Why gay Hitler was a turn-off

December 13, 2002

As historians gather to debate history and the media, Huw Richards looks at TV history and Peter Hennessey considers the press's recording of events

History was not always like this. As television documentary-maker Cate Haste recalls: "It is only about eight years since people like me were very fearful for the future. It looked as though there might be no demand for our programmes."

It is a salutary reminder as Simon Schama and David Starkey bestride the television schedules, two dedicated channels compete for viewers and even channel Five champions history.

And it will doubtless be mentioned at Senate House, London, next Tuesday when Haste chairs a discussion called "Does Television Enhance or Diminish History?" with a panel of three historians and two commissioning editors.

The session is part of an Institute for Historical Research conference, History and the Media. David Cannadine, director of the IHR, says: "The idea is to bring in historians and people from the media and get them to talk to each other - not as a confrontation, but a conversation."

While acknowledging the boom in TV history, Cannadine points out that it is no novelty: "A. J. P. Taylor was an early television star, while I remember watching Kenneth Clark's series on Civilisation between leaving school and going to university. Series like The Great War and The World at War made a huge impact in the 1960s and 1970s."

What has changed is the proliferation of TV channels and a more fragmented audience. Interest in disciplines also varies over time. Writing in Prospect magazine, television producer and writer David Herman bemoans the demise of literary theory, so vital 20 years ago, and notes the rise in history: "This year, as Simon Schama signs a contract for two more television series, as Hitler's biographer Ian Kershaw receives a knighthood and Anthony Beevor's history of Berlin in 1945 tops the bestseller's lists, who is reading literary criticism?"

But television still induces wariness among academics. Kershaw, professor of history at Sheffield University and a member of the IHR conference panel, says: "Television is a very powerful and emotive medium, offering the opportunity to bring history to a wider audience than you can through books. You ignore it at your peril."

But there are problems. In a book you can spend 30 pages on the nuances of an issue, whereas TV compresses it into 20 seconds. Kershaw is concerned by the risk of superficiality and the perpetuation of myth and stereotype. He admits to mild weariness at the endless rehashing of Nazism and second world war history. "I think there probably is rather too much of it," he says. And as for channel Five's recent Was Hitler Gay? , he says: "I don't think anyone would have been worse off if it had not been made."

He also notes the 20th-century's built-in advantage over earlier periods:

"You don't have film for earlier periods, so you have to find a way of representing things visually."

That can lead to difficulties such as Tristram Hunt's much-derided use of a snooker game in his Civil War series. Hunt, who lectures at Queen Mary, University of London, points to the irony that this device's progenitor was an impeccable academic source - Conrad Russell. He explains: "I remember as an undergraduate reading his comparison between the three kingdoms and billiard balls. It made sense to me, and put the issue into an understandable perspective. I felt you couldn't do it with billiards nowadays, and went for the snooker game. It didn't work, but you learn from these things."

Janice Hadlow, head of special factual programmes at Channel 4 and another IHR panelist, denies any suggestion that presenters are chosen for looks over content. She points out: "Neither Simon Schama nor David Starkey would be likely candidates for the cover of GQ . Both have idiosyncrasies that make them easy to parody, but they have the two essential qualities, which are authority - do I believe them? - and enthusiasm - do they want me to know what they know?"

However, Hadlow agrees that certain subjects have greater audience appeal and, as a commercial operation, Channel 4 has to take this into account. Cannadine notes that "war is inherently televisual, but peace is much harder to film". Indeed, the dedicated history channels seem loaded with explosions, tanks and military talking heads.

But Hadlow points out that not all television history is wars, kings and queens, citing her own channel's The Plague : "It was based on information found in a churchwarden's records, about as basic a primary source as you can get. It showed one of the areas television does best - forensic detail, illuminating a society through the experience of half a dozen families."

Pressure for ratings will always be a factor, but Haste suggests that the proliferation of channels may have helped: "Four million is considered an extremely good audience nowadays. It used to be 8 million, so there may be more room for manoeuvre now." And going downmarket is not always the right response. Roland Keating, controller of digital channel BBC 4, says: "Your audience will recoil if they suspect you are insulting their intelligence. Nothing is more fatal." Hadlow notes that Was Hitler Gay? pulled in only 900,000 viewers.

The key to quality may be in the relationship between producers, presenters and academic advisers. Hadlow points out: "It is a collaborative process."

Kershaw's experiences of working on The Nazis: A Warning from History with BBC producer Laurence Rees show that the need to condense and compress can be creative in the right hands: "He'd want to say something. I'd say, 'you can't say that', so he'd say, 'what can you say?'. That dialogue would produce something that was correct and very terse."

The series took five years to make. Time and resources were vital. "They dug up people a lone academic might not have found whose experiences illustrated what it was like to live under Nazism. I remember a woman who confessed on camera that she had denounced her neighbour to the police because he looked a bit shifty."

Haste argues that television has given fresh impetus to oral history, recording on camera lives such as those of a 93-year-old former aide to Stalin interviewed for Channel 4's Cold War series.

Keating's remit allows experimentation with programme formats that could one day influence the mainstream. One strand in BBC4 programming is "witness seminars", a format pioneered by the Institute of Contemporary British History that reunites participants in a major event or decision - one recent programme covered rail privatisation. He suggests that talk-based programmes such as this have a strong role to play alongside narrated or presenter-led formats: "Debate is inherent in history."

However long the current boom lasts, there seems no doubt that history will continue to be a television staple. Hunt argues that the relationship between academic journals and the media should not be "mutually exclusive. There is room for both, indeed each needs the other," he says.

Kershaw, though wary, also comes down in favour of TV history. "My younger son is a computer programmer. He has an avid interest in history and reads the occasional book but is a voracious consumer of television documentaries and magazines. As a result he has a well-informed interest in a wide range of historical themes and issues."

"The History and the Media" conference is held at Senate House, London WC1, from December 16-18.

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