Are you a historian with telly vision?

February 18, 2005

The recipe for blending showmanship with scholarship to make the perfect TV don was revealed by the controller of the BBC's arts channel this week.

Janice Hadlow, controller of BBC Four, gave a speech on Wednesday about history on television at the opening of a refurbished media arts centre at Royal Holloway, University of London.

Ms Hadlow described the Oxford historian A.J.P Taylor - who made his television debut in the 1950s - as the model for the modern TV don. She said his "greatest prop" was his "sheer strength of intellect, combined with a combative and technicolour personality".

Ms Hadlow denied that TV dons dumbed down subjects to make them accessible.

"What is required is constant creative compression - the ability to identify the heart of a proposition, or to convey an idea in its most dilute and focused sense," she said. "If television doesn't have much room for nuanced reflection, it is the enemy of intellectual bagginess."

This was not to say that television did not allow for debate, opinion or argument, but it required ideas "to be expressed as succinctly, coherently and confidently as possible".

Ms Hadlow, formerly executive producer of Simon Schama's History of Britain , said "the grand narrative overviews of Britain's past have fulfilled their purpose". Future programmes were likely to focus on less well-known historical episodes reflecting "a broader palate of human stories that inform our understanding of social and moral change".

There would also be more "informed upfront advocacy" - such as Niall Ferguson's series on Empire - rather than programmes that tried to be even-handed.

But Ms Hadlow concluded that producers would always look to academics for the content and presentation of history programmes. "The relationship between the historical academy and television has been a remarkably fruitful one. All our greatest presenters have been drawn from your numbers, and that'll be as true in the future as it has been in the past."

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