TV nostalgia isn’t what it used to be

Dead television
Photo (cc) Vik Nanda

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.

The title is a cheap joke but Tristram Hunt is not a happy bunny. There’s his­tory on the TV that he doesn’t like. “Call it the Restoration effect: a fac­tual pro­gram­ming sched­ule suf­fer­ing from a sur­feit of cosy, insu­lar and often cloy­ing tele­vi­sion.” Yet des­pite this asser­tion Hunt, who has his own TV series to plug, is remark­ably short of tar­gets. The only TV show I can say with cer­tainty that he dis­likes is “The Trench”. From what I briefly saw of it, it was awful but surely it takes more than one pro­gramme to have a surfeit.

One short-cut to cred­ib­il­ity is to have high stand­ards. A top wine critic is taken ser­i­ously for the wines he rejects. Dismissing the par­ti­cip­at­ory his­tory of the hoi polloi is a route to short-term cred­ib­il­ity, but it’s not enough. There needs to be reason behind the cri­tique and des­pite his asser­tion “…tele­vi­sion his­tory, done well, should be more of an ice-bath than a com­fort­ing, warm soak.” he doesn’t say why this is so. It sounds obvi­ous that rig­or­ous his­tory is super­ior to history-lite, but super­ior for what pur­pose?

Because of the lack of sub­stance in Hunt’s column it’s hard to argue against, so I’ll throw out a few examples. Britain’s Top Historic Sites, a pro­gramme where a celebrity makes a brief present­a­tion about their favour­ite place and then the pub­lic vote on a premium phone line. I’ve no idea if this actual pro­gramme exists, but it’s a good stand-in for a one that must have appeared on Channel’s 4 or 5. (It’s pos­sible A Picture of Britain on the BBC trod on sim­ilar ground, but accord­ing to Hunt that was a good one). What would be wrong with such a show? Says Hunt: “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.” Fair enough, but who is that earn­est 100% of the time? Am I the only per­son who goes down to the shops for a loaf of bread without think­ing “By my actions I am rein­for­cing the social struc­tures which empower the agro­chem­ical industry.” I sup­pose I could bypass the eth­ical quandary of whether or not buy­ing a loaf of bread is a moral or immoral act by buy­ing myself a bread-making machine. I would then of course be impli­citly endors­ing the cap­it­al­ist state and its shal­low myth of middle-class aspir­a­tion and by exten­sion its exploit­a­tion of the poor.

It’s a lot of effort for a sandwich.

Equally could the aim of Tourism TV be some­thing other than chal­len­ging and con­front received nar­rat­ives of power and priv­ilege? It is pos­sible that someone might watch it to see if there’s some­where nice to go day-tripping? The his­tory aspect is some­thing along with the view and the car park­ing which adds to the attrac­tion of the site. It means some import­ant sites and arte­facts like the slavery icon­o­graphy of Liverpool may be over­looked, but this isn’t about whether Slave History or a pic­tur­esque castle is on the telly. It’s a choice between a crinkly castle or Britney Spears.

It’s a use of the past which Tristram Hunt rejects. He quotes 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 accord­ing to Hunt is “an indul­gent search for iden­tity and understanding.”

If I remem­ber cor­rectly I wrote about the ‘learn­ing from his­tory’ thing in either my MPhil dis­ser­ta­tion or an exam. It went some­thing like: “Our his­tory teacher would tell us how Hitler was defeated in World War Two because he did not learn from the mis­takes of Napoleon when he invaded Russia. None of the class have attemp­ted to invade Russia them­selves, at least not dur­ing the winter, and so his course could be said to have been 100% suc­cess­ful.” Other les­sons? When I was thir­teen I was we were taught that pre­his­toric peoples wor­shipped Venus fig­ures and then given an after­noon to draw naked women. I’ve never had cause to use that skill, but hope springs eternal. Even if I could remem­ber more from History, the his­tory I was taught was the his­tory of Big Politics. At the age of fif­teen I star­ted work on a pro­duc­tion line for solen­oids that would even­tu­ally end up in cars that I will never be able to afford. The only les­son that mattered then was the opin­ion of Henry Ford. If I’ve been work­ing from 7:30 then when I get home at 7pm I think I’m entitled to a spot of indul­gent search­ing for iden­tity and under­stand­ing. Instruction is not the sole aim of history.

This is where Hunt is glor­i­ously wrong about tele­vi­sion his­tory and indeed all pop his­tory. His golden age was a time when ancient civil­isa­tions meant Graham Hancock or straight to cam­era lec­tur­ing. Television his­tory is now much more diverse in the ques­tions it asks and has even learned from the altern­at­ive his­tor­i­ans in terms of present­a­tion. Indeed it’s now so diverse it’s pos­sible to watch a cer­tain pop­u­lar satel­lite chan­nel for an hour without hear­ing the word ‘Hitler’. There are mis­takes, but even these may be neces­sary if there’s going to be innov­a­tion. If I were to review How Art Made the World now I’d be a lot more pos­it­ive than I was. I could be wrong, pain dimin­ishes with time. However, the concept of a cul­tural and cog­nit­ive his­tory is bold and part of the wave of pop his­tory which also extends to radio and print. On the book­shelves in the 1990s ancient his­tory was dom­in­ated by Hancock and Bauval clones. Today Hancock and Bauval are still there, but there are also cred­ible altern­at­ives and these books are selling. Old-fashioned present­a­tion styles may have lost mar­ket share on tele­vi­sion but this is more than com­pensated for at the moment by the expan­sion of the mar­ket. You can see this in the num­ber of tele­vi­sion pro­grammes he praises in his column. The notion that cur­rent TV History is an end­less shot of the Dover cliffs is ridicu­lous and there are still plenty of oppor­tun­it­ies for dull present­a­tions of excit­ing topics.

This gives me an excuse to add this video. One rel­at­ive is con­vinced that Tristram Hunt and David Oxley are one and the same. They’re not.


When he's not tired, fixing his car or caught in train delays, Alun Salt works part-time for the Annals of Botany weblog. His PhD was in ancient science at the University of Leicester, but he doesn't know Richard III.

2 Responses

  1. Alex says:

    I think your ana­lysis of the value of TV his­tory is right — it’s why I like things like the 300 movie. Although it’s not accur­ate, it brings the his­tor­ical period and ideas into the pub­lic con­scious­ness, and that’s a good thing if you ask me.

  1. September 18, 2007

    […] make sure you read Alun’s post, in which he says everything I thought about Hunt’s art­icle but was too lazy to artic­u­late. It’s great. Also, make sure you check out the you­tube link. WE ARE HISTORY!!! Posted by […]