History and Tv in U.K.

2012 (tv) | 2014 (web) | 2016 (web) | 2016 (tv) | 2017 | 2018

by Ann Gray and Erin Bell

In the UK, the mid-1990s saw an increase in history programmes on TV, both on individual channels but also because a number of specialist channels, such as the History Channel, began broadcasting. British TV history is very eclectic and reflects the wider popularity of history in the UK – this also depends on how broadly history is defined; in the UK programmes such as Who do you think you are? (genealogy) and re-enactment programmes may be considered history on TV.

  1. The most important History Programmes put in the air by the main Television Channels of your Country with a distinction between public and commercial Channels

Public terrestrial channels:

  • BBC1 has some history programming, most notable recently is the celebrity genealogy series Who do you think you are? which includes elements of social, women’s and black history. There have also been a number of costume dramas and dramas based around historical events (see below).

  • BBC2 was the main broadcaster of BBC history programming before its digital channels were launched. It now broadcasts some history programmes, often already aired on the digital channel BBC4. In the mid-1990s one of the few regular history series on TV was Timewatch (BBC2), the BBC’s long running history documentary series, with no set theme: much like other BBC documentary series covering, for example, science or art. Various time periods and geographic areas are considered.

An extremely significant series broadcast in 1997 was Laurence Rees’ award winning Nazis: a warning from history which was then sold to several overseas broadcasters including PBS in the USA. The series used reconstruction, original footage, oral testimony and arguably represents a continuing British/US TV and cinema fascination with WW2 (possibly because they were victors and also not occupied nations, putting the atrocities at a ‘safe distance’) and with the question of how Germany could ‘allow’ a dictator to rise. Rees is a specialist in the area and has close ties to Prof Sir Ian Kershaw of the University of Sheffield, who is an expert in the history of the Third Reich. Both of these aspects give him credibility at the BBC. Rees challenges notions of TV history as ‘safe’ by intellectualizing it.

  • In the early 2000s there were a number of ‘reality history’ series on BBC2. These programmes are often neither light nor easy; they represent one of very few ways in which on TV women’s, black and working class history are represented, and scholarship on historical re-enactment on TV, in which ‘ordinary people’ materially recreate elements of (often) their ancestors’ lives, is a growing field and should not be discounted. It exists elsewhere in Europe (e.g. Germany) and the House type of series has also been broadcast in USA, Australia, Germany and elsewhere. We may also mentionThe Ship (2002), The Trench (2002) and, more recently, Coal House (2007). There has been a recent BBC2 season to mark the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade in the UK.

Commercial terrestrial channels:

  • ITV – some regional programming such as The Way We Were (archive-based) for which different material is produced in different parts of the UK

  • Channel 4/S4C (Welsh language Channel 4) – in the 1980s C4 was a source for alternative/minority history programming such as the Welsh History series The Dragon Has Two Tongues; in the 1990s and early 2000s this developed into reality TV history such as Edwardian Country House (2002).

  • Channel 5 (Five) – Five began in the early 2000s by broadcasting WW2 documentaries, often re-versioned from ZDF (Guido Knopp) series, and now commissions history series on a range of topics and periods.

Commercial and public digital and satellite channels – see below.

  1. Channels specializing in History programmes with a rough estimate of the kind of programmes they broadcast:

  • UKTV History (free with a set top box) –mainly BBC programmes originally aired on terrestrial channels

  • History Channel UK – UK version of the USA History Channel; primarily archive-based C20th history

  • Biography Channel – biographical programmes, some historical

  • BBC4 (free with a set top box) has a large number of history programmes including history ‘seasons’, sometimes marking specific events. These have included

    • Edwardians

    • 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade

    • 40th anniversary of the legalisation of homosexuality

    • Eighteenth-century history

  1. A list of History Programmes which in the past or in recent years have been considered of particular importance.

We have tried to take into account audience figures; original or revived formats; critical responses; and those deemed ‘landmark’ by the broadcaster.

We have created the following broad categories:

Presenter-led series – the first British history programmes were those of the Oxford historian AJP Taylor, who from the 1950s until the 1980s presented his lectures on BBC, ITV and Channel 4. His series included Challenge (on the Russian Revolution) (ITV 1957) and How Wars Begin (BBC 1977). In the 1960s the art historian Kenneth Clark presented the landmark series Civilisation (BBC2 1969) in the same era as Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man (BBC2 1973). They have received a second life through DVD and so continue to be significant.

From the early 1980s, other presenter-led history programmes included those of Michael Wood. His programmes continue to be based around the model of the quest (rather than a lecture) and he has recently made a series The Story of India (BBC 2007), part of a season marking the 60th anniversary of the independence of India. Other historians involved in similar styles of presenting include Bettany Hughes, one of few female historian-presenters on British TV. Her series have included Seven Ages of Britain (Channel 4 2003) and Athens (Channel 4 2007).

One of the most significant developments in history on TV in the UK was the resurgence in the mid-late 1990s of the presenter-historian, especially in a model closer to that of Taylor – the individual historian as authority. Examples are Simon Schama’s A History of Britain (BBC 2000-2002), David Starkey’s Monarchy (Channel 4 2004-7) and Niall Ferguson’s Empire (Channel 4 2002). In response to the alleged Anglocentrism of Schama’s series, BBC Scotland broadcast In Search of Scotland (2002).

Hughes’ and Schama’s series were very different: other than being overviews of British history with historian presenters, in content and form they were not alike. Whilst there has been competition between different broadcasters around ‘landmark’ TV series, the Hughes series was never marketed as such and was a much smaller scale production, which aimed to tell the story of ordinary people rather than elites. Hughes’ work can be more easily identified as a Channel 4 production; the use, for example, of the ‘quest’ model in the programme (she travels around interviewing experts, seeking answers) in contrast to Schama and Starkey’s bardic model (they already know the answers and are telling us). Schama was accused of elitism and Anglocentrism by some critics although he likens his history, especially HoB, to the work of Macaulay in the C19th, in the sense that both have created blockbuster, grand narrative national histories. This is a familiar model in TV history. The media fixated on Hughes as woman; in that sense her series have allowed a female voice (including female interviewees in series such as Miriam Gill from Leicester University).

In terms of viewing figures, HoB was very successful (up to 4.3m according to BARB figures; www.barb.co.uk ); Hughes’ series garnered respectable audience figures (c.2.1m) especially considering that far less time and money was put into marketing the series. HoB did very well in the USA, shown on PBS and making lots of DVD sales – it seems to have been selling British history as tourism. Starkey’s series was shown on PBS too (2006) and Monarchy DVDs are available for region 1 (USA and Canada) players. The emphasis on British history may be a result of responses to the millennium: both Monarchy and HoB were developed pre-millennium in preparation for 2000. Outside of TV, English Heritage and the National Trust, for example, ran a number of events to mark the year 2000 which reflected, implicitly or explicitly, on national identity in the UK. Also, many series and individual programmes (e.g. some Timewatch episodes do have a non-British perspective, or BBC4’s recent Art of Spain series (2008).

Archive and eyewitness-driven series – in 1964 to mark the anniversary of the beginning of the First World War, the BBC broadcast The Great War. The series was groundbreaking, using interviews with veterans and original footage, and was followed 10 years later by the Thames TV (ITV) production World at War, which included interviews with a range of eyewitnesses. Such programmes have continued to be made and in the 1990s included the co-produced The People’s Century oral testimony series (BBC 1995); historian/producer Steve Humphries with his production company Testimony Films, seeks to represent ‘history from below’ makes programmes using oral history. Oral history has been a recognised form of historical research since at least the 1960s, especially when researching women’s, w/c or other subaltern histories. Arguably this relates to the (Marxist) history workshop project active in the UK from the 1970s onwards: this certainly reflected a shift in what history might be conceived to be. This also reflects the different ways that ‘history’ is conceived of in different countries, such as more varied responses to public history.

As part of the season marking the end of the Second World War, the series Auschwitz (BBC 2005), based on some CGI but largely testimony was broadcast.

Found archive’ series such as Mitchell and Kenyon (BBC2 2005) and The Lost World of Friese-Greene (BBC2 2006). The former used recently-found black and white footage of Britain in the 1900s, and gained an audience of 4.5 million. The latter, showing colour film of Britain in the 1920s, broadcast on BBC2 the following year to an audience of 3.9 million. Such series were developed relatively recently and are very popular. Similarly, where colour footage has been available but previously thought too ‘modern’ looking for the TV audience, ITV offered The British Empire in Colour (ITV 2002), amongst others.

Archaeology series – as part of the broader representation of the past, archaeology programmes have also been popular in recent years and significant examples include the long-running Time Team (Channel 4 1992 – present) and the BBC’s rival series Meet the Ancestors (BBC2 1997 – c.2003)

Dramatic reconstruction/fiction – In 1964 the BBC first aired Peter Watkins Culloden and in more recent years these have included Rome (BBC 2005-7, 2 series); Pompeii: the last day (BBC/ Discovery 2003); Seven Wonders of the Industrial World (BBC 2003); Congo (BBC4 2004) and Rough Crossings (BBC2 2007) a dramadoc/ docudrama one-off programme which was an account of liberated slaves who had fought for Britain in the Revolutionary Wars and then, in the late 1770s, sailed from N America to new, British-run settlements in Sierra Leone, shown as part of a season marking the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade in the UK.

Contemporary history –examples of this include the documentary The Death of Yugoslavia (1995). The 1980-1 BBC2 series Ireland: a television history presented by broadcaster Robert Kee provided at times contentious insights into Irish history and contemporary politics.

Women’s history has to date been largely limited to individual series such as the BBC’s 1994 A Skirt through history a 3 part series examining different chronological eras and different European countries, which focussed on women’s history. Similarly, postcolonial history tends to be broadcast as part of ‘seasons’, so in the 2001 ‘Indian Summer’ season on Channel 4, Maria Misra, the first Asian woman historian to front a TV series, presented An Indian Affair.

Groundbreaking historical research was also done in The Middle Classes: their rise and sprawl (BBC 2002) a series of 6 episodes, each considering a different theme (such as politics or education) in the history of the urban middle classes in the UK mid- C19th to the mid-C20th. It used oral testimony as one means of gaining insights into this otherwise little-researched area. CGI was also used to a great extent in Virtual History; the secret plot to kill Hitler (Discovery Channel 2004) which received a great deal of publicity for its use of CGI to mock up film footage.

Populist history – this included ex-Monty Python Terry Jones’ Medieval Lives (BBC 2003); the What the Tudors/Romans/Vikings did for us series presented by Adam Hart-Davis; reality history series may perhaps be placed in this category and, if so, include the various House series on Channel 4: Edwardian Country House; 1900s House; 1940s House and The Trench and The Ship (discussed above).

Event TV’ based around anniversaries and commemoration such as the 2005 BBC series Auschwitz: the Nazis and the ‘Final Solution’ which marked the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz and gained an audience of c.4.2 million. It lies in the tradition of large-scale World War II documentaries such as the 1970s Thames TV series World at War. Again, this reflects the BBC’s public service remit.

Living history’ series; one of the most successful in the period 2000-2008 was Edwardian Country House (Channel 4 2002), which gained audiences of c. 3 million. The earlier (2001) 1940s House extended beyond TV to include a display in London’s Imperial War Museum. These series reflect Channel 4’s remit to broadcast innovative programming.

An innovative new format which has been sold around the world is Who do you think you are? (BBC2 2004/BBC1 2005-date), which sought to popularise history by combining celebrity with family history and which, with 6.5 million viewers, has gained the largest audience figures for popular history programming in recent years. Both WDYTYA and the various House series were made by the independent production company Wall to Wall, and WDYTYA now includes a genealogy magazine published by the BBC and annual public events.

Future history programming of interest to all European viewers

It seems likely that, given the success of Who do you think you are?, programmes will consider family history more directly; perhaps combining this with a distinct Europe-wide approach, especially when so many people in Europe can trace their ancestors to a number of different nations both inside and outside the continent. By default this would consider key events and transmigration through the lens of individual families. The WDYTYA format has already been sold to Australia, Canada, Poland and the USA. Further several television series, broadcast in both Germany and the UK, have demonstrated a turn to ‘affective history’, by emphasizing individual experience and daily life rather than historical events. Harald Welzer analyses the ways in which individuals experience affective and cognitive memories separately, for which he uses the metaphors ‘family album’ and ‘encyclopaedia’ respectively. As both album and encyclopaedia appear on the same bookshelf in the households he visited, so the individuals appearing in WDYTYA have often been aware of family histories but not of how these related to broader historical events. Both forms of memory appear in WDYTYA, which attempts to reconcile the personal, family album view of the past, often using family photographs as a starting point, with broader, and often traumatic, historical knowledge. This serves to make such events comprehensible to a wider audience whilst making the archival research necessary to historical – including genealogical – research more visible. Television is particularly well-suited to the combination of history and memory, combining aspects of personal, collective and national memories, and offering the audience some of the skills necessary to carry out similar research themselves.

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