Columnist bemoans state of history on British television ... The golden age is over!





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. ...



comments powered by Disqus

Subscribe to our mailing list