Printer Friendly

Reality, identity and empathy: the changing face of social history television.

The last decade has witnessed a remarkable renaissance of public history in Britain. Historical programming commands a dominant position in the terrestrial television schedules; radio remains replete with 'discussions of' and 'journeys into' the past; history and genealogy magazines provide a vibrant media; non-fiction book sales continue their upward ascent; while cinema mines the imperial and military past with renewed gusto and invariably woeful results.

More broadly, as in the United States, popular interest in 'living history' is flourishing. New museums in subjects from transport to urban history to popular music are component parts of every regenerating city while debates over anniversaries and commemorations fill the newspapers. The traditional heritage institutes are expanding furiously: membership of the National Trust in Britain has more than doubled in fifteen years to some 3.3 million. Country houses, galleries, and historic sites are all experiencing record visitor numbers. Arguably, this fervent historicism is excelling any previously, typically elite-led engagement with the memory of the past. Current trends far exceed, for example, the Greek revival of the late eighteenth or Gothic revival of the nineteenth century. According to Professor Richard Evans of the University of Cambridge, "Consciousness of history is all-pervasive at the start of the twenty-first century." (1)

The emergent fashion for history is not limited to the unofficial realms of knowledge. Figures released by the UK Universities and Colleges Admissions Service reveal that students applying to read history at university rose by 4.3% in 2003. Today in Great Britain, there are some 15,000 sixth-formers taking A Level history, 30,000 undergraduates reading history, 3,000 research students studying for higher degrees, and 3,000 university teachers. According to Professor David Cannadine of the Institute of Historical Research, "more history is being taught, researched, written and read, and is concerned with a larger part of human experience, and embraces a wider spread of the globe, than ever before." (2)

But while more history is certainly being consumed, it is far from clear how much is nurturing a deep and abiding sense of the past. Moreover, the inescapable irony is that while ever greater volumes of this 'history' is concerned with the lives and experiences of those traditionally marginalised by text-book treatments of the past, it remains the case that social history in its classic form has been progressively abandoned. As James E. Cronin has noted of social history within the academy, "the era of totalizing and interconnected social history epitomized by [Eric] Hobsbawm's work was premised on a politics and a set of intellectual assumptions that have passed." (3) The same is true of history in the media: with the past an attractive and lucrative media commodity, elements of social purpose, analytical rigour and contemporary relevance have suffered. But at the same time, the success of social history in generating new interests and areas for study is reflected in an ever expanding volume of historical programming dealing with diverse and divergent forms of human behaviour.

The challenge for social historians is to marshal today's energetic and accelerating interest in the past towards more fundamental questions of structure and process. It means refuting the orthodoxy that popular history has only to be concerned with biographies, battles and high political drama--and, instead, opening up avenues to the past that deal with the traditional concerns of social history in engaging and relevant formats.

Identity History

The current vogue for history on British television was ignited by a booming literary market. The success of Simon Schama's Citizens, Amanda Foreman's Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire, Norman Davies's Europe: A History and Orlando Figes's A People's Tragedy led certain television executives to think the unthinkable: that history (shunted into a ghetto of late-night scheduling fronted by often dowdy figures from the Open University) might prove a ratings-winner. Far-sighted commissioners--such as Janice Hadlow and Laurence Rees at the BBC; John Willis at the Granada production company--began to push history projects against the deep-seated scepticism of fellow executives. This was the atmosphere that produced Laurence Rees's award-winning Nazis: A Warning from History (BBC 1997), Michael Woods's Conquistadores (BBC 2000), David Starkey's The Six Wives of Henry VIII (Channel 4 2001), and Simon Schama's History of Britain (BBC 2000).

Against all expectations, these series performed exceptionally well, with viewing figures into the millions. Nothing succeeds like success, and the market for television history quickly and exponentially expanded. The genre diversified from the presenter-led lantern lecture to include historically re-enacted dramas, narrated documentaries, re-coloured twentieth-century footage, historical journeying, computer generated imagery (CGI), explorations of ancient and medieval history, and even historical reality shows. At the heart of much of this programming was the 'real life' experience of non-elites.

What generated such interest in the national and provincial past? Quite rightly, Simon Schama has reversed the question and asked why public history (i.e., history for public consumption via the broadcasting media) ever went out of fashion to begin with. Certainly, much of what was achieved in the late 1990s merely took off from where AJP Taylor, Alan Bullock, Kenneth Clark, Jacob Bronowski, and John Roberts had previously left off. Or, indeed, from some of the often overlooked programming of the 1980s.

But the numbers watching the programmes, buying books, taking up courses and visiting historical sites suggested there was something more interesting occurring. Certainly, in Britain many of these programmes--such as Schama's--appealed to a millennial spirit of introspective self-doubt over questions of national identity. Scottish and Welsh devolution, European integration, accelerating immigration, and a resurgent English nationalism were indelibly unpicking a post-war patriotic consensus. Despite the occasional caveat, what much popular history provided was a clear, national narrative of becoming.

More intangibly, public history seemed to offer some form of deeper cultural and psychological nourishment for a secular, mobile society lacking the traditional signifiers of religion, class and community--a situation, as Eric Hobsbawm put it in the introduction to his Age of Extremes, which is arguably in danger of transforming post-modern man back towards the timeless mentality of pre-modern man. "The destruction of the past, or rather of the social mechanisms that link one's contemporary experience to that of earlier generations, is one of the most characteristic and eerie phenomena of the late twentieth century. Most young men and women at the century's end grow up in a sort of permanent present, lacking any organic relation to the public past of the times they live in." (4)

More apocalyptically, J.C.D. Clark has warned in particular of the inevitable loss of connection with the past which has gone with the absence of faith. "Religious identity was once a potent source of a sense of historical bearings: it underwrote individual identity in a way that turned history into a procession, and a procession set within a wider providential scenario ... The growing separation of Church and State [in the UK], formally avowed in statute and delivered in practice by the market, therefore produces a culture that is not only officially secularized, but also silently de-historicized." (5) Those seeking a way out from this disembodied existence are the individuals who turn to the Internet to research their genealogical backgrounds, join civic trusts and watch television history to place themselves and their communities within a sweep of time. It is the search for identity, empathy and meaning which popular history feeds.

On the face of it, a surge of interest in the past, this hunt for roots, should only have augmented the status of social history. Here was an engaged, democratised public exploring the hidden tombs of the unacknowledged past. Moreover, it was frequently occurring in a medium--television--which was itself part of the social history landscape with its progressive tradition of oral history, social engagement (exemplified through collectives such as the Television History Workshop), radical politics, and anti-establishment commitment to reviving the 'people's history.' This was the environment which produced, for example, Peter Pagnamenta's All Our Working Lives (BBC2 1984), Angela Holdsworth's women's history series, Out of the Doll's House (BBC2 1988), and some of the early pioneer work at Channel 4 on the industrial and urban past.

Peter N. Stearns's fundamental twin premises of social history, "that ordinary people not only have a history but contribute to shaping history more generally, and that a range of behaviours can be profitably explored historically beyond (though also including) the most familiar political staples," was surely at work in the television editing suite. (6)

But what, in fact, has occurred is that the same intellectual shifts which have unnerved academic social history have been at work on the small screen. Jurgen Kocka deftly identified the issue in the 2003 special issue of the Journal of Social History. "... 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, or with the desire of enriching their mind, of broadening their base of experience and of educating their senses." That quest for identity and empathy is as much at work among TV schedulers and producers as social historians. "... explanation has become less obvious, less self-evident, less desirable or less manageable for many historians. Understanding has regained centre-stage." (7) So, "a journey back in time to discover what it was really like," is the typical catchall trail to advertise an up-coming history series.

At the same time, shifts in the structure, politics and financing of British television have served to undermine some of the ideology behind much early social history broadcasting. Changes began in the later-1980s with the political assault on the BBC hierarchy by Mrs Thatcher's administration ushering in a new mood of safety-first editorial decision making. More recently, market oriented internal reforms and commercialisation strategies pursued by Director Generals John Birt and Greg Dyke have shifted the BBC into an increasingly ratings focused organisation with diminishing capacity for radical innovativeness in history programming. Similarly, the liberalisation of the independent production sector has witnessed a growing trend towards mergers and a steady focus on guaranteed profits. Inevitably, this has resulted in a drift towards the solid bankers of military history, iconic narratives, and computer generated pyrotechnics. History programming on a strict commercial budget has meant exchanging the hard grind of archival research for the stock recycling of easy images, lazy ideas, and familiar talking-heads.

In the contemporary television market, the fickle demands of the audience are paramount with focus groups and audience surveys rather than ideology or instinct underpinning editorial decisions. And this even though the democratisation of technology (principally the Internet) and lower production costs (such as the use of videotape) have opened up new opportunities for community filmmakers and 'marginal' topics. Cable programming and local stations have hugely diversified news production, but we have yet to see a similar fluorescence of intimate history programming.

Inevitably, programmes reflect the intellectual outlook of their makers. The politics and assumptions which have faded in the academy since Eric Hobsbawm's famous proclamation of optimism have similarly faded within the media. The Marxist and socialist politics of film-makers in the 1970s and early 1980s has dwindled as producers and directors reflect a contemporary concern with careers and finance above radical ideology. The strong, personal commitment to the importance of social history which produced Kevin Brownlow's Winstanley (1975), or Peter Watkins's Culloden (1964), or Michael Mason's iconoclastic Radio 4 series 'The Long March of Everyman'--which included as programme directors some of the great social historians of the latter half of the twentieth century: Asa Briggs, Peter Mathias, Gwyn Williams, Edward Thompson, George Rude, and Raphael Samuel amongst them--has all but vanished. You would be hard pressed to find such a bewilderingly impressive cohort behind any programming today. The socially committed and politically active now head straight for the world of current affairs and international development broadcasting.

History Today

Before analysing the existing state of social history programming, it is important to emphasise the multiplicity of television history together with the need for academics to approach the medium with slightly greater sophistication. All too frequently, television history is lumped together as an unitary discipline in a manner which is rarely applied to the printed text. Rightly, critics realise the range that exists between a PhD thesis, a scholarly monograph, an article for an academic journal, a popular history work, and a newspaper opinion piece. All serve different purposes, engage different audiences, and all contribute to an understanding of history in their own way. Television history works in the same fashion, with a multiplicity of competing strands.

It should always be understood that history on television does not and cannot serve the same function as a printed text. A history programme is not competing on the same terrain as a book, seminar or lecture. It is purposefully designed for a mass audience, using a judicial edit of sound and vision to make an argument or offer a depiction of aspects of the past. The purpose of television history is to entertain, educate and excite. If it can throw some intelligent light on the past through an engaging narrative while encouraging viewers to think more deeply about the subject, then it's doing the job. Academic scholarship is alternatively often involved in highly nuanced, frequently methodological debates about a far more particularised historical controversy. Its audience is limited to others with a developed understanding of the subject and an appreciation of the significance of the polemical interjection. Moreover, within the broad acreage of a book, there is greater opportunity to develop arguments and provide contexts more fulsomely, support a thesis more cogently, display a deeper nuance with the topic, and explore contrary analyses. At the same time, the process of research and understanding is developed through the text. Footnotes allow for a lineage of knowledge and an invitation to further scholarship and counter-argument typically unavailable to the television viewer--although the use of the Internet for expanding some of the history behind a film is beginning to change that.

It also pays to be slightly more circumspect about memories of history programming in the public service 'Golden Age.' While commentators might fondly recall Clark's Civilization (BBC 1969) or Bronowski's The Ascent of Man (BBC 1973), neither of these can be regarded as embracing social history in any progressive sense. Indeed, even the great social landmarks series such as Stephen Peet's Yesterday's Witness (BBC from 1969 to 1991), which brought popular oral history to new production heights, could be painfully didactic and contemptuous of generating broader popular engagement.

As it is currently scheduled, the vast majority of history on television is oriented around biography, battles and quick-fire narrative drama. Consequences, structures and processes generally enjoy minor roles, with military conflict holding centre-stage. (8) The tradition begun by the BBC's 1964 epic The Great War and excelled only by The World at War (Thames 1973) has been continued in recent years by Jeremy Isaacs' The Cold War (Jeremy Isaacs Productions 1996). The arresting images, the low cost archive, the still living participants, and the unrivalled human drama of warfare makes it irresistible television. As the veteran UK television producer Steve Humphries suggests, "Television history is at its best when telling epic stories. And there are few true stories that have more drama, pathos and tragedy than those of war." (9) Since the screening of The Great War, almost one-third of all history programmes made in the UK have taken war as their main subject--and every year marks another battle anniversary. In 2004, for example, Anglo-American television screens were dominated by new interpretations, reconstructions, and 'previously unseen footage' of the 1944 D-Day landings.

Aside from the occasional contribution of an awkward squaddie there is very little space in this programming for any sense of social history. It is broadly a story of military tactics, dynamic, foolhardy or sadistic generals, and an awful lot of technology. Advances in computer game technology, now able to depict vast battles and extensive military manouevres with real-life imagery, is driving increasing amounts of this war-hungry programming. In between the CGI and mutilated bodies, there is rarely any room for the homefront--the lives of women, children, the elderly, or transgressive--to be depicted in any nuanced detail. Much of this has to do with the typical demographic of white, male, aged-over-forty history viewers. But the endless World War II series analysing both the inexplicable, wilful evil of the Nazis and the transcendant heroism of the British people also appeal to a fragile sense of patriotism built around the sacrifice of 'the greatest generation.' Our post-war national myth is nightly re-established. The same appears true in the United States. The television producer Taylor Downing has suggested that at any one point on US screens a documentary on Adolf Hitler is being shown--a situation as yet unexplored with regard to its effects on national identity and global relations.

Outside of warfare, the demands of television similarly preclude much development of social history. Above all, what is required by commissioning executives is a 'strong personal narrative' for viewers to identify with. History needs to be humanised and made accessible to a broad audience through the experiences of 'iconic' historical personages. Much television history is in this perspective little removed from a Carlylian vision of 'Great Men' as the (British) past becomes a parade of Henry V, Oliver Cromwell, the Duke of Marlborough, the Duke of Wellington, Queen Victoria, and, above all, Winston Churchill. These programmes generally lurch between the hagiographical and the 'real-life' expose, but in each case the individual stands dominant but isolated; at times, wholly removed from his social context. As Jurgen Kocka has remarked of the academy, "we have become much more sceptical about the possibility of grasping broad social structures and processes and of using them for explaining actions, biographies and events." (10)

A similar focus on the travails of the individual historical actor can be found at the generic heart of history programming with the emphasis on courts, political factions, and personal relationships. The shadow of Lewis Namier hovers over the screen. By far the finest practitioner of this approach is the Tudor historian, Dr. David Starkey, whose depictions of the reigns of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I are based extensively on internecine court struggles and personal rule--which is understandable given both the historical context and Dr. Starkey's own expertise. However, this analytical style has been crudely transposed in numerous inappropriate settings to provide generally imbalanced if not misleading narratives of a range of historical periods. White, male individuals are the rain-makers of the past with marginalised people, ideas, social structures or processes making only fleeting appearances. The intellectual, social or economic context within which choices are framed or decisions made is generally avoided. The figures of the past are just like you and I operating in the same mental universe.

Unsurprisingly, on television today there is little sense of social history as an "approach to general history from a socio-historical point of view," dealing with "all domains of historical reality, by relating them to social structures, processes and experiences in different ways." (11) The furious demands of narrative leave little room for the longe duree. Moreover, structures and processes (let alone ideologies) are always more difficult to transcribe visually. While Professor Niall Ferguson's bravura series Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World (Channel 4 2003) displayed a typically erudite grasp of the economic imperatives behind imperial expansion, it dealt thinly with the mass of social history issues thrown up by empire. Questions of social or tribal structures, racial identities, or indeed mainstream topics like urban history were noticeably absent from Ferguson's epic sweep. (12)

Within the grand presenter-led historical narratives, social history tends to enjoy a brief walk-on part with momentary patches of analysis looking at demography, housing conditions, working conditions, and the 'birth of class.' There appears very little place for family history, labour history, or children's history. In what some feminist scholars might interpret as a sign of the discipline's escape from the gendered ghetto, women's history (as well as female presenters) is also widely ignored. Social history tends to act as an intermittent back-drop to the real programming meat of battles, biographies and 'events, dear boy, events.'

Social History Today

However, there is plentiful evidence that social history can be adapted intelligently to a television audience--and such an approach is best delivered through the format of historical drama documentaries. Avoiding a presenter, these programmes are driven by the producer-director. Typically sixty to ninety minutes in length, they are anonymously narrated and rely heavily on historical re-enactment and, increasingly, computer graphics. Their success or otherwise is more often than not down to the quality of actors involved in the historical representation.

One of my favourite examples of this genre is the film, Wisconsin Death Trip (1999)--the gripping story of an 1890s Wisconsin mining community made up of Scandinavian emigres in the midst of an economic downturn and spiritual frenzy. Directed by James Marsh, the film is structured around garish local newspaper reports as well as the macabre still photography of the local morgue. It constitutes an intimate, at times claustrophobic piece of social film-making; a television equivalent to Emmanuel le Roy Laudurie's Montaillou or Eamonn Duffy's Morebath. Through a trail of well-acted characters, historical context and journalistic accounts of the time, the film provides both a powerful account of a nineteenth-century industrial community on the brink of psychological and social breakdown as well as a historically fascinating portrait of the other side of the American frontier myth.

A similarly successful film was a Channel 4 production entitled The Great Plague in the series Plague, Fire, War and Terror (2001). In a great work of micro-history, the film tracked the impact of the Black Death on a single parish through an analysis of vestry minutes. Working closely from the records of Henry Dorsett, church warden of St. Dunstan, it offered an uniquely intimate and subtle account of the plague on a specific street: the names of those who died and survived, their relationships and their lives. The programme dealt on the minutiae of how a culture and community governed themselves during a time of crisis, explored emotional and physical responses to the plague, and highlighted the apocalyptic spiritualism that infected the capital during the 1660s. A further film in the series, The Great Fire, recounted the impact of the fire of London on a parish with similarly perceptive results. Working closely from primary sources--in this case, the diary of Ralph Josselin, vicar of Earls Colne in Essex--both programmes benefited from a nuanced, investigative social history perspective.

An equally bottom-up strategy was adopted in a series on the eighteenth century, Georgian Underworld (Channel 4 2003). Taking the work of Roy Porter as their inspiration ("Beneath the powered wig, emotional and psychological disorder seethed"), the programme-makers delivered a collection of rich social insights into the forgotten eighteenth century. The series began with The Man Who Saved Children, investigating the life of Sir Thomas Coram who left shipbuilding for philanthropy to establish the first-ever foundling hospital. While the programme indulged an awful lot of powdered wigs, it also raised interesting questions about infant mortality, moral attitudes towards illegitimacy, the social function of charity, and the sexual politics of marriage. Invitation to a Hanging followed the life and death of Jack Sheppard and in doing so opened up new audiences to the eighteenth-century penal code, criminal apprenticeships and notions of plebeian heroism. Bare-Knuckle Boxers appraised the career of Bill Richmond, the ex-slave turned cabinet-maker and bare-knuckle boxer, to explore Georgian attitudes towards race, urban sport, and aristocratic-plebeian relations. It was visceral and frequently vicarious in its filmic cycle of muscle-bound punch-ups, but nonetheless an unprecedented insight (at peak time) into a generally overlooked corner of popular history. Further programmes focused on the 'Peterloo' massacre of 1819 and the state response to nascent radicalism as well as a suitably bawdy account of eighteenth-century molly houses complete with analysis of homosexuality, homophobia and moral panics. One of the televisual tricks frequently employed in the direction of these histories was the direct 'piece to camera' by one of the historical actors--which, on the one hand, was certainly suspect in terms of language, pronunciation and demeanour; but, on the other, literally gave a voice to traditionally disenfranchised historical actors.

The availability of archive film footage, living witnesses, and still standing physical locations makes twentieth-century social history programming an altogether easier affair. Unfortunately, this has not resulted in anything like the volume of social programming one could have expected. Instead, the history of the twentieth century on television is primarily the story of World War II. But over the last few years, British television has produced a range of engaging social histories drawing on memory, testimony, archive and the inevitable re-tracing of steps. Among the most comprehensive was the BBC series People's Century (1995) which pointed to the BBC's curious dual-role as television channel and forum for the crafting of state-sanctioned national narratives. It was, in the words of producer Peter Grimsdale, "ultimate public service television. It connected ordinary people with history and it often broke new ground bringing important stories to light that even professional historians were unaware of." (13) Equally impressive were the contributions of Steve Humphries--one of the most innovative and challenging documentary makers of the 1990s. His remarkable series, A Secret World of Sex (BBC2 1991), was a powerful work of taboo-breaking oral history looking at twentieth-century sexual practices. The rich narratives, modest editing and strong scholarship successfully managed to draw in substantial audiences to a realm of frequently overlooked social history.

More recently, there have been programmes detailing the 1984 Miners' Strike and its effect on social solidarity within pit communities, working-class voluntary culture, and political consciousness; documentaries on the arrival of SS Empire Windrush and the reception of Caribbean culture into post-war Britain; and, finest of all, a Channel 4 programme Sikh Street which detailed the arrival of Sikh immigrants into traditional white, working-class communities in Gravesend, Kent. Gender, race and, through the transformation of terraced housing, even architectural history were explored through eye-witness interviews and telling but detached camera work. And it is in these contexts that social history comes alive through television. As the leading German scholar Sir Ian Kershaw has remarked of a slightly different context, "Television history contains an inbuilt drama that the lecture room, seminar discussion, or research monograph are scarcely equipped to match." (14)

The BBC series, The Middle Classes: Their Rise and Sprawl (2001), was one of the most sophisticated programmes to have emerged from this genre. A social history of the British middle classes over the long twentieth century it drew on the memories and life stories of individuals and families, as well as the talking-head contributions of social historians (Simon Szreter and Simon Gunn amongst them) and commentators to deliver a nuanced narrative of class identity and social structure. Topics ranged from education to housing to social protest to leisure to work--including, along the way, discussion of those quintessential middle-class signifiers, piano lessons and interior design. Focused portraits of specific locations, such as the Oxford suburb of Cutteslowe, mingled with broader dynastic analyses of such leading middle-class families as the Courtaulds. And while a concentration on understanding and identity was pervasive, the series did engage (as much as television feels it can) with more rigorous issues of structure and agency. (15)

Tapping into the current enthusiasm for genealogy, the Corporation extended this format of family history to follow ten 'celebrities' as they unpicked their ancestral pasts. Who Do You Think You Are? (BBC2 2004) saw light entertainment stars digging around the archives, scouring death certificates, and leafing through local newspapers. Here was identity driven history in all its media, tear-jerking glory as illegitimate off-spring were uncovered and family mysteries resolved. Research facilities and genealogical advice was offered to viewers keen to pursue their own family pasts. But was this social history? As one candid participant admitted, "This isn't curiosity, this journey--it's self-help." (16)

A different approach was adopted by No 57: The History of a House (Channel 4 2003) which cleverly combined the unquenchable British obsession with property with our new found interest in the past. Telling the story of 57 Kings-down Parade, Bristol it explored the changing inhabitants, interior design, and room use of a single house over two hundred years--with occasional off-shoots into broader social, political and economic trends. With a mixture of interviews, archive footage and family records, a history of social relationships, work patterns and childhood was gently unveiled through the fabric of the house. Even the esoteric social history of the lodger was explored.

And unlike so many of its ilk, the programme managed to position this history within a global nexus showing how, for example, the sourcing of carpets or the use of mechanical devices often involved the inhabitants within set of extensive imperial inter-relationships. It also afforded a novel entry into the history of urban development through a discussion of terraced housing, speculative development and processes of civic decay. The programme ended with the Kingsdown area, a depressed part of Bristol for most of the later twentieth century, undergoing regeneration and the house placed back on the market. The series constituted a highly accessible insight into the local rhythms of time and a positioning of personal and civic identity within a historical continuum.

A far more vernacular approach to social history broadcasting was delivered to a prime-time audience by the BBC's I Love the 1970s (2000). This latched onto a widespread sentiment if not of historicism then nostalgia amongst thirty and forty-somethings. The format rarely changed as well-known celebrities reflected on their childhood terrain of school, fashion, music, and even television. As much a celebration of the social history of television, it was a chronicle of popular culture delivered in furious, bite-sized, backtrack driven style for an audience desperate to indulge in the fuzzy memories of the near past. Politics, international relations, economics, and social reform provided the briefest of window-dressing for humour-laden analyses of hairstyles, song lyrics, cartoons, sitcoms and light entertainment.

Reality Bites

The fastest growth sector in social history programming is the bastard genre best termed 'historical reality' television. For many, such series as The 1900 House, The Edwardian Country House, and The Ship in which participants 'act out' the lives of previous generations, constitute the inevitable reductio ad absurdum of current trends in meaning and identity history. Simon Schama has strongly made the case that such programmes do not, in fact, belong in the same enterprise as television history, "since our involvement with the characters [in historical reality shows] depends on us knowing that they are really 'like us', or that, in so far as they can be made unlike us, the agency of that transformation is social and material--washing with lye, tying a corset. To truly complete the change, the washing, I think, has to be mental or imaginative, as much as physical. Poetic reconstruction [in television], if it is to work, needs to lose the characters, and by extension us, who are watching them, entirely within their own world without any inkling of their return trip to the contemporary." (17) Yet the great popular success of these series is precisely because the participants are 'like us.'

The programmes' pedigree is a mixed one of which elements can be traced back to the engrained British passion for historical re-enactment. From the medieval jousting of the Eglinton tournament to the mock dungeons of Warwick Castle, 'living history' has provided a constituent part of both popular and elite British culture since the 1800s. During the later decades of the twentieth century, its scope widened dramatically as museums, castles and heritage sites all included living elements as part of their visitor attraction strategies. The most perceptive chronicler of these shifts in historic meaning was the late Raphael Samuel:</p> <pre> If there is a unifying thread to these exercises in historical reconstruction it is the quest for immediacy, the search for a past which is palpably and visibly present: 'stepping back in time', for those who sample the sights and sounds of the Great Fire at the Museum of London; 'taking a walk with history', for those who follow the old packhorse trail along the Pennine Way. In a phrase which has been adopted by a whole succession of retrieval projects ... it is 'living history.' Objects must be seen and felt and touched if they are not to remain inanimate, and restored to their original habitat, or some lifelike replica of it, if they are to be intelligible in their period setting. Events should be re-enacted in such a way as to convey the lived experience of the past. (18) </pre> <p>Samuel went on to suggest that the popularity of these tableaux vivants owed much to the British enthusiasm for do-it-yourself and tinkering in the shed: there was little conceptual difference between model aeroplane making and getting the right buckles for an English Civil War outfit.

In more recent years, as the heritage industry has become a growing partner in out of school education and provider of 'lifelong learning', this emphasis on experience has taken a more academic turn. According to a recent report from the National Trust, "Our visitors' expectations of formal and informal learning have changed; they expect to discover, not to receive instruction. Our visitors are better informed about history and heritage, but have a shorter attention span. Our visitors expect layers and levels of interaction--so that both a toddler and a specialist can enjoy an experience unique to them." (19) As J.C.D. Clark has remarked more acerbically, "we now have everyman his own historian. Each person has a story to tell: by implication, each story is to be different." (20) And each story necessarily has the same value,

However, the history most people want to hear and tell is typically a vicarious one of class difference usually formatted in the style of 'upstairs-downstairs.' The trend towards illuminating the servant past in popular history was first pioneered in Britain by Merlin Waterson in his restoration of the National Trust property, Erdigg. Situated just outside Wrexham, the country-house served for 250 years as the family seat of the Yorkes. Phillip Yorke, the property's enlightened eighteenth century owner, had taken an exceptional interest in the well-being of his servants making detailed sociological studies of their lives and commissioning portraits. As the house crumbled towards disrepair, the National Trust returned to Erdigg a living sense of its domestic community as described in the Yorke records. Today, the estate is rightly if cynically marketed as "the most evocative 'upstairs-downstairs' house in Britain" and in its yards and outbuildings there is a tangible sense of the functioning servant world. The Erdigg innovation caught on, and no country house exhibition is now complete without some insight into the working day of the laundry girl or set-upon cook. Points of access are offered into the daily grind of 'ordinary people' as ever more detailed genealogical records help to establish our predecessors' lives as nurse maids and butlers.

If that was the historical lineage, then the television pre-history was of a growing fashion for reality programmes. This began in the mid-1990s with television cameras shadowing individuals in utterly mundane professional settings--driving schools, airports, cruise liners--to create curiously engaging documentaries of everyday life. This soon metamorphosed into 'reality TV' in which production companies crafted scenarios that threw together carefully picked individuals (or 'celebrities') in tense, goldfish bowel-like settings. Perhaps the most celebrated in this genre were the 'Big Brother' and 'Survivor' strands which added the element of viewer power over programme direction through telephone voting.

Soon, the reality and living history genres merged to create historical reality programming. They combined the authentic dressings, artefacts, and social systems from the heritage sector with the tasks, confinement and scrutiny of reality TV. And while something similar had been attempted with the 1978 series, Living in the Past (BBC), in which four families lived in a reconstruction of an Iron Age settlement, this strand injected a new degree of populist professionalism. One of the pioneer programmes in the new hybrid was The 1900s House (Channel 4 1999) that saw the specially selected Bowler family experience the lives of their Edwardian predecessors. Set in a townhouse in Greenwich (which had to be stripped of electricity, central heat and indoor toilet for the event), the Stoical Bowlers recorded the ensuing trials and tribulations--the dreary, damp rooms, dirty clothing and all-day laundry chores and meals preparation--on a video diary. Essentially a heritage day which never seemed to end, the family members (complete with increasingly disgruntled children) 'travelled back in time' to learn the rudimentary nature of late Victorian lower-middle class life. As the publicity blurb put it, "The romance and glamour of earlier times turned to harsh reality when they learn that laundry is an all-day affair, there is never enough hot water from the coal-burning range and they had to cope with chamber pots, dirty hair and cold baths." Programme producers seemed particularly to relish moments when either the mother, Joyce Bowler, or her children broke down in tears.

The series was followed by The 1940s House (Channel 4 2001) in which the Hymers family underwent the privations of war-time life. Television, telephones, and washing machines were removed; air raid shelters dug in the garden; rationing enforced and the couple's grandchildren went constantly hungry. Whereas once upon a time, the historically curious could experience something of the sound and fury of the Blitz at special exhibits in the Imperial War Museum, now the Hymers lived it out for us. In an example of the kind of psychological pressurising common in reality TV, producers used air raid sound effects to wake the family at night and wait for the inevitable dramatic denouements of reduced sleep, low nourishment, and cold.

The Edwardian Country House (or Manor House as it was sold to the US market by PBS) (Channel 4 2003) went one stage further by specifically injecting an element of social conflict into the series. The same upstairs-downstairs revival which had made Kazuo Ishiguro's novel, The Remains of the Day, or the Oscar-winning film Gosford Park such hits was successfully transferred onto the small screen. According to the promotional material, its aim was to bring 'class to reality television.'</p> <pre> Taking Manderston, an authentic Edwardian pleasure palace in the Scottish Borders, a family of five and a newly formed staff of 14, this six-part series turns back the clock to recreate life as it was for the new rich and their servants during the halcyon period in British social history before the First World War. Our modern family upstairs, the Olliff-Coopers, have been taken away from the stresses and strains of modern life to a world where everything is done for them. Attending to their every whim and desire is a team of 14 staff who will do everything for them from picking up clothes to brushing down horses ... All the staff downstairs are volunteers with no experience of working as a servant in a 'big house' ... Every participant in the experiment has agreed not just to live with Edwardian technology, but to abide by Edwardian standards of behaviour and to adapt to a complicated set of rules that governs everything in their daily lives ... Overarching these rules is an intricate pecking order, which firmly places everybody in the house in a set social position and decides every aspect of life--who can initiate conversation, who has pudding at lunch, who can have a bath and when. The hierarchy is all-important amongst the servants, but it is most obvious in the division between family and staff ... How will each of the 21st century volunteers react to a social structure where there is a place for everyone and everyone knows their place? (21) </pre> <p>Here was the experience of the National Trust's Erdigg for the mass viewing public. The history audience was served by a panorama of the Edwardian social past; the reality TV community by mounting tension, personality clashes, and emotional breakdowns all artfully engineered for the cameras.

Other programmes in this popular format included Regency House Party (Channel 4 2004) which attempted to marry some of the dating reality shows with a touch of history by giving "six aspiring Mr Darcys and six Miss Bennetts (and their chaperones) the chance to go back to the England of the early 1800s and live at the height of the age of romance." Filmed with a Merchant-Ivory sepia glow, the series was an endless cascade of flirtatious tears, house party high-jinx, and scheming bitchiness. But the programme executives did also manage to elucidate some interesting aspects of early nineteenth-century courtship, the slave economy, gentry sport and leisure, communications, and (albeit whimsically) gender and class. The added spice of whether Miss Bennett would get her Darcy managed to keep the viewers hooked.

By contrast, The Ship (BBC 2002) was not such a promising conceit. It placed a selection of scientists, botanists and historians on the Bark Endeavour--a replica of Captain Cook's Endeavour--to recreate the celebrated Tahitian voyage of 1768. This square-rigger re-enactment was intended to open up the experiences of eighteenth-century sea-hands as well the intellectual ambition of Enlightenment exploration. Indeed, academic advisers went so far as to suggest that, by re-living this history, the study of the past could be augmented. "By using traditional methods and materials to replicate old things, we can learn more about the way they work and about how certain tasks were accomplished. This is a helpful exercise where the absence of historical records makes an informed guess and a series of experiments the next best way to understand how things were done." It is also offered a more immediate, more valid form of experience history. "Above all, re-enactment places the emphasis on subjective experience and not on reflection. We become the subjects and objects of our own voyage." (22) In the end, however, The Ship was simply a piece of floating theatre as behind the sails and rigging lay global positioning systems and mobile telephones; in place of scurvy and skin cancer, vitamins and sunscreen.

The nadir of 'reality history' was reached with the BBC series The Trench (BBC 2003) that aimed to recreate the experience of the 10th Battalion of the East Yorkshire Regiment on the Western Front. By placing volunteers from Hull and East Yorkshire in an 'authentically constructed trench system' in northern France, the programme hoped to provide a bottom-up history of World War I. But without the spectre of death, this proved rather difficult--not to say in bad taste as re-enactors reflected on the 'loss' of participants (snatched in the night by the production crew and taken off-set). The transition from Corelli Barnett's The Great War, with its incisive, questioning if patrician commentary (delivered by Sir Michael Redgrave), to the facile 'experience' of The Trench is itself a micro-history of broadcasting.

With the exception of the latter category, well-made historical reality programmes can occasionally provide elements of insight into the lived experiences of the past. They have certainly proved popular amongst global audiences with the format sold around the world--Frontier House in the United States being the most obvious example. But what none of these programmes begins to offer is any greater depth of analysis or inquiry. While superficially issues of class, social structure and inequality might be approached this more often than not is pursued through the prism of identity--'how would our forefathers and mothers have lived', not why, or how did it change over time.

Arguably, this is a trend which can only serve to de-legitimise history as a discipline worthy of proper study. It is history as entertainment, pure and simple, without the capacity to teach about the past or shed light on the present. It is the past as theatre in which different people played different parts with no rhyme or reason behind it. It was the luck of the draw--rather than economic forces or cultural contexts--which dictated the social structure. Here is a history which, to paraphrase Blair Worden, invites us "not to think, not to exercise our imaginations, but to gawp." (23) Television history at its best invites us to question assumptions, be entertained but also intrigued--not simply to gloat over the travails of re-enactors or luxuriate in depictions of Edwardian splendour. As William Camden liked to quote Polybius: "Take away from history why, how and to what end things have been done, and whether the thing done hath succeeded according to reason; and all that remains will be an idle sport and foolery, than a profitable instruction; and though for the present it may delight, for the future it cannot profit." (24)

What historical reality programming marks is the demise of social history on television as a political project; as an approach which "meant in effect for many years the organizational and ideological history of the labour movement, and above all the Marxist labour movement." (25) Social history on television has retreated from Hobsbawm's totalizing optimism to the dismal pessimism of Trevelyan's "history of the people with the politics left out." There is nothing in this genre remotely related to the forgotten histories of working lives, ethnicity, imperialism, social class or women which marked the polemical film-making of the 1970s and early 1980s. There is little contemporary relevance or progressive purpose behind such commercial scheduling. This is a history format driven by the heritage vogue for identity and meaning. And as such it adheres to the predominantly conservative bent of so much television history: narratives of kings and queens, Whiggish national identities built around continuity rather change, and 'living history' which invites few questions about the nature of the past.

All of which can be disheartening for progressives because of the phenomenal reach of television and its potentially empowering capacity. At its best television can be regarded as a continuation of the work of the Open University and Workers Educational Association with a similar capacity to broaden understandings of history amongst millions who would otherwise remain ignorant. And television history is often only the beginning of a process. The viewer is not always the inert, channel-hopping philistine, but an engaged participant who is initially drawn into a subject by contact through a programme. In what is called, in dreadful parlance, 'a learning journey', the viewer might proceed from a television programme to a channel website to further reading to historic visits and then even to a Open University or higher education course.

Television also has the capacity and intellectual capital to deal with the kind of contemporary social issues which demand a historical perspective: work, migration, family structures, ethnicity. All these highly germane elements of modern Western society have narrative histories which offer up valuable insights into the past and potentially rewarding dissections of the present. Television history as a popular medium needs to engage a broad audience with relevant topics, and many of them fall within the social history canon. This is what makes it imperative not to retreat from television in the face of reality programmes and 'drum and trumpet' narratives, but engage more readily with it. Social historians need to develop intellectual mechanisms to apply their topics and methodological concerns within the medium's stylistic constraints. The politics and intellectual assumptions of the Marxisant era of social history film-making have gone, but that is no excuse to dwell in the past.

Department of History

Mile End Road

London E1 4NS

United Kingdom


1. Richard Evans, "What is History?--Now" in David Cannadine (ed.), What is History Now? (London, 2002), p.10

2. David Cannadine, "What is History Now?," in J.S. Morrill (ed.), The Promotion of Knowledge, Proceedings of the British Academy, cxxii (2004), pp.38-9.

3. James E. Cronin, "Memoir, Social History and Commitment," Journal of Social History, 37, 1 (2003), p.230

4. Eric Hobsbawm, Age of Extremes (Abacus, 1994), p.3

5. JCD Clark, Our Shadowed Present (London, 2004), p.4

6. Peter N. Stearns, "Social History Present and Future," Journal of Social History (2003), p.9

7. Jurgen Kocka, "Losses, Gains, and Opportunities: Social History Today," Journal of Social History (2003), pp.23-24

8. See Roger Smither, "Why is So Much Television History about War?" in David Cannadine (ed.), History and the Media (London, 2004), pp.51-66

9. "History on Television," Broadcast, 3 September 2004, p.20

10. Jurgen Kocka, "Losses Gaina," p.23

11. Jurgen Kocka, "What is Leftist about Social History Today?," Journal of Social History, 29 (1995-96), Supplement: 67

12. For a full critique of the series, see Jon Wilson, "Niall Ferguson's Imperial Passion," History Workshop Journal, Volume 56, Issue 1 (Autumn 2003), pp. 175-183

13. Broadcast, p.20

14. Times Literary Supplement, 14 March 2003

15. For an overview of the programme themes see the accompanying book. Simon Gunn and Rachel Bell, Middle Classes: Their Rise and Sprawl (London, 2001)

16. The Guardian, 13 October 2005

17. Simon Schama, "Television and the Trouble with History," in Cannadine (ed.), History and the Media, p.29

18. Raphael Samuel, Theatres of Memory (London, 1996), pp. 175-6

19. The National Trust, 2004--Update on our Vision for Learning (London, 2004), p.2

20. Clark, Our Shadowed Present (2004), p.6



23. Blair Worden, "Do We Get the History We Deserve?," Sunday Telegraph, 27 May 2001

24. William Camden, The History of the Most Renowned and Victorious Princess Elizabeth, Late Queen of England (Chicago, 1970), p.6

25. Richard Evans, In Defence of History (London, 1997), p.167

By Tristram Hunt

Queen Mary, University of London
COPYRIGHT 2006 Journal of Social History
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2006, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Hunt, Tristram
Publication:Journal of Social History
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Mar 22, 2006
Previous Article:The future of learning and teaching in social history: the research approach and employability.
Next Article:Historians and audiences: comment on Tristram Hunt and Geoffrey Timmins.

Related Articles
What is leftist about social history today?
Social history in Europe.
Part III: reintroducing and refining social structure in social history.
Historians and audiences: comment on Tristram Hunt and Geoffrey Timmins.
Common ground: integrating social and environmental history.
Behavioral history: a brief introduction to a new frontier.
From imagination to action: can fiction be a vehicle for social change?

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2018 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters