What makes good history television? Andrew Marr, who has personal reasons for asking, considers the best examples ...

From INTELLIGENT LIFE Magazine, Autumn 2009

How well can television do history? And what kind of history does this ageing behemoth of a medium produce? What are its strengths, weaknesses and prejudices?  I am just putting the finishing touches to a project that has lasted for 18 months of hard work, a history of Britain between 1900 and 1945, both a book and a six-hour series of programmes. If the shows do as well as we hope,  millions of people will see them. So these questions feel personal, and unsettling.

Television history is middle-aged, old enough to have a history of its own, though it’s rarely discussed. I exclude drama, dramatised history and the very old talking-head historian. In Britain at least,  the story really starts in 1969 with Kenneth Clark’s 13-episode “Civilisation”, running from the Dark Ages to the 20th century. No later series could ever have quite the impact—though that’s partly because it was a showcase for colour television, which came to BBC2 before BBC1. It will never be topped for omniscient self-confidence. It seems dated now, not least in Clark’s plummy assertiveness, but its influence has been enormous. Right from the start, Clark showed that personal bias and a certain peppery insistence kept people watching.

Four years later, Jeremy Isaacs’ 26-episode “The World at War” for ITV showed a different way through, leaving out the striding, cavalry-twilled and tweed-jacketed narrator. Instead it was stuffed with historical scoops, interviews with surviving aides and senior figures from the second world war, knitted together with superb archive footage. It was a mammoth undertaking that took nearly four years to make and would not be commissioned now, but it showed history could be done very differently. The great films on the Nazis made by Laurence Rees (“The Nazis: A Warning from History”, 1997) were in the Isaacs tradition; when it comes to modern history, the model of voiced narration with interviews and archive is largely dominant.

But it has been hard pressed by the presenter model. Also in 1973, the BBC had Jacob Bronowski’s 13-part “Ascent of Man”, which did for technology and science what Clark had done for the arts. It’s interesting that David Attenborough, who is now the best single documentary performer in Britain, commissioned both of them. As with Attenborough himself, impass­ioned narrative argument works only when the viewer is confronted by someone who has done the heavy lifting himself, and whose strong views are based on close reading and personal knowledge. Simon Schama, whose 15-part “A History of Britain”, shown during 2000-02—in my view the very best of recent TV history—was strongly indebted to the Clark-Bronowski tradition. The key word is authority. Over on Channel 4, David Starkey’s lavish studies of the Tudors and monarchy generally would never have been effective had he not been a serious authority on the subject. These men are the canon, the standard by which anyone else wants to be judged. So, to those early questions again: what kind of history is being made, and what are the faults?

To get some useful answers you have to be clear about what television can and can’t do. It is a poor medium for the presentation of lists, complex facts or detailed argument. Good prose historians tend to be steady accumulators, piling up evidence to build sinewy arguments, and this process doesn’t make for strong moving pictures. In television there must always be something to see; and images pick and snatch at the attention span.

What television can do is to tell individual stories and link them together vividly—it’s closer to pre-literate fireside story­telling than to modern academic culture. At a time when many schools have given up telling children the order in which important things happened, this seems to me an important job.

My way of working has been to write a book first, slogging in a shed or at the London Library to find the stories, check and order them, so they can then be read and chosen by the producers. You have to know what you’re talking about. But the making of the programmes is not a mere follow-through. Again and again, the trick of going to the place where something happened has made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up—the spot on the Cork road where Michael Collins was gunned down; the still-littered site of a 1901 British concentration camp; the window where Edward VIII stood to hear his abdication announced; the shed from which Britain’s first (commercial) regular broadcasts were made; the riverside house of the con-man Maundy Gregory, a Lloyd George go-between and a possible murderer; the beach where Siegfried Sassoon tore off his Military Cross ribbon before furiously declaring against the Great War.

Andrew MarrTelevision forces you out of the library. In the making, at least, it’s a fresh-air medium. Then it insists that you focus ruthlessly on a few emblematic stories. Then it boils things down yet again, because of the relatively tiny number of words each film can contain. There can be few spare words. It won’t replace books, with their vast word-hoard. But it is no longer a merely parasitical, secondary narrative, either.

And of course it is changing too. For how long will the hour-long narrative set piece survive? Soon, I believe and hope, viewers will be able to pause, dive away from the main narrative and pursue particular stories more deeply, watch more archive, hear a longer version of the interview and join a digital argument about what the telly historian has just said. In the end, you will even get to heckle “Civilisation”.

(Andrew Marr presents "The Andrew Marr Show" on BBC1 and "Start the Week" on Radio 4. His "History of Modern Britain" has been a bestseller. He is a former editor of the Independent. His last column for Intelligent Life magazine kicked off the debate on the most important year ever.)

Picture credit: Getty, Sam Barker