TV History: Requiem or Resurrection? Taylor Downing, One of the Review Judges of the Recent History Today Grierson Trust Award for Best Historical Documentary, Discusses This Year's Entries and the Current State of History on the Small Screen

By Downing, Taylor | History Today, January 2011 | Go to article overview

TV History: Requiem or Resurrection? Taylor Downing, One of the Review Judges of the Recent History Today Grierson Trust Award for Best Historical Documentary, Discusses This Year's Entries and the Current State of History on the Small Screen


Downing, Taylor, History Today


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The History Today Grierson Award for the Best Historical Documentary of 2010 was made at a ceremony at the National Film Theatre in London in November. The honour went to Requiem for Detroit, directed by Julien Temple, a Films of Record production for BBC2. The award is a sign of the vitality of television history, as Julien Temple is more often associated with directing musical documentaries and pop videos than with making history programmes. But Requiem for Detroit was a deserved winner in a year that saw the production of a large number of quality history documentaries.

As a previous recipient of this award I know how nerve wracking it is when the Master of Ceremonies (or in this case the Mistress of Ceremonies, Sandi Toksvig) seems to go into slow motion to open the envelope and read out the words 'And the winner is ...' Television History has had a good run for many years now. In the mid-1990s history documentaries were achieving such popularity that TV history was called 'the new gardening', or 'the new cooking'. Producers were told to go out and find new presenters in the mould of Jamie Oliver, who at the time had brought a fresh take to what being a TV chef was all about. Without a glimmer of humour, producers were asked to seek out his equivalent for television history. We called this person 'The Naked Historian'. And, of course, we started eagerly looking.

The enthusiasm for TV history documentaries probably peaked in the early years of the new century from about 2000 to 2005. Maybe the interest was a variation of Millennium fever, with people wanting to explore their roots and to think about how the last century with its terrible wars and genocides had changed their lives. Or maybe it was that in the post-Cold War world, the past somehow seemed more interesting than the present. Each week you could count about 20 hours of history programming on the terrestrial channels. In addition there was The History Channel, UKTV History (now Yesterday), Discovery and National Geographic, all adding to the satellite, cable and digital history output.

Television producers were experimenting with different forms of TV history; it was no longer just a case of splicing 'talking head' eyewitness interviews with archive film in the classic mould of The Great War (1964) or The World at War (1973). Wall to Wall began an entirely new type of history programme for Channel 4 with the 1900 House (2000), which then went on to spawn a whole genre of programming in which people are asked to relive some period of the past. This was also the time of the arrival of Big Brother, which in its early days brought a truly revolutionary concept to our screens. The idea of watching people interrelate with each other, observed by cameras from all angles, was like watching a social experiment unfold. Sadly, the series became little more than a freak show. But the influence of Big Brother was widely felt even in TV history. The years following 2000 also saw great leaps forward in the use of computer-generated imagery (CGI). We were able to walk with dinosaurs, or watch the Pyramids being built, or Vesuvius erupt over Pompeii. Battlefields came alive before our eyes and aerial photographs were turned into computerised models we could fly around and zoom into.

In 2001 came Simon Schama's brilliantly exciting series A History of Britain. Here was television ambitiously tackling the whole gamut of British history on an epic scale, from Orkney's Neolithic settlement at Skara Brae to George Orwell. So vast was this project that it was rolled out in tranches across three years, resulting in a 15-part series. This was a reminder of how powerful the tradition of authored TV historical series could be--a tradition that went back to Kenneth Clark's Civilisation (1969) and to broadcasters like Alistair Cooke and Jacob Bronowski. Since Schama there has been David Starkey, Bettany Hughes, Niall Fergusson, Michael Wood and others to keep the author-presenter tradition not just alive but lively. …

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