What’s Wrong with Television History?
As a new channel dedicated to history opens up in the UK, Tom Stearn excoriates current fashion and points the way to a more historical past on TV.
Television history, we are told, is the new rock ‘n’ roll, the sexy new TV ‘must have’. It is booming, with high ratings, and some 300 per cent more programmes being commissioned than in 1993. It has made a few historians – notably David Starkey, Simon Schama and Richard Holmes – better known than any since A.J.P. Taylor in his heyday. Yet there are misgivings among both historians and television critics. To Schama these are, apparently, ‘the usual moan of the common room and the opinion columns’. Some insiders have suggested current criticisms are no more than the gripes of envious academics who have themselves failed to gain lucrative television contracts. Yet arguably some aspects of television history are so bad that, unless there is reform, the viewing public may soon be alienated and the whole bubble may burst.