Family, memory and reenactment


In the past year my research interests have focussed particularly upon the textual operations of some types of British history programming, specifically the use of the ‘historical eyewitness’ and testimony, and the way that these interweave into other forms of public history represented on TV, such as genealogy and reenactment.


Reenactment and reconstruction differ, although both are frequently criticised by historians and journalists alike. A working definition might be that reconstruction is used to illustrate events described by eyewitnesses or talking head historians for the benefit of an audience. When the period represented is too early for there to be film footage, it is often relied upon for visual material, and this is a source of criticism when the dramatised sections appear ‘cheap’: in the words of one rather cynical historian I interviewed, ‘there has to be something burning, and people run[ning] past it.’


In contrast, scholars of public history for some years now have considered reenactment groups, which often seek to re-enact entire battles or events for their own and others’ entertainment and education. Again, though, they are sometimes criticised by university historians as keen but misguided amateurs, over-reliant upon the material aspects of life in the past. This criticism has continued in several responses to what has been termed ‘reality TV history’; reenactment series such as The Ship and The Trench: Tristram’s Hunt’s criticism in the Guardian a few months ago of ‘warm bath TV’ reiterated, to some extent, Simon Schama’s comments about reenactment in David Cannadine’s History and the Media collection in 2004. Those involved in making reenactment series, such as Juliet Gardiner, argue though for their usefulness either as a means to better understand life in the past, or even as a means to interrogate life in the present.


My interest in testimony began in 2005 after attending a University of Wales conference on history and the media and hearing Emily Keightley and Mike Pickering’s paper on the auratic power of music and another paper in the same session on the use of eyewitness testimony. The papers made me think about the way in which the individual eyewitness needs to both represent others but be compelling as an individual: they need to have auratic power.


I read more widely about this. Unsurprisingly a massive amount of work has been done on memory and Holocaust testimony, and also by feminist scholars such as Ann Gray. I began to consider the use of photography in forging a link for the viewer between the individual eyewitness in the present and in the past – a technique used by, for example, the 1995 oral testimony series People’s Century but also as early as the 1970s with World at War. As Marita Sturken believes, writing in the first issue of the new journal Memory Studies earlier this year, ‘[i]t is extraordinary to consider the degree to which the still photograph has been so central to scholarship on memory, and the role that the photograph continues to play in concepts of memory’, and certainly televised accounts of the past utilise this role.


As part of my broader analysis of different historical genres I sought out the 2002 BBC2 series The Trench – to my surprise, although it is primarily a ‘reality TV history’ series it also offers layers of testimony – not only that of veterans like Harry Patch, who appear occasionally and seem to authenticate the reenactors experiences, but also the testimony of the reenactors. This raised for me some very interesting questions which I wasn’t able to fully digest until I read Alison Landsberg’s groundbreaking work on prosthetic memory. Through a consideration of the film Schindler’s List Landsberg highlights the need to think about what we’ll do when the last Holocaust survivors have died, identifying that to a large extent this means ‘how do we continue to empathise when the eyewitnesses have died?’ She suggests that, in the case of Schindler’s List, those actors who played the roles of the Jews saved by Schindler might be able to carry on their memory, in a prosthetic form, having reconstructed to some extent the experiences of the survivors.


When watched in this light The Trench offers layers of testimony in which men from the same region, often with family links to the battalion, testify on behalf of the deceased, alongside some of the last surviving veterans of the conflict. Here Steve Spivey comments on his experiences and is heard reading out his grandfather Ted Jackson’s letter. (clip)


The Trench was roundly criticised on many fronts – although interestingly some school teachers congratulated the BBC for providing what they considered to be a series accessible to GCSE students – for attempting to re-enact trench warfare, but those involved who have discussed their experiences found them extremely useful in both helping them to empathise with and understand their ancestors’ motivations, but also as a means to underline their own familial and regional identity, and I focussed upon this aspect of the series when I spoke about it at the Nations and Nationalism conference in Reus, Spain in October last year.


One reenactor, John Robinson, said he had read a local paper’s report of the programme and decided to become involved for familial reasons, as ‘I had a grandfather who I never knew fought in the First World War’. But also, ‘it was a project to do with people from Hull and the surrounding area’. In addition, reenactor Carl Jackson stated, perhaps in response to criticisms of The Trench as a form of Big Brother, that ‘I didn’t do it for money and I didn’t do it for fame and I didn’t do it for anything other than to prove to those people from my life, who are dead now, that given a go I could carry their name forward with pride.’ The prosthetic memory re-enacted here is, then, I would argue, more a familial or regional memory than something grafted on to strangers.


Reenactment scholarship has developed considerably since The Trench was broadcast, and often those writing about it have been directly involved, such as historian Vanessa Agnew, who in 2002 appeared in The Ship series, which re-enacted Cook’s voyages. Although historical reenactment on TV predates these examples – the 1970s archaeological series Living in the past is an early example which explicitly attempted an archaeological experiment – the C21st has seen the majority.


Such series continue to be made – in Autumn 2007 the BBC broadcast Coal House, set in 1930s Wales, and on Children’s BBC Evacuation (2005) and Evacuation: manor house (2007) offer the experience of evacuation during the Second World War to secondary school children, even acknowledging social inequalities relating to social class in the period. Finally, the various House series, including Edwardian Country House and 1940s House, on which Juliet Gardiner will speak tomorrow, has blossomed with variants in Britain, the USA, Canada and Australia.


Special issues of the journals Criticism in 2004, Rethinking History in 2007 and Film and History also in 2007 have considered these developments in reenactment in public history: TV, museums and PC games. I’ll go into this in more detail after lunch when I lead off the discussion about dramadoc, reenactment and memory. But in summary, many scholars, such as Vanessa Agnew and the Cambridge historian Alexander Cook - who have been directly involved in reenactment series - refer to the work of Oxford philosopher of history R. G. Collingwood. In 1936 Collingwood wrote of the need for a historian to perform mental reenactment in order to fully understand history as a ‘living past’, and although, as John Corner has pointed out, this is an audacious claim, it is used by scholars such as Agnew to justify the use of literal physical reenactment. So, despite the claims of some historian interviewees that TV history can’t or won’t ‘do’ complexity, including historiography, reenactment, I would argue, demonstrates an alternative way of making historical meaning and understanding, and makes mental reenactment public.


Whilst The Trench offered the grandsons and great grandsons of Great War veterans the opportunity to relive – to some limited extent – their ancestors’ experiences, mental reenactment is more apparent in another significant and extremely successful form of history on TV, Who do you think you are? Although it eschews dramatic reenactment, the celebrities depicted visit the places inhabited by their ancestors, and in doing so often demonstrate a need to empathise with them. A good example is Graham Norton, who after learning of his Protestant, southern Irish ancestor Thomas Walker’s role in the suppression of the United Irishmen’s 1798 rebellion, and the implications that this had for his conception of his own Irish Protestant identity, commented that when ‘you discover that your ancestors were on the side that history and time has decided was the wrong side, it means that you’ve got to stop…and imagine what their lives were like, why they made the choices they did.’ (Clip)


Here we see Collingwood’s mental reenactment on primetime BBC1!


But an extremely successful recent development in mental reenactment has been not on TV but on the internet. Bill Lamin’s blog, in the name of his grandfather Harry, who fought in the Great War, offers readers the ability to reflect on their own family involvement in this and other conflicts and has been reported upon by TV broadcasters in Germany, the US, Canada – and the East Midlands: East Midlands Today (clip)


As we see in the clip, photographs are central to Bill’s conception of his grandfather’s past, and we are encouraged to share this past and to feel something akin to Harry’s family. Whilst The Trench and even Coal House offer a regional or national-specific view of the past, the blog has encouraged and received international recognition, with 1.25m hits so far. We do not know, as visitors to the site, whether Harry will survive the war – again, we share to some extent the family’s experiences – and perhaps this does offer for some the opportunity for prosthetic memories to be developed. Indeed, as we approach the 90th anniversary of the end of the conflict these are more likely to be referred to – an example is a recent advertisement for genealogical website, published in the BBC History Magazine.


Again, familial links are referred to, and the idea that we can give testimony where an ancestor did not survive to do so.


Certainly, though, there are limits to the degree to which reenactment can be useful: although for the Hull men involved in The Trench their experience was meaningful, based around regional and familial identity, the first episode of the most recent series of the comedy That Mitchell and Webb Look satirised the limitations of reenactment - and perhaps also of prosthetic memory – as useful or meaningful to public history, a salutary reminder of the limitations of 'reality history'.


Erin Bell


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