Magazine article History Today

What's Wrong with Television History? as a New Channel Dedicated to History Opens Up in the UK, Tom Stearn Excoriates Current Fashion and Points the Way to a More Historical Past on TV. (Today's History)

Magazine article History Today

What's Wrong with Television History? as a New Channel Dedicated to History Opens Up in the UK, Tom Stearn Excoriates Current Fashion and Points the Way to a More Historical Past on TV. (Today's History)

Article excerpt

TELEVISION HISTORY, we are told, is the new rock `n' roll, the sexy new TV `must have'. It is booming, with high ratings, and some 300 per cent more programmes being commissioned than in 1993. It has made a few historians--notably David Starkey, Simon Schama and Richard Holmes--better known than any since A.J.P. Taylor in his heyday. Yet there are misgivings among both historians and television critics. To Schama these are, apparently, `the usual moan of the common room and the opinion columns'. Some insiders have suggested current criticisms are no more than the gripes of envious academics who have themselves failed to gain lucrative television con tracts. Yet arguably some aspects of television history are so bad that, unless there is reform, the viewing public may soon be alienated and the whole bubble may burst.

History is based on evidence, sources and research. Yet it has become a television convention that whereas archaeological programmes are evidence and investigation based, history programmes usually are not. There are some exceptions, notably that often-fascinating sub-genre on past disasters: for example, the fine programmes on the sinking of the Mary Rose, the battle of Isandhlwana, the destruction of the Hindenburg, and the extermination of the Tasmanian `tiger'. Yet mainstream history programmes divorce history from sources and research--as from historiographical controversy--and rely on the pronouncements of an apparently omniscient presenter and on `reconstructions' by actors. This lowers both the quality and the appeal of television history.

If television history is the new rock `n' roll, some of its presenters are the new boy band. Formerly historians became presenters because of their particular expertise and used that expertise in their presentations: for example, David Starkey as Tudor and Richard Holmes as military historian. Today, however, there is a disquieting trend: presenters are apparently chosen because they are telegenic dishy dons, trendy in leather and denim, and they pronounce on subjects far from their own expertise. Yet there is really no substitute for the enthusiastic expert who really knows and really cares--and the viewers can tell. In this trend from expertise to dishiness, experts are often wheeled on for a credibility-enhancing soundbite and then wheeled off, without the chance adequately to expound the issue.

Fashion is an odd phenomenon, an amalgam of novelty-seeking and conformity, which for its devotees has its own imperatives. If it's fashionable they must do it. There are fashions in telehistory, as in jeans and bras. It began with presenters, then rejected them, and now they are back in fashion. Since about 1998 `reconstructions' by actors, usually miming to the presenter's voice-over, have been the fashion. Telehistory insiders pronounce on this with all the certitude of a Vogue editor telling women what they must wear. Simon Schama has said `It's virtually impossible to do without reconstructions' and Jonathan Stamp of Timewatch says we are stuck with them and it's not going to change. Maybe it is futile to try to argue against fashion, since fashion is inherently irrational. Yet the case against such `reconstructions' is overwhelming.

Firstly, they are inherently phoney. They neither reconstruct the past nor the appearance of the past, but are inaccurate, distorted and misleading. For example, seventeenth-century people were different from twenty-first-century actors: shorter, thinner and often disfigured by disease and bad teeth. Actors portraying actual historical persons usually have scant resemblance to them. One example of this misrepresentation was the recent programme on the charge of the Light Brigade which, presumably because of budgetary constraints, portrayed the charge as solely by lancers. In fact, the lancers were a minority of those who charged: only one regiment of lancers, but two each of hussars and light dragoons. …

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