TV UK, 11 March

Dramatic reconstruction is bunk.

Dolan Cummings

Topics Culture

Closely following the solid prose of Edward Gibbon’s history of the fall of the Roman Empire on Historians of Genius (BBC4 on Monday), Revealed: The True Gladiators (Channel 5 on Wednesday) highlighted many of the annoying features of mainstream TV history.

Worst of all is the constant repetition. After each commercial break (or at random intervals on the BBC) there is the obligatory recap for those who have just joined us, or perhaps the hard of remembering. Polumbus was a Roman citizen who chose to become a gladiator in the city of Ephesus in modern Turkey….

Then there is the content of the repetition: the persistent tone of revelation, stunning discoveries overturning historical (or Hollywood) orthodoxy. You thought gladiators wore big boots? (I mean, did you?) In fact they fought barefoot. You thought they ate steak? Barley.

The frustrating thing is that some of the material in the programme was actually interesting. While much TV history also suffers from an unhealthy obsession with archaeology, The True Gladiators was based on some genuinely exciting new evidence obtained from a cache of bones discovered at a gladiators’ graveyard at Ephesus. This would have justified a documentary even without the half-hearted attempt to bring the history to life in dramatic reconstructions.

In the short history of its own, TV history has shown that it can do things prose history can’t, so while Historians of Genius is a fascinating series, it is by no means a model for how TV history should work (except of course inasmuch as it assumes we are capable of following a narrative thread without having our hands held – most TV could do with taking that lesson on board). But one TV history convention that has consistently failed to prove its worth is the dramatic reconstruction.

Nonetheless, dramatic reconstruction is rife in contemporary TV, and now provides the basis of If…, the BBC’s new speculative current affairs programme (speculative current affairs? It’s a funny old world). I’ll come back to this a bit later in the run, but suffice to say for now that the combination of dramatic made-up catastrophe and mind-numbingly dull studio discussion does not look promising.

One of the future episodes of If… is about obesity, a subject currently being addressed after a fashion on Fat Profits (BBC2, Wednesdays at 7.30pm). This three-part series from the Money Programme looks at the business side of food. The Money Programme has developed a breezy style in recent years, but what is really refreshing is simply that it comes at issues from a different perspective. Instead of health experts wringing their hands about the state of the nation’s health, this week’s episode focused on Golden Wonder’s attempt to claw back market share from the mighty Walkers.

No dramatic reconstructions were used, which is understandable, because the battle is mostly about supermarket shelf space. For all their tinkering with recipes, the executives are under no illusions that crisps are crisps, and if the product is there, people will buy it. An industry spawned by post-war food shortages and sustained by the charisma of Gary Lineker is never going to be the site of a culture war, and the battle for market share is a timely reminder that some aspects of life go on regardless of the concerns of speculative current affairs.

Next week, can US giants Krispy Kreme establish themselves in the UK without anyone noticing that doughnuts are bad for you? Or will the authorities make us eat barley?

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)).

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Topics Culture


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