Boxed History

Peter Keighron and Mike Wayne review the field of historical documentary on television and ask what the future holds for this genre.

It was A.J.P. Taylor who, in the mid 1950s, inaugurated history programming on television with chalk and board, and direct to camera address. From such rudimentary beginnings there followed a rapid evolution of 'tele-history' into a variety of forms and combinations. The 1960s saw dramatic and extensive use being made of archive footage beginning with 'The World At War' (Thames). Peter Watkins' 'Culloden' (BBC) demonstrated the striking and critical power of the drama-documentary. Programmes also started to include the evidence of 'witnesses' and participants of history.

The evolution away from the chalk and board days marks tele-history coming to terms with some of the specifications of the medium. For one thing, it occupies an entirely different place in social life from the history textbook. Television is not primarily locked into the world of work and compulsory participation which characterises the educational sphere.

Indeed television's approach to history necessarily has less to do with the academic world of 'heavy' print culture and more affinity with the ferreting instincts of the journalist, hunting the new story. 'I want to look at the very edges of history', says Roy Davies, editor of BBC's flagship history programme, 'Timewatch'. 'The history that has already been told is just a platform. What we need then is a little bump caused by new research'.

The journalistic character of the kind of history 'Timewatch' offers is typical of much of television and carries with it a populist thrust often to be found in the contemporary media. 'New research should be with the people quicker than it usually comes down the academic process', argues Davies. 'What I want to do is take it straight from the academics before they write the books'. That the institutions of historiography and television occupy different locations in social life, work and leisure respectively, is the root factor of disagreements between historians and producers of 'tele-history'. Taking up leisure time is the area in which the media are most active. While television has much in common with the media in this respect, it also has a somewhat unique relationship with the state.

Commercial television operates within a set of statutory obligations, while state funding has given the BBC some insulation from market forces. The Broadcasting Bill begins to dismantle this relationship with the state, especially for the commercial sector, and connect television with the market more fully.

It is fashionable among de-regulators to compare what is happening in broadcasting now, with the 'heroic' emergence of the press from the state control in the last century. On the evidence of the 1980s however, television as a prospective Fifth Estate, has had a less cosy relationship with political interests than the press.

Documentaries such as 'Real Lives' (BBC) and 'Death On The Rock' (Thames) have been in the frontline, but history programming has also found the space to be contentious. Both its drama-based variety such as 'The Monocled Mutineer' (BBC') and its more factual orientated programmes can hardly be said to amplify official wisdom.

Tony Benn, presenting a new series of discussion-based history programmes called 'Burning Embers' (Channel 4), talks of its 'loose and fluid form, at the very moment of the new history curriculum which is all about facts and dates'. Indeed history on television may be less malleable to political interests than its counterpart in the educational system. Its injunction to 'entertain' has arguably helped to develop tele-history away from the deferential response to the subject mapped out by the National Curriculum.

As much as the development of 'good' history programming on television has found itself adapting to the medium, it also continues to pose some hard questions as to what constitutes 'good' television. 'Timewatch', for example, emerged out of. an impatience with the indifference to history which news coverage could foster. Initially an explicatory area of current affairs, the aim of 'Timewatch' as Roy Davies recalls, was to 'develop the news back so that people understood the context of the news they were watching that night – in relation to the history that had produced it'.

Tele-history is today a complex generic beast, as rich in internal debate as its academic counterpart. A new sound and image that the genre has recently drawn upon, with much critical and popular success, is oral history. 'There is not one history, but many histories', argues Marilyn Wheatcroft of the Television History Workshop (THW) – pioneers of oral history programmes.

As a new addition to the repertoire of tele-history, oral history does not just take up a comfortable place alongside more established forms such as archive footage. Rather its use can raise fresh issues and questions as to the nature, function and potential of the genre.

The work of the THW stresses the plurality of, and potential conflicts between, historical perspectives. According to Marilyn Wheatcroft, 'One of the things we've striven very hard to do when we've got contradictions between witnesses, is purposefully to cut them against each other'.

Archive footage, by contrast, has been used frequently to buttress a point of view as if it were incontrovertable fact. Programme-makers have tended to accord such material an absolute, almost value-free, authority using it as Roy Davies, for example, concedes, 'without noting the source or the context in which it had been used previously'.

Since the means of producing images of the twentieth century have been centralised into the hands of the authorised few archive footage has tended to represent the official, dominant view of events to the exclusion of other interpretations and accounts.

The advent of video technology which is cheap, easy to operate and transport, offers new groups the chance to bring other voices into the process of interpreting history. 'The Brixton Tapes' (THW) is an account of the 1981 confrontation with the police from those who live in the area. It provides a very different interpretation of the events in Brixton compared to the general media. The importance of this kind of work as an archive resource for future historians cannot be underestimated.

Debate amongst programme makers is ongoing. The relationship between documentary material and dramatisation crops up frequently. And awareness has sharpened recently within tele-history, that archive footage (yesterday's news) cannot be regarded as disinterested evidence. This is despite the fact that television news regards itself as providing objective coverage.

So, once again, tele-history' poses questions for television generally and news in particular. But will the Broadcasting Bill encourage debate and innovation, or will the fiercely competitive environment which the Bill is steering television towards constrain and indeed threaten history programming on television?

Among those who actually make television's history programmes, opinions are divided. In the independent sector, for instance, we find Jerry Kuehl. Producer of 'The World at War', 'The French Revolution', etc. talking about how making television history has become 'substantially more difficult in the last few years'. But switch over to BBC and John Slater, Managing Editor of History, has 'no worries, whatsoever' about the future of history on television.

These two very different perspectives reflect the mood of uncertainty surrounding the future of British broadcasting at a time when the Government's Broadcasting Bill, franchise competition and the emergence of satellite and cable networks finds the industry in a state of nervous flux. But what does become clear from talking to a number of producers and commissioning editors of television history is that most of the positive noises are coming from the BBC's corner.

This optimism reflects the pivotal role played by public service broadcasting in general and the BBC in particular in developing the reputation of British television for its history programmes. So far, the record is impressive, almost unique to Britain. But now that British broadcasting is being dragged into line with more deregulated countries, history, like all areas of television, is having to stand up to some gale-force, free-market winds.

One of the most notable effects of television's search to become ever leaner and fitter has been the growth of international co-productions. The effects for history can he devastating. Any lover of history who has endured more than five minutes of 'War and Remembrance' will know what I mean. Taylor Downing, producer of 'Flashback Productions', an independent production company, sees this as a sign of things to come: 'I think we're going to see more and more of those ghastly sort of transatlantic mega-series made with money from a lot of different countries trying to cover several hills. But Downing also points towards Thames' 'Stalin' series as a positive example of co-productions.

Roger Bolton, controller of the 'Stalin' series, found that 'working with foreign co-producers has been a very happy experience'. But he also warns that 'it has to be subject matter that the foreign co-producer is interested in. Therefore what is the situation about more domestic matters, Irish matters or whatever, where's the money coming for that'?

Marilyn Wheatcroft, of the Television History Workshop, picks up on this: 'Increasingly things have to be transatlantic to get funding and unless you protect an interest in British social history and culture then ultimately those are going to he seen as minority programmes, because there's no potential sale. Unless public service broadcasting is protected our programmes are not '.

'The last bastion of restrictive practices' is how Margaret Thatcher described the television industry and those sections of the industry run as a public service rather than for private profit have become obvious targets for the Thatcher 'revolution'. But, back at the bastions of the Beeb itself, the history department exudes an air of confidence in its determination to survive such economic and political pressures.

A recent 'Timewatch' special, 'The Homecoming', on German currency union, was, according to John Slater 'the most relevant programme on television that weekend – we were way ahead of the current affairs people'. Slater cites this example as a sign of how, despite economic pressures, time is on history's side: 'History, particularly given events in Eastern Europe, is very much in vogue at the moment. People feel that they need to understand the wider context in order to understand in particular what is going on'.

Certainly there is a real demand from audiences for television to deliver both the broad sweep of history (made possible by international co-productions) and the details of history (provided by national or regional oral history and the like). But such cultural demands must struggle to he heard against the economic and political cacophony of the present period. For Jerry Kuehl the future looks to he one where we will be holding on to what we've got: 'Even assuming the Conservatives are returned to office, Channel Four will remain in place and the BBC will not he totally destroyed. It will he a shell of what it was, hut for the next five years there will still he people who believe that the palette of TV programming should involve some colours labelled 'historical documentary' and 'responsible historical fiction'.

Surely the key to maintaining such quality, minority programming will he an unconditional, but critical, support for public service broadcasting.

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