Get real if you want to hook them on history

November 5, 2004

Is 'Big Brother in costume' bringing the past alive? Laurie Taylor listens in at a conference on history and the media

It didn't take long for my cover to be blown at the Imperial War Museum.

I'd barely had time to weave my way through the Second World War weaponry to the media and history conference desk before I was confronted by a former student. "It's Laurie Taylor, isn't it? Remember me? Michelle. Third year? My God, you've tubbed up since York." It was bad enough to be confronted so immediately with the failure of my disguise (thick glasses, business suit and striped tie), but to learn that I was not only recognisable but also recognisably fatter hardly made for a gleeful registration. "Why are you here?" she asked. "Hoping to get a job on TV?"

As I turned to sign in under my fictional conference name and collect a badge I could no longer wear, it came back. Michelle. Of course. Michelle was the history/sociology student in my Foucault classes who repeatedly asked the same question about the fate of the French theorist's stratospheric hypotheses about madness: whether he'd got his facts wrong.

(It turned out that he had.) "No," I said, pocketing a badge declaring me to be "James Longridge".

"Nothing like that. Just popped in to see how academics and the media get along."

"Well," said Michelle, "it's easy to tell who's who. All the television people are full of new projects and under 30, and all the academics are full of envy and over 50."

Michelle, with not uncharacteristic insight, had perfectly captured my reason for wanting to attend this latest conference organised by the International Society for Media and History. The title was so wonderfully provocative: "It May Be History, But Is It True?" What question could be more guaranteed to set puritan academic historians against former colleagues who'd taken the C4 shilling?

My sense that we might be in for a good punch-up was heightened by the first speaker in the opening session, "The historian on television".

Stephen Badsey, military historian, was in battling form. This conference, he told the packed room, was the fifth one on roughly the same subject in the past four years, but the lessons about how historians should respond to television remained the same. Remember, he told his audience, that to television people we professional historians were slightly superfluous. The gap between us and them was wide. They didn't know what modern history was.

They didn't realise that it was not a bad soap opera but a thrilling detective story. And that called for ambiguity. And could television handle ambiguity? No. Television history had always been the province of the amateur presenter and subjects with a high "gosh" factor. Our lives as professional historians had been made miserable by self-publicising enthusiasts. The truth was that television didn't really want professional historians. To get away from them it had already turned to peers, soap opera stars and, now, landscape gardeners. Soon we'd have a footballer's ex-mistress handling the historical side of Remembrance Day.

My scribbled notes fail to do justice to Badsey's beautifully crafted full-throttle put-downs of TV and most of its historical works. It was, though, rather disconcerting that everyone in the room seemed to enjoy every second, laughing along at the jokes and apercus with all the knowing pleasure of a late-night Rocky Horror Show audience.

My growing suspicion that Badsey was a familiar warm-up man who could be safely ignored by the real speakers was confirmed by the arrival at the lectern of Denys Blakeway, a producer with a distinguished list of credits stretching from T he Road to War to Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World . He had one slight thing going for him: Badsey had picked out TV's treatment of empire studies as one of its better ventures. But, unfortunately, his attempt to suggest that his presenter for the Empire programmes, Harvard University historian Niall Ferguson, was somehow in the tradition of A. J. P. Taylor seemed less than compelling. Although we saw some engaging clips of the lovely Niall in action, Badsey's face suggested that he was less than happy at what Blakeway described as Ferguson's shift from historian of the past "to a polemicist of the present".

If I watched more television I'd have known why the audience seemed so expectant during Blakeway's presentation. They were anticipating the third speaker, a tall young man with a lock of dark hair falling across his broad forehead, an actual TV presenter, none other than Dan Snow (son of Peter).

In much the same way as Blakeway, he felt free to ignore everything that Badsey had said and proceed on his own sweet, engaging way with rather touching stories of how he and his dad had made Battlefield Britain . His real enthusiasm, though, was for the digital technology that had allowed the reconstruction of the battle tactics in the series. Not since I last saw his father Peter striding around some cardboard sand dunes during the Gulf War (Part One) have I seen anyone so evidently hooked on playing soldiers. Badsey looked unimpressed.

As I waited for the next session to start, I began to wonder when we were going to get any beef. The first session had aroused the nasty suspicion that this wasn't a tough-minded academic gathering but a ritual occasion where television producers who'd made their reputation from cleverly exploiting material arduously gathered by academic historians came to show their gratitude (and possibly renew their credibility).

It took only a few minutes from Helen Weinstein to allay any such concerns.

Her session was called "Can reality history be real history" and she chose to devote herself to two contrasting examples: Channel 4's Regency House Party and the BBC's The Ship . Weinstein is a successful producer of history programmes, but she didn't dwell on her own achievements. She was far too busy rigorously analysing the strengths and deficiencies of using reality TV to illuminate history. She was particularly critical of The Ship , in which a bunch of recruits, including professional botanists and historians, were required to live out the on-board life of Captain Cook. These experts, Weinstein claimed, were systematically overlooked and their complaints ignored. It might have been a reality show based on historical reconstruction, but it seemed that the last thing the producer wanted was any expert knowledge or analogies with the past to interfere with the sight of real people in extremis .

The House format was a different matter. The programmes on the Edwardian house and the Regency house were, she admitted, incredibly enticing. They provided a mass of historical detail in a subtle and entertaining manner.

They got the viewer hooked on how difficult it was to live the past. But even here there was occasional confusion when people were speaking from different centuries at the same time, when their predicaments in the series became confused with the real difficulties that might have faced actual historical subjects. But it was, she argued, a fascinating way to "interrogate the past".

This was the perfect set-up for Juliet Gardiner, who had been the historical consultant for The 1940s House . She too saw the series as a way of "interrogating history", but had fewer anxieties than Weinstein about the times when the people involved in what she called " Big Brother in costume" displayed present-day attitudes. These are not costume dramas, she insisted. These 21st-century people are freighted with their own prejudices even though they take on roles. But they have the special ability to bring history alive by inducing the viewers' empathy. And in terms of audience they can hold their own with the Schamas and the Starkeys.

After lunch, as I made my exit, a woman in a bold floral dress with a mountainous plate of sandwiches was telling her friend that she had no time for David Starkey. She wasn't, of course, against populism. But he had gone too far. In fact he was now in the same position as that Tristram Hunt, who should never have wandered into the Civil War. "It just wasn't his field."

"Horses for courses," said her friend definitively.

"It May Be History, But Is It True?" was held at the Imperial War Museum, London, on October 15.

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