Magazine article History Today

The Edwardian Country House: Juliet Gardiner Assesses the Worth of `Television History' and Pinpoints the Value of `Reality History'. (Today's History).(analysis)

Magazine article History Today

The Edwardian Country House: Juliet Gardiner Assesses the Worth of `Television History' and Pinpoints the Value of `Reality History'. (Today's History).(analysis)

Article excerpt

`OMNE BONUM SUPERNE' (All Good Comes From Above) reads the inscription over the gate at Manderston, a neo-Classical country house set amidst fifty-six acres of formal gardens and parkland just over the border in the Scottish lowlands. The house was rebuilt on his return from the Boer War by Sir James Miller, a career soldier, who had inherited the estate from his father Sir William Miller, a Liberal MP who had made his money in the Baltic from hemp and herring. Miller commissioned the architect John Kinross to refurbish and extend his home in a manner appropriate to a member of the Edwardian nouveaux riches, one who had married the sister of Lord Curzon.

Manderston is still lived in by descendants of Sir William. It is open to the public on selected days and visitors are guided around the rooms designated `public' by local women (the mother of one of whom worked in the house as a maid). They point out the elaborate ceiling mouldings, the vistas of marble flooring, the distinguished portraits and valuable sculpture, the fine Chippendale furniture, the impressive Italian chandeliers in the ballroom, the solid silver staircase modelled on the one in Le Petit Trianon in Versailles. Descending to the commodious basement kitchens, they give snippets of historical information spiced with anecdotes about owners past and present, and, at the conclusion of the tour, point the way to the tea room and gift shop.

It constitutes a routine `stately home' visit, paralleled up and down the country. But now, without needing to visit Manderston, three million families in Britain have an intimate knowledge of the house, which has been brought into their living rooms as the setting for Channel Four's television series The Edwardian Country House. But `setting' is an inadequate word, for Manderston was a participant in the programmes; it was both the container and a material determinant of `the social experiment' that the production company Wall to Wall undertook. The role that the house and its history played raises interesting questions about the phenomenon of television history--often dubbed `the new gardening' (by Richard J. Evans) or `the new rock n' roll'. It is a phenomenon that means David Starkey is watched by more people than Ali G, and Simon Schama has us in thrall for the entire sweep of traditional British history. Yet there is unease that if the First World War programme The Trench succeeded, it may have been because its appeal was as Big Brother-in-the-mud. Will a Japanese POW camp, or even a Holocaust concentration camp, be the next `living history' slot? Where will it all end? And is it History?

Television history covers as wide a range of subjects and approaches as any other media form. There are the `author/ presenter' programmes of Starkey and Schama which are the modern-day revivals of past programmes such as those featuring A.J.P. Taylor, Jacob Bronowski and the art history of Sir Kenneth Clark--a lecturer-in-your-living-room. And as now no self-respecting academic enters the lecture hall unburdened by slides, video cassettes, OHPs or Powerpoint presentation, so the television `talking head' (though these days we're rather more likely to see the whole body in action) now imports his visual aids in the form of period reconstructions, film clips and out-of-studio locations. Then there are documentaries in such slots as Timewatch, Secret History and Reputations, which suggest less of a grand narrative, more of an investigative form of historical reportage and use `talking heads' as witnesses or commentators (though they rarely address each other) to suggest balance or controversy. There are also series on particular historical topics--the Second World War in the Far East (Hell in the Pacific), the history of cosmetics (Because You're Worth It), Steve Humphries' evocations of childhood, sex and marriage in the past, the story of the Plague, and hundreds more, programmes that have been on our screens in various forms for several decades now, most notably with The World at War, made in the early 1970s and endlessly retransmitted. …

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