- The Guardian,
- Monday September 10 2007
Call it the Restoration effect: a factual programming schedule suffering from a surfeit of cosy, insular and often cloying television. In the words of Channel 4 head of television Kevin Lygo to the MediaGuardian Edinburgh Television Festival, "a factual output dominated by soft focuses, mountains, coasts, rivers, birds and heritage". What is more, this "warm-bath TV" is starting to distort the medium's treatment of the past. Rather than asking the hard questions of ourselves and our history, channel executives are offering us best buildings and favourite views entirely shorn of the ideas, people and contexts that created them. This tourism TV is a lazy betrayal of one of television's grandest themes.
For history on television is entering a transition period. The boom years of the late 1990s are long gone with Laurence Rees, BBC TV's history supremo, privately warning that there will be no history on screen at all in a few years' time given the current commissioning dearth. With the decline in history's reach has come an inevitable retreat into the high-rating comfort zone of Romans, Egyptians, and, Rees's own expert subject, Nazis. With it has also come an ever more self-satisfied focus upon nationhood and idealised meanings of Britishness. The exciting, enriching promise of history is being lost to "visit Britain" style heritage promos.
Of course, the series which inaugurated the last history boom, Simon Schama's History of Britain, was itself an extended meditation on national identity. In contrast to the class-conscious social history of the 70s and 80s - from Stephen Peet's Yesterday's Witness to Peter Pagnamenta's All Our Working Lives - Schama's programmes were a conscious return to broader, national narratives. Similarly, Niall Ferguson's Empire entailed a provocative re-assessment of our colonial legacy which gave rise to an extended and useful public conversation on Britain's post-imperial identity.
But, as so often with television, the fashion gorged itself beyond recognition. In the history commissioning frenzy that followed, all sorts of formats and fads emerged. Among the more successful was the integration of computer game graphics with military history - seen in the Peter and Dan Snow battlefield programmes. The more dubious innovation was reality history. What began with an interesting social history experiment - with families confronting the domestic privations and gender stereotyping of the past in C4's 1900s House and 1940s House - was transformed, via Big Brother, into the nadir of The Trench which attempted to recreate the conditions of the first world war devoid of the psychological context of imminent death.
But at least these programmes involved some sense of ambition about the past. Today's TV history all too often retreats into therapy: an attempt not to explain the past and its modern meaning, but an indulgent search for identity and understanding. In the words of historian Jurgen Kocka, "it seems fair to say that a generation ago many people studied history in order to learn from it, with respect to the present and the future. Nowadays, many people deal with history in order to find out where they come from and who they are, or with the aim of discovering and observing alternative ways of life." This alone explains the enormous success of Who Do You Think You Are? and the broader genealogy movement. Unfortunately, this amateur hobby has been transposed to history in its entirety.
Architectural history, landscape history, even coastal history all have their place, but when they so dominate the terrain that history on television is reduced to an endless helicopter shot of the Dover cliffs, then something has gone wrong.
In an era of mass migration, multi-culturalism and a British identity breaking at the constitutional seams, history on television is in danger of telling comforting stories about ourselves to ourselves, rather than confronting the past. Of course, some of this history has been superb: The Lost World of Mitchell and Kenyon provided a remarkable insight into early 20th century working-class Britain; similarly, David Dimbleby's A Picture of Britain was an engaging exploration of art and identity. But for too many commissioners, history is presented as a form of psychological massage: a comforting meander around the nooks, crannies and biographies of our national sensibility.
It is a particular shame since, from its earliest days, history on television has been about confronting an easy acceptance of the past. As author of The Troublemakers, part of AJP Taylor's initial attraction for Lew Grade was his iconoclastic bravado. As BBC4 controller (and commissioner of my series) Janice Hadlow put it recently in her Oxford lectures, "Taylor wanted to excite and surprise audiences with original and provocative thinking about our place in the ever-shifting balance between past and present; and he wanted to do it in ways that would inform, challenge and entertain but would never, ever bore." Hadlow goes on to argue that "the interrogation of what we think we know is one of the things - perhaps even the thing - that history's there to do" and "the translation into television history of the values of argument and inquiry is one of the things that the genre should be most proud of".
In many cases, this confrontational, argumentative, personalised history is still done. David Starkey's critique of monarchy and Andrew Marr's programmes on post-war Britainhave all entailed a rigorous unearthing of the past. Rightly, they have challenged history and our place within it; they have stressed the clashes as much as the continuities of the past; and, above all, they have stretched their horizons beyond England's magic-hour fields, coasts and mountains. For television history, done well, should be more of an ice-bath than a comforting, warm soak.
· Tristram Hunt presents The Protestant Revolution, starting on Wednesday, BBC4, 9pm