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!


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