Now, making television programs about new views on important events or using modern technology to bring them more alive is obviously an important and useful thing to do. Many people’s knowledge of history is a stew of what they recall from school 10 or 40 years ago, interspersed with gobbets of information and factoids picked up from the TV, radio or friends down the pub.
Which is not to say that they are always misinformed or completely wrong, rather that because they are human and don’t have perfect memories, and have other things to do, their understanding of history is often confused or many years out of date.
I see one of the purposes of good re-enactment to act as a bridge between the academic historian and the public, transferring information to the public in ways that they can understand. Hence this blog, which could do with a bigger audience.
So at the weekend I was re-reading the book “Forgotten Victory” by Gary Sheffield, which is a modern revisionist view of WW1, and found a paragraph that set off the train of thought from where this post came from. It is from page XX in the introduction:
“It seems that every time an important new book comes out, another popular book or television programme appears repeating the same old tired myths. Clearly, a large part of the blame for the failure of revisionist history to become accepted by a wider audience lies with the historians themselves. Articles published in obscure learned journals or vast expensive academic tomes are never likely to be widely read.”
The book was published in 2001, before the internet really became an integral part of society and academics used it to interact properly with the public. In fact I would argue that Sheffield is wrong; the problem is not the academics, it is the supposed bridges between the new outlook and information and the public.
Moreover, just because someone is a good academic doesn’t mean they are good at public outreach or can write good books to inform the general public. And when it comes down to re-enactors, many don’t bring their knowledge up to date or have a default position of making it up when they don’t actually know the real answer to the question they have just been asked.
The other point Sheffield didn’t really discuss, which is fair enough because he was aiming at something different with his introduction, is the role of TV companies and their ilk in deliberately minimising expert involvement, simplifying the message and warping it to suit their own agenda. It is not the academics fault that TV or book companies do not seek out up to date sources for their programmes. Because I’m a nice person and don’t actually watch much TV, I can’t think of any particularly wrong history programmes that have been on recently, because since my early 20’s, TV programs have generally not been very informative, because whatever the subject is (assuming it is one that I am interested in), it doesn’t tell me much that I didn’t already know. Hence why I can’t come up with a laundry list of offending TV programs, but I have heard about many over the years re-enactment.
There is however another unfortunate thing that TV production companies do: basically, sabotage.
All too often they have a specific motive, an agenda, and a way of looking at history which demands a controversial hook on which to place some drama. Or they want to tailor the program to the audience they think will watch it, which on the topic of science stuff, tends to mean it is pointless for anyone with science qualifications to watch, or on the Discovery channel means endless stuff about Hitler.
So, a small but revealing example is contained in what I have heard about the new program being filmed by the same people who did the Victorian farm program, where several people tried to live and farm as a late 19th century farmer would have. It included everything from mowing hay to lambing. This new version is set in 1500, i.e. the Tudor period, and the production company have apparently banned codpieces. Or rather they wanted them covered up, which was silly and impossible and innacurate, so the people making the authentic costumes left them out.
So instead of the authentic protruding symbols of masculine virility which were worn then, they’ll probably have dull flap like things.
Allegedly the production company thought they would be seen as indecent! Oddly enough I’ve never heard of a re-enactor being arrested for public indecency (And I can think of a few candidates); what we have is a stupid attempt by a production company to ignore a specific aspect of the period they are looking at, for reasons which are inane and pointless. Inane and pointless, because you can see more detail in one of those large underwear posters of David Beckham or whatever athlete it is this month, than you can through a codpiece, and anyway children nowadays get sex education and they aren’t going to be shocked by a codpiece. I’ve worn codpieces, and all that happens is that teenagers point and laugh, small children don’t notice or aren’t worried by them. So the production company is clearly trying to cater for the (rather small in number and generally ignored nowadays) Mary Whitehouse crowd. If they are willing to take this sort of liberty with a basic matter of fact about what clothes were like then, what else have they done in the series?
Another example is the ridiculous costumes seen in the filming for the BBC for their Bannockburn program next year. It was carried out by Clanranald, who, to put it bluntly, do not have a high level of accuracy of clothing or equipment. But what really galled was the ‘king’, who you could tell was the king because of the crown on his helmet. The rest of what he was wearing wouldn’t be acceptable in a historical play in a theatre, as indicating a king in 1314. In terms of accuracy of look, in saying “I AM THE KING AND I’M IN CHARGE HERE”, it was actually worse than Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Leather and canvas and stuff, all brown. Yes, brown, that well known colour worn by kings all the time because they couldn’t afford nice reds and yellows!
So essentially, the point is that, contrary to what Sheffield wrote, the issue is not the academics, but the production companies who refuse to or have not the money or sense to talk to or purchase the appropriate clothing or equipment. It is this, far more than academics, that reduces the public appreciation of modern historical knowledge.
There will be other, more telling examples I am sure, where production companies produced cheap programmes based on 40 years old ideas which have been exploded by modern research, or hyped up the controversy where none existed, but I can’t think of any right now. And there have certainly been some good television programmes produced which accurately portray the modern knowledge of the period in question. As usual, it is down to the people in charge of the show to make a good decision. I’d like to think that academics and experts can push the organisers into such decisions, but am not holding my breath, since money comes first all too often.