TV UK, 9 November

The idea that we need a charismatic individual to interest us in history assumes that we want embarrassing reconstructions involving actors in period costume.

Dolan Cummings

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My flatmate says he could have been a dancer. You’d never know it to look at him (I mean, really), but he was a twinkle-toed tot who just never got the breaks he needed.

This gem of information emerged last week when we were watching The Billy Elliot Boy, a documentary about Jamie Bell (BBC2, Tuesday 6). More accurately, he was watching The Billy Elliot Boy, and I was downing a six-pack with the abject despair of a man who has lost control of the remote.

We all have delusions. I like to tell people that I’m descended from the Norman knights King David brought to Scotland in the twelfth century, but the chances are that most of my ancestors were really Irish dung-eaters like everybody else’s. Still, at least there’s probably some Viking in there.

Blood of the Vikings (BBC2, Tuesdays at 9pm) is part of the BBC’s Gene Stories, a season of programmes about genetics (1). The series will reveal the results of a project which gathered thousands of DNA samples from across Britain, Ireland and Scandinavia, to determine how much ‘Viking blood’ survives today. The programme is presented by Professor Julian Richards, who brings together new discoveries in archaeology and genetics with the latest historical research to offer a fresh appraisal of the Vikings’ legacy.

Blood of the Vikings is part of the latest trend in TV: the presenter-led history programme. The current crop also includes Dan Cruikshank’s Invasion (BBC2, Sundays at 9pm), which examines various past attempts to invade Britain. The giants of the genre are David Starkey, who has made series about Henry VIII and Elizabeth I for Channel 4, and Simon Schama, who made the acclaimed History of Britain for the BBC and the History Channel. These were engaging and informative programmes that certainly made a change from docusoaps and reality TV. If TV must follow trends, then surely this is a good one.

There are reasons to be suspicious of the presenter-led approach. The idea that we need a charismatic individual to get us interested in history often comes with the assumption that we want potboiling historical narratives brought alive in embarrassing reconstructions involving actors standing about awkwardly in period costume. We don’t.

What has offended some critics, though (2) is the fact that these programmes are dominated by a single expert or authority, rather than a range of views. This is seen as old fashioned and patriarchal, especially given that the experts tend to be ageing white men from elite institutions. But there is surely a place for clearly authored programmes in which an individual presents evidence to support his (or her) own ideas about a subject.

Maria Misra is no stuffy old don, but she used the same format to present a revisionist history of the British empire in India in Untold: an Indian Affair on Channel 4 last month (3). If the evidence is thin, of course, viewers are entitled to complain that they are being told fairy stories. Egypt’s Golden Empire (BBC2, Sundays at 8pm) uses quotes from obviously wild translations of ancient hieroglyphs written by ‘ordinary men and women’ that make the founders of the New Kingdom sound like characters in a soap opera.

Walking With Beasts (BBC1, Thursdays at 8.30pm) is similarly unconvincing because its elaborate reconstructions of prehistoric animals are based on conjecture as much as material evidence. Walking With Beasts was made by palaeontologist Tim Haines to follow up his smash hit Walking With Dinosaurs. While the subjects of this programme are closer to modern animals than dinosaurs are, the truth is that nobody really knows how carnivorous sheep really looked or moved. And yet there they are on TV. The problem is not authority as such, but that Haines’ authority is unsubstantiated.

At its best, authored history on TV can pull together the evidence to offer an accurate and coherent, as well as engaging, account of the past. The great examples are Kenneth Clarke’s Civilisation and Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man, both made in the 1970s. Corroborating evidence is important, as is the consideration of different views, but it is also important to have an individual to give structure to a history programme.

The current programmes have their faults, but if TV history spurned the author altogether in favour of a kaleidoscopic range of views, the result would be like watching TV while somebody else danced through the channels. I’d rather eat dung.

Dolan Cummings is publications editor at the Institute of Ideas, and editor of Culture Wars. He is also the editor of Reality TV: How Real Is Real?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

Read on:

spiked-issue: TV

(1) See the BBC webpage for Gene Stories

(2) See an interesting debate on this topic on BBC Radio 4 (you will need RealPlayer to access this site)

(3) See TV UK, 12 October

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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