreading conservatism he perceives in academics and politics.

He said, ``A lot of British historians tend to spend some time in the United States, probably out of linguistic laziness, and I think that some of the right-wingery [rubs off]. …

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