Reenactment and ‘reality TV’


The second panel of the symposium considered re-enactment on television in different forms. The first, ‘Re-enacting Reality’, was given by Juliet Gardiner, who spoke in part about her experiences of working as an independent historical advisor for series including Edwardian Country House.  The paper explored the ways in which history is positioned through so-called history reality programmes. Juliet defended her analysis of a series broadcast several years ago by asking whether a scholarly book of a similar age would be viewed as outdated. She also responded to the criticism of such series by Tristram Hunt, raised earlier by Alex Graham, by commenting that Hunt’s recent Protestant Revolution series was respectable history, but not good TV. These programmes, then, contribute to the making of history as well as the showing of it, and an evaluation of history programmes contributes to the understanding of history. She explained that the mise-en-scene of the Edwardian Country House acts not only as a background but forms part of the programmes’ story; we see an inherent class division but presented as it would have been at the time – as the status quo and not as a talking point. History becomes a two way dialogue between past and present, or even a triangulation of modern day attitudes. Re-enactment in a reality genre is not about mere dressing up but about living an experience and in this respect reality TV gives a huge contribution to living history. Juliet concluded with the statement that men and women make their own history but not in the conditions of their own choosing.


Jerome de Groot of Manchester University questioned in his paper ‘Re-Enactment and Re-Embodying History’, based on research in his forthcoming book, whether authenticity is necessary in history TV and if so, how much? Jerome used the example of the film A Cock and Bull Story to articulate the point that re-enactment is a double performance for both actor and the characterisation of historical figure; TV and film re-animates history to make a ‘live’ performance, a mimetic ‘feedback in signification’, although most actors or TV re-enactors do not go as far as those historical reenactors who contract TB in order to appear authentic. Instead, such TV history more reflects a ‘neoliberal rhetoric of personal achievement’; in Edwardian Country House the butler Mr Edgar felt he had made his grandparents proud. The presenters of history documentaries also become a character performance – the representation of Brunel in the BBC 2003 series Great Britons shows Jeremy Clarkson as an embodiment of Brunel himself: Jerome used the term ‘avatar’ to describe this. He additionally considered the ‘psychogeographic’; the way in which physical heritage sites such as battlefields allow visitors to become reenactors, and this is exemplified on TV by series such as Richard Holmes War Walks. Overall he emphasized the complexity of reenactment in its different forms.


Sarah Moody


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