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Saturday, February 20, 2010

Dumbing Down the Past?

They say that there’s no such thing as bad publicity, and in one sense, there’s no such thing as a bad History programme on TV. Any History on TV is to be welcomed with open arms, if only for the role it can play in remedying the frequently shocking treatment of the subject in our schools (a topic for another day) and the woeful ignorance displayed by the general public (and if you think that’s a bit harsh, watch any daytime quiz show). There are several entire channels devoted to ‘History’, or at least, to those very limited areas of History that production companies think will draw an audience; hence the endless refighting of World War II. It’s easy to assume that the output on these channels will be far less worthy than anything that manages to find airtime on the major terrestrial channels, but in fact the opposite is true. Many of the programmes on the digital channels are made on a comparative shoestring, and fill up their airtime with ‘talking heads’ who are often well qualified (and conveniently cheap) academics. As a result it’s often possible to find real analysis and original ideas on such programmes, delivered by real experts in their fields. The same is true of much of the output of BBC and ITV regional stations, who produce some superb historical programmes. Thus in terms of the broadcasting of History, quantity can equal quality, and often does.

Now contrast that with the situation on the networked terrestrial channels, particularly the BBC. Convinced that only big names and sensationalised, ‘accessible’ scripts will attract viewers, right-on metrocentric production teams install a ‘household name’ such as Messrs Ferguson, Snow, Starkey and Schama, the Jonathan Rosses of broadcast History, and get them to pontificate on anything under the sun, no matter how far it strays from their actual area of expertise. Add the obligatory incessant background music, pretentious photography and flashy editing that permits no more than five minutes on any one topic in case a bored audience switches en masse to MTV or Dave, and you have the modern documentary. This leads to beautifully made but desperately superficial programmes such as Dan Snow’s recent ‘Empire of the Seas’, allegedly a history of the Royal Navy. Despite being eternally grateful to the BBC for broadcasting any naval history at all, I could fill several websites by listing all the deficiencies of this series. For example, a viewer from another planet might assume from it that there had been no such thing as a navy before about 1560, that the 1690s was a period of naval defeat ended only by the creation of the Bank of England (thereby omitting the battles of Barfleur / La Hogue in 1692, which effectively drove the French fleet into port for the rest of the war), and that the navy was responsible for creating the slave trade, rather than being responsible for ending it. Neil Oliver’s recent ‘History of Scotland’ was a more impressive effort, despite Oliver’s presentational style frequently resembling an over-excited puppy. Oliver had more programmes allocated to him than Snow, and although many in the historical establishment in Scotland have criticised his concentration on kings and clans rather than on more politically correct social history, at least Oliver was able to create the sort of coherent narrative that Snow lacked – and was more accurate on matters of detail to boot. Ultimately, a good historical documentary should be based on research as solid as that which goes into a respectable historical book, and above all it should place respect for the facts above superficial audience-pleasing gimmicks. Neil Oliver’s series and much of the output found on the digital channels succeed on those criteria; regrettably, ‘Empire of the Seas’ doesn’t.

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