Select Page
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.