Magazine article History Today

Reconstructing History: Sally Doganis Provides an Insider's View of the Challenges Facing Those Who Bring the Past to the Small Screen

Magazine article History Today

Reconstructing History: Sally Doganis Provides an Insider's View of the Challenges Facing Those Who Bring the Past to the Small Screen

Article excerpt

THERE IS NOTHING LIKE A JURY TO POLARISE OPINION. I have recently been on the prestigious Grierson award jury for best historical documentary. We had an exceptionally good and amicable discussion--except on one film which put us into two opposing camps. It was set in a time Before Film (BF?) and so had to use fairly imaginative images to make it televisual. I had thought it was powerful and entertaining, but then I am a producer and film maker. I was faced with a jury who, to a man, were eminent historians. Most thought it unoriginal, the images trite and the music inappropriate. After a heated discussion, the chairman (an experienced television executive) made a plea for some understanding of films that looked into subjects BF.

It is an issue on which I feel keenly, as I am currently the executive producer of a series on The Real Olympics, on the ancient Greek games, set in a period very much BF. Hence I too make a plea for a greater understanding of the ways in which we have dealt, and are dealing, with history on film, especially when there are no moving images.

History programmes thrive when there is archive film. The mix of old footage and interviews has become a classic format. It works effectively when the archive is new, startling or used in a completely different way. The People's Century (1995) had the novel idea of tracking down the people who had appeared in the archive. They found marchers who featured iii Lindsay Anderson's 1961 film of the first London to Aldermaston demonstration, holidaymakers filmed on the first package holiday to Spain, factory workers who had appealed leading the strikes in newsreels. The archive took on an uncanny personal feel, almost like a home movie, with the curious contrast of the interviewees then and now. It became the first social history series.

Broadcasters are always looking for new ways to explore the format of archive and static interviews. Fashions have changed and stories have become more emotional and human with taut detailed narratives. Hell in the Pacific (2001) brilliantly documented veterans' personal experiences by taking them back to key locations and asking them to recall exactly what happened. Brian Lapping's The Second Russian Revolution (1991) revolutionised historical documentaries. it collected all the main players involved, and asked them individually to recall how particular events, in which they were actors, unfolded for them. It then assembled the varying accounts into a single narrative. As each interviewee added yet another detail, real drama was injected into what could have been a fairly dry, story.

Public appetite was kept alive with other new genres like the 'in colour' series, The Second World War in Colour, Britain in Colour, Empire in Colour; They had no interviews on camera, and relied on contemporaneous diaries, letters and comments. These loosely fitted the picture, but hot exactly. A letter from a soldier to his wife about rationing would be read against film of tanks rolling. The voices gave the films a relevance and poignancy. The series picked up all the major awards. It was certainly a good formula for ITV since it had continuous pictures. Viewers prefer action to interviews. I have been told that ten per cent of the audience disappears when the interviews pop up. So the trick is to keep the action coming.

But of course topics that have no archive pre sent a completely different problem. Television has always found that a challenge. One solution bas been to produce a type of reality TV show, like Time Team. Through a dig, and a new exciting find, the team can take viewers on a journey of discovery. By the end of show the story comes together like a jigsaw. Reality TV is controllable, relatively cheap, guarantees some outcome and feels contemporary--a perfect televisual construct.

This 'constructed reality' has spawned different historical prototypes. For instance, I watched a programme where a team built an ancient catapult that fired a weighty canon-ball. …

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