So, What Did the Victorians Do for Us?; What the Victorians Did for Us. by Adam Hart-Davis (Headline, Pounds 18.99). Reviewed by Chris Upton
Look through the bestseller list and it's clear that television is often the launching pad for unit-shifters in the world of non-fiction. Indeed, for many television companies the book of the series is probably as profitable as the series itself. Nevertheless, it's still relatively rare for the presenter of the television series and the writer of the book of the series to be one and the same person. Such is the case with What the Victorians Did for Us, the BBC 2 series being shown on Monday evenings.
Adam Hart-Davis is one of those personalities seemingly made for a career on the box: larger than life, with more than a hint of eccentricity, and more than willing to dress up and down to get his argument over.
He first appeared as the gaudily dressed cyclist, exploring the byways of Britain in a search for local heroes, most of whom were, like him, somewhat eccentric scientists. What made these programmes so exceptional was that Hart-Davis backed up his historical and local background with recreated experiments, often using everyday materials. It was science (or history of science) with a smile, and all the better for it.
The follow up to Local Heroes was What the Romans Did for Us, taking its title from the witty scene in Monty Python's Life of Brian. Roman baths, fire engines, aqueducts and siege machines were all reconstructed, in order to show the world (as the People's Front of Judaea were forced to admit) that the Romans were rather a clever lot.
Much as I appreciated Adam Hart-Davis's skill in unveiling the mysteries of science in Local Heroes, I had serious reservations about this second series. For one thing the title itself was a considerable sleight of hand. It glosses over the fact that Roman civilisation entirely collapsed in Britain in the 400s AD, leaving nothing behind.
My other reservation is with the very idea of using technology as the key to unlocking history. It would be a pretty bizarre history of 20th century Germany that concentrated exclusively on the V-2 and the jet engine, or a history of America that only looked at Apollo and the Space Shuttle.
What the Victorians Did for Us has gone some way to addressing this criticism. The Victorian world cannot be covered by simply examining their railways, factory engines and cameras. It has long been recognised that advances in technology often came at the expense of social improvement, and that the relationship between the industrialist, the state and the people is a complex dance. …