Month: February 2014

Historical TV – Accuracy, Bonnets, and Blackadder

For the second time this week, I’ve had my perceptions changed. This time by Greg Jenner, who is perhaps most known for being the Historical Consultant to the Horrible Histories series. His thought provoking and downright hilarious lecture last night was entitled “Lavish Dramas, Thoughtful Documentaries, and Idiots Smeared in Poo: Why Making Historical Television is Harder Than You Think”. I could write a series of blog posts about Greg’s lecture; he raised so many interesting points; but I’ll try to keep this to the point! What follows is what I got from his talk.

The lecture was split into three main sections, Documentaries, Dramas, and Comedies. These being the three main genres for historical tele. Greg is unusual in the fact that he has been involved in programs in all three genres.

DOCUMENTARIES: “The past is like a boy-band that got fat – its gone.” Perhaps my favourite quote from Greg’s lecture (and there were so many quotable moments!). Greg pointed out that historical documentaries aren’t really documentaries at all. They are fictional, they state what is currently known about a topic but they are not necessarily accurate. History is not the same as the past. History is the process of attempting to find out what happened in the past but we can never truly know as the past is dead and gone. Each country tends to have its selection of usual topics for historical documentaries. In the UK its things like the Tudors, Ancient Rome, Egyptians, Victorians, the World Wars, Hitler/Churchill, Titanic, and conspiracy theories. Greg highlighted the fact that it is often quite hard to get TV channels to make a program about something which is not a usual topic. He did suggest that Channel 4 were the best for making historical documentaries that can be considered outside the box.

In the USA history is becoming “titilation instead of information”. The need for the dramatic is becoming an increasing problem in the USA. Historical documentaries on the ‘History’ Channel seem more like action movies or quests for the ‘greatest’ / ‘most’ / ‘deadliest’ etc. Doubt in the facts becomes mystery (read in an appropriately mood inducing tone). Historical documentaries in the USA are becoming an entertainment genre and accuracy and debate are being lost at the expense of attractive producers and flashy special effects.

DRAMAS: because “sometimes accuracy is boring”. Many people, especially historians and archaeologists etc. struggle with the inaccuracy of many historical dramas. Greg pointed out that its the documentaries that should be accurate, dramas are supposed to be entertaining and accuracy doesn’t always make the most interesting tele. He suggested that the accuracy should come in the discussions that can be had after the programs – historians should be more involved with talking to and interacting with the general public rather than sitting in their arm chairs and pointing out all the flaw in a “NO, NO, NO” fashion. The past is a powerful thing but historical dramas are not the means to tell us who we are – they are entertainment that is to be enjoyed. Dramas are a fantasy of the past and perhaps the genre should be relabelled Drama Historical as it is the drama that is the most important aspect in order to make them entertaining.

COMEDY: we’ve all seen historical comedies, the most popular perhaps being Blackadder, Monty Python, and Horrible Histories. Greg raised the issue of language and speech in historical tele. In comedies language can immediately tell you an awful lot about a character as we expect certain things of people with certain aspects when in comedy shows. The Romans don’t talk in Latin and the Normans don’t talk in French – everyone speaks English albeit with a wide variety of accents that tell of their nationality. In this sense “The past will always look and sounds like us because we make it now.”. Greg also pointed out that “The past will always be ruined by modernity.” We can never get a true fell for what its was ‘really like’ because we impose our own views on the past. The most interesting ability of comedies to my mind was the ability of characters speaking from an ‘afterlife’ to comment on their own reputations. This was done extremely successfully in Horrible Histories. Their most interesting sketch of this sort re-emerged to the fore last year with the discovery and subsequent DNA identification of Richard III. Horrible Histories had written him a song in which he rails against his villainous reputation. These can also be highly amusing and engaging to children.

Greg finished on the point that it is hard to do history on tele because history itself is hard. I will leave you with that thought after a rather rambling post! More from Greg can be found on twitter @greg_jenner. Thanks to Greg for a refreshing, entertaining, and enlightening lecture!


Archaeological Illustration – It’s All Lies!

Last night I attended a great lecture given by Kelvin Wilson, an archaeological illustrator. The lecture changed the way I look at ‘reconstructions’ of the past and archaeological illustrations. The following is what I got from his talk. First off, archaeological illustrators get you to see the past as THEY see it. It is their interpretation of the information they are provided with. Kelvin’s website is as follows and contains a gallery of some of his fantastic images and a small shop…

First off, Kelvin made it clear throughout that the images you see of ‘reconstructions’ of the past in museums, magazine, publications and books etc are all INTERPRETATIONS of the past. They are not true. They may contain elements that are true, e.g. an accurate representation of a belt buckle, but ultimately they are showing you what the illustrator chose to show you. The goal of most illustrators is to create an image that gets you to like the past. If the image sells well because people like it then the past sells well.

Kelvin suggested that archaeological illustration has gone through certain phases and current illustrators can be fit into one of these categories:

  • the Narrators – they want to tell you a story of the past and so interpret the facts they are given
  • the Educators – they want to educate you about as much of the past as possible therefore they stick to the facts.
  • the Technicians – they want to get as close as possible to a ‘true’ representation of the past.

The illustrations of the past are biased by the aims of the artist. BUT the briefs provided by the archaeologists are also biased in terms of the information gained from a site – we are never presented with the full picture through excavation. Often, archaeologists want the ‘star finds’ to be illustrated all in the same picture, sometimes ignoring the fact that these items might not have belonged to the same person or might have been used at slightly different times.

Kelvin quite strongly made the point that computerised 3D ‘reconstructions’ are no more accurate than illustrations. There tends to be the assumption by academics and the general public alike that if its made on a computer it must be more accurate. This is not the case. 3D artists make the same decisions and go through a similar process in constructing an image to an illustrator. The computer is just another tool, another brush or pencil.

Kelvin ended on a fantastic image. It was of a man in a rather boring street but it was a photographic style image of an eighteenth century street. Kelvin noted the fact that those he showed it to were always unnerved by it given that it was showing a supposed photograph of a street in a time before photography had been invented. He stated his hope one day to create an image of Roman soldiers in this photographic style. I for one would love to see that. It seems like it would make the archaeology even more lifelike in some way. I look forward to the image!

What must be remembered is that archaeological illustrations are NOT REAL representations of past events. They are the illustrators interpretation of object and evidence from a past time.

Thanks must go to Kelvin for an illuminating lecture. I’ll never look at archaeological illustrations in the same way again!

5 Tips for PhD Success

I am now half way through my PhD (time wise that is, definitely not content wise!) and I have recently had a couple of friends start PhDs in the same department. Having spoken to them I have come to realise just how hard that first year as a fledgling PhD student is. So here’s 5 tips that I wish someone had spelled out for me in my first year. I hope it helps at least some of you!

1. The Undeserving Complex – this is something we all suffer from no matter how far through a PhD we are. It’s the constant feeling that we don’t deserve to be here, that we will never be as intellectually well rounded as our peers. This is complete nonsense. You are at least as good as your peers at what you do and you know more about your topic than almost anyone else out there. Be confident in that fact! A colleague recently told me that I come across as extremely capable at what I do, while its lovely to receive such a complement, it made me realise that I still have the Underserving Complex and should acknowledge that I am good at what I do and be more confident in myself.

2. Conversation – don’t be afraid to talk to the other PhD students in your department (and others). They are or have been through exactly the same things are you are experiencing no. They can help you. Most of the time the things you stress about in your first year don’t warrant that level of worrying! Don’t forget to talk about something other than your PhD and the topic once in a while. Having friends in other departments is a great way to do this as they won’t automatically understand the finer details of your topic, nor will you their’s!

3. Oxygen and Alcohol – don’t forget to BREATH! It does us all good every now and then to take some time off. Even if this is just a few hours in the evening to watch some trashy tele (a personal favourite habit of mine), doing something that isn’t directly related to your PhD or even the topic is good! It gives your brain a chance to relax. Going to the pub is a great way to get to know your colleagues and can also show you that supervisors are people too! It provides the opportunity to have those conversations to help you through the twists and turns of PhD life. It’s also just plain good fun!

4. Routines – have a routine that suits you. If the university has provided you with a personal working space, get into the habit of going to it and working there regularly. This will help you to get actual work done. Don’t feel like you have to work the same hours as every other PhD in the department. Work the times that suit you best but be aware the workload of a PhD is more often than not like having a 9-5 job and sometimes more!

5. Network – finally, put yourself out there. Go to conferences. Be brave enough to present a paper. Talk to others in your area of work, and others that are not. Share your ideas. Talking to those that have been in your profession for years is a great way to pick up lots of helpful tips and most are happy to give advice and help, after all many will have been exactly where you are right now!

I hope this helps some PhD students out there be it new or old. Happy PhD-ing!