Television History and its Discontents

History on television is long overdue a radical rethink.

A scene from Six Wives with Lucy Worsley

‘TV History programmes are – wait for it – history.’ That was the verdict of the TV critic Joel Golby, published in the Guardian’s Guide for the first weekend of December. Golby had reached his conclusion having seen a preview of the new BBC One documentary series, Six Wives with Lucy Worsley. Now, the Guide is not the most serious of publications – it delivers its world view with tongue very much in cheek. It is also fair to point out that presenter Lucy Worsley is a fine scholar, who has written for History Today, though not on the Tudors. But I, too, despair at the current state of history programmes on TV. It is as though we need a revolution in the format, akin to that which has recently transformed TV drama.

Sadly, Six Wives is yet another offering on the Tudors, complete with unconvincing, cheap looking, historical reconstructions, presented by someone who is not an expert in that period (though dressed up in 16th-century clothing) and which says nothing that we do not know already. For, despite the obsession with the Tudors, there are still new things to say. Why not offer such a series to an expert in the field, for there is no shortage: Suzannah Lipscomb, Anna Whitelock, Susan Doran and many others are revealing new insights into the period. Still, as someone once said, who needs experts?

The other, better side of the BBC could be found in Lloyd George’s Revolution, broadcast on Radio Four on December 3rd and available on iPlayer. A model of public history, the constitutional historian Peter Hennessy told the story of the great political outsider, whose sheer charisma propelled him to the role of PM during the First World War. It was a work of deep insight, with a range of competing interpretations and superb archival research, including the voices of the Welsh Wizard’s allies and opponents and even his mistress, parliamentary secretary – and second wife – Frances Stevenson. 

Occasionally, one sees equally adept history on BBC TV – David Olusoga’s Black and British: a Forgotten History is worthy of mention – though never on BBC One, where the One Show school of vapid, talked-down history rules, obsessed by the two World Wars  – and the Tudors. Is it any wonder that, when people reach for political analogies for our troubled times, they can venture no further than Hitler and Henry VIII?

Paul Lay is the editor of History Today.