The popularity of history programmes on television contrasts pitifully with their qualityby David Herman / April 20, 2002 / Leave a comment
The rise of the serious historical bestseller has been one of the cultural highpoints of the past few years. Consider Felipe Fern?ndez-Armesto’s Millennium (1995), Orlando Figes’s A People’s Tragedy (1996), Norman Davies’s Europe (1996) and Amanda Foreman’s Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire (1998). Lately, Anthony Beevor’s Stalingrad and David Starkey’s Elizabeth have both been in the bestseller lists.
The impressive sales figures are reflected in publishers’ advances. Oxford historian Niall Ferguson has a ?500,000 three-book deal with Penguin. Richard Evans has recently signed a deal said to be worth more than ?1m for a two-volume history of Nazi Germany.
But nowhere has the rise in the popularity of history been more publicly celebrated than on television. David Starkey’s series, Henry VIII, Elizabeth and, most recently, The Six Wives of Henry VIII, have led to an exclusive contract with Channel Four so lucrative that it made the front pages. Simon Schama’s still unfinished history of Britain, on BBC2, has won awards and acclaim.
Besides these presenter-led series, there have been popular historical documentaries, such as Laurence Rees’s The Nazis: A Warning from History and David Upshal’s award-winning documentary series on Britain’s West Indian immigrants. Through the 1990s, Brian Lapping and Norma Percy transformed contemporary history on television with series like The Death of Yugoslavia and Endgame in Ireland while Jeremy Isaacs marked his return to television history with two epic projects, The Cold War and Millennium, based on Fern?ndez-Armesto’s book. It’s also worth noting such ambitious historical dramas as the American second world war series, Band of Brothers, and the drama-documentary, Conspiracy, featuring Kenneth Branagh, about the Wannsee Conference in 1942.
Even “reality television” has had an impact on history programmes. First, we had The 1900 House and 1940 House. Now, in The Trench, volunteers “re-live” first world war conditions. There is not just a wide range of television genre but a real diversity of historical period, including a revival of pre-modern as well as 20th-century history. Not long ago, if there were no archive film, a programme wasn’t made. New computer graphics have reinvented ancient and medieval history on television. The Colosseum can be rebuilt, towns and landscapes reconstructed.
Many of these programmes have won awards and large(ish) audiences. David Starkey’s series, Elizabeth, drew an average of 3.5m viewers; his latest series, on Henry VIII’s wives, peaked at 4m, and in other weeks managed almost 20 per cent of audience share. Schama, too, drew audiences of over 3m-15 per cent of audience share. Battlefields, presented by Richard Holmes on BBC2, was not far behind. This has reinforced the position of executives committed to history, such as Laurence Rees at the BBC and Janice Hadlow, who commissioned Schama’s BBC series and has now signed up Starkey for Channel Four. The relegation of history to ghettos such as BBC2’s History Zone has been dropped.
This success has generated some overheated talk. John Willis, the television executive, led the celebrations in the Guardian. Writing in the Observer, the young historian Tristram Hunt agreed that “television history has been very successful at dealing with big history.” Like Willis, he welcomed the return to storytelling and “gripping narrative” and the abandonment of “the Marxist and econometric analyses” of the 1970s. It all sounds like a golden age of television history. But is it? What kind of history is being made? Whose stories are we being told?
Many of these programmes are remarkably old-fashioned. I am not criticising the return to historians standing (Starkey) or striding (Schama), and giving illustrated lectures. The problem is not the presenters, but what they are saying. We’re back to cabbages and kings, a highly conventional kind of history, all about monarchs, battles and great men. So little in these programmes feels new and unknown. But great historians take us somewhere unexpected.
David Starkey once said of EP Thompson that reading Whigs and Hunters was like going into Tutankhamun’s tomb: “you stand up inside and you’ve got this great open chamber, heaped with the riches of a whole society.” Starkey and Schama are both historians who have written books of great originality which have changed the way we think about whole societies and the writing of history itself. But the gap between what historians write and what they are able to say on television has become troublingly wide.
It is assumed that the price of reaching large audiences entails cutting off complicated edges. But this is not what the more successful history books of the past decade have been doing. In his use of maps and “capsules,” and in his revisionist reading of Europe, Norman Davies was trying to do something new in Europe: A History. His book not only read differently, it looked different. Millennium was just as ambitious in its scope: 1,000 years of world history in one book. It also cut the cake in interesting ways: Fern?ndez-Armesto was as concerned with the spice trade as he was with technology and science. He writes about how the steamship opened up the Pacific, the importance of west African gold, or how crucial it was for medieval Europe that the great forests were rolled back. It is these kinds of questions, not personalities, which drive Millennium.
Television audiences are not considered fit for such innovations. We’re given the familiar landmarks: Henry VIII, Guy Fawkes, the Great Fire of London and lots and lots of Nazis. No one seems to object. Executives such as John Willis are happy to have the business. Television critics fail to criticise. It has been left to historians to point out the obvious. Nicholas Vincent tore into Schama’s television history of Britain in the TLS: “Riddled with simple factual errors… an old-fashioned kings and battles narrative… does little more than massage the complacency of what he assumes to be a middle-brow audience…” Eamon Duffy, reviewing Schama’s book based on the series in the New York Review of Books, said: “It is calculated to challenge no popular preconceptions about the past, to propose no alternative historical milestones by which to chart the emergence of modern Britain… you will look in vain… for illumination on the evolution of economies, the making of livings, the codification of laws, the emergence of legislatures, the impact of terrain, soil, climate on the human past, in short, any of the deep structures which shape societies…. history is, for Schama, chaps, and royal chaps at that…” “Mere drum and trumpet,” is what Duffy calls this kind of history.
The point here is, what is being left out? The premature death of Roy Porter is a reminder of the riches in the new social history of the past 20 years. Porter brought to life a historical landscape of asylums, of early modern experiences of illness, of the growth of the first consumer society, of 17th and 18th-century scientists and engineers. Such things have been elbowed from the screen; whole areas of past life and experience lost to view. Something else is missing, something crucial to the way we think about history. There is too little sense of argument or debate. “There are no other voices,” concludes Duffy, “no sense that anything he tells us is in doubt.”
Compare this with Neal Ascherson’s sinuous commentary for Thames Television’s The World at War. The advantages of presenters are obvious. But there are disadvantages too. We forget how many of the great history programmes were commentary-led, producers working with historians to bring together a synthesis of the latest information and interpretations. Or take the documentaries made for America’s Public Broadcasting Service by Ken and Ric Burns: histories of the civil war, the American west, baseball, New York and jazz-all made without presenters. It’s not just the subjects which make these compelling television-although we might ask where amidst the kings and queens are our great stories: London, football and the British countryside? The point is how the programmes are made. The close attention to photographs and other contemporary illustrations, the use of contemporary testimony, the reliance on a chorus of different historians: all these draw the viewer’s attention to what claims are being made and what larger debates are going on.
Presenters do not make debate and argument impossible. An early Channel Four series on the history of Wales, The Dragon has Two Tongues, brought together two Welsh historians, Gwyn Williams and Wynford Vaughan-Thomas, with very different ideas of Wales and its past. The two argued over the whole of Welsh history, challenging each other’s interpretations and facts but, more important, challenging the values that underlay them, and therefore reminding us that history is often about conflicting values.
What of the rest of the world? The focus of most of the new television history is unrelentingly Anglocentric. The more multicultural we become as a nation, the more we want our Tudors and Stuarts. Or at least, that’s what we are given.The BBC is planning a big series on Great Britons, and David Starkey will be presenting a series on the monarchy for Channel Four. Programmes on Europe invariably mean the Nazis and the second world war.
Again, this is not true of the more popular historical books. Schama’s histories of the French Revolution and of 17th-century Holland, Figes’s history of the Russian revolution, Mark Mazower’s history of 20th-century Europe, Davies’s history of Europe, Fern?ndez-Armesto’s history of the world, these show a thirst for information (often strange and quirky) about the rest of Europe and beyond. What is striking about these books is their ambition, their attempt to look at the “big picture”: the rise and fall of civilisations, revolution and terror, shifting the whole history of Europe, looking at it from a different point of view. Television has lost this “big picture,” mislaid down Anne Boleyn’s bodice.
As for historical drama, yes, let’s have Conspiracy and Band of Brothers. But let us not forget the other history of 20th-century Britain that a generation learnt from Days of Hope by Jim Allen, Tony Garnett and Ken Loach, Ian McEwan’s The Imitation Game, David Hare’s Licking Hitler, and Trevor Griffiths’s Country. Most of these were made for the BBC in the 1960s and 1970s. This was around the same time that saw the BBC’s The Great War, Thames’s The World at War, and Granada’s End of Empire, as well as AJP Taylor’s television lectures, the last of Isaiah Berlin’s radio lectures on the history of ideas, and Robert Vas’s extraordinary programme on the death of Stalin, seen from the perspectives of apparatchiks and victims. The 1960s and 1970s saw huge television audiences (albeit at a time of less viewing choice) for historical series like The World at War, but they also saw moments of creative originality and daring. Now we don’t have either. So why are we celebrating?