Current and recent history programming on British TV


The first speaker, Taylor Downing of Flashback productions, began by explaining the production decisions surrounding ‘doing’ history on television, and in particular the knotty issue of re-enactment. He married the discussion of this issue with the history of his company Flashback and how he continually learns through the process of production. His production company’s use of archive footage rather than re-enactment demonstrates a belief that archive should be used to give the story its multi vocal depth. However, in cases where no archive footage is available this becomes problematic. In the past this has been solved by the use of locations of events and historians or presenters to tell the story. However, this does not give great opportunities to tell multiple versions of one event. Changes occurred after the 1990 Broadcasting Act which enabled ITV to commission programmes from outside its own production base with independent companies. The establishment of the History Channel in 1994 in the United States allowed his company to be one of the first UK TV production companies to be commissioned in the USA. The association with the History Channel had two major consequences. The first has a positive aspect, enabling survival despite the vagaries of UK commissioning editors, although also a negative consequence economically when the pound is strong against the dollar. Secondly, the History Channel advertising tagline was “Where history comes alive” and this placed re enactment into the centre of production issues. The result was a set of rules which would allow the embracing of re enactment but in a controlled manner. The production rules included always including detail in the re-enactment, never allowing the re enactors to speak, only ever using re enactment where no real film archive exists and to never believe the re enactment was a piece of drama. It was documentary. The formula has proved to be a huge success for Flashback.


Alex Graham, founder of Wall 2 Wall, was next to speak. Alex’s company make the hugely successful BBC history programme Who Do You Think You Are? and early in the paper drew attention to his recent published debate in the Guardian with Tristram Hunt, who had condemned both WDYTYA and other ‘reality history’ series as ‘warm bath TV’, lacking scholarly rigour. Alex recognised how “unnerving and also gratifying” it was to be invited to University of Lincoln to discuss his work with academics. He began by making a confession that initially he wanted to avoid academic modes of looking at historical documents in his celebrated series. Filming people looking at archives was not what he was about. However, as he states he turned out to be completely wrong when they filmed the first day with Bill Oddie and he discovered his baby sister’s death certificate. Graham suggests that 90% of the celebrities have an overwhelming emotional response when confronted with a primary archive. These moments of connection place the celebrity within a broader context of what life was like in some past time. As he asked, ‘why is identity an illegitimate starting point for historical exploration?’ WDYTYA asserts the validity of the power of the primary source, it celebrates the process of research and it acknowledges that war is significant but WDYTYA is a vehicle that can take the viewer to tributaries of other social histories never usually covered by history programmes. For example, women’s history, Chartism, colonial history and other social histories often obscured from mainstream view. Alex points out that local archivists are the unsung heroes of the programmes success, that the photograph that triggers a reflection may start out as personal but quickly develops into reflection on wider social conditions where the personal is amplified – where the individual becomes global and the impersonal becomes intimate. He points out that he is just a TV producer but that stimulating interest in 6-7 million people is probably worthwhile. WDYTYA aspires to be good history too. He wishes that his series epitaph would read “every story should be personalised”.


Steve Humphries of Testimony Films started his career as an historian at Essex University and applied his experience as an oral historian to the media. His focus is often upon love and sex and his method is always oral history. His special gift is encouraging people to talk about these difficult or taboo areas of all our lives. The process of research in a production on these topics is always a challenge, but it has potential to reach million of viewers in similar situations: this underlines the power of testimony to reach beyond the immediately personal to both influence and represent a far greater number. His research often leads to other projects and invariably he produces a book of his research. In the case of his documentary on the Magdalene Laundries, the consequences of the production were far reaching; after a film made by Peter Mullen in the early 2000s led to investigation into abuses in such institutions in Ireland, Steve’s documentary was voted into the top 10 of programmes that have changed the world.


Andrew Knight from True North Productions, based in Leeds, shares the academic passion for archive images and a hunger for the details of the story behind the images and surface meanings. This has driven his productions from ITV news pieces to the present half hour documentaries made in collaboration with the Yorkshire Film Archive called The Way We Were. The key theme in each case is the intimacy and a sense of regional identity created by the images for the audiences. The archive images act as a connection or reminder to their own memories. In this sense the audience appreciates the fact that there is no presenter and the relationship is generated between the archive and the viewer. The image drives the production. The programmes are loosely themed but the quality and length of the footage are those aspects that drive the narrative and meaning. Andrew is always struck by people’s generosity in giving their film archives and also agreeing to be filmed to give their story – their own version of events. In doing so though this opens up some of the interesting questions relating to the audience. The audience members are in a position of watching other people’s film of their memories. It is not their own memory but something that they connect with at some level. This could create a fantasy of being there – a fantasy of witness. Andrew wonders how important this is but at the core his work is about people and their past and the film archives they make about it.


This was a lively and wonderfully insightful session. The questions it generated were similarly focused – when asked why he only makes programmes about celebrity family histories Alex Graham reminded us that celebrities are just ordinary people too. Jerome de Groot suggested that history programmes were a way of democratizing knowledge and Juliet Gardiner similarly acknowledged that television programmes are a vector of accessibility to the past. Sylvia Harvey pointed out the great gift of television history was its capacity to emancipate – that its real value was its ‘key’ effect of releasing something locked up in the audiences or of opening the way to new paths of understanding.         


Barbara Sadler 


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