Celebrity History? Television and the presentation of the past

History has never been more popular, on television and in books. Media dons stalk the land. Some regard the demands of the public media as unsympathetic or even antithetical to the constraints of honest historical research. Should academics become involved in a process that some see as ‘dumbing down’ their subject and a prostitution of their profession? Or should they determinedly attempt to engage with the public appetite for knowledge about the past by broadcasting the excitement and importance as well as the subtleties of what academic historians do? Marc Morris, while completing his D.Phil. at Merton College on the thirteenth-century earls of Norfolk, faced these issues as the presenter of the television series 'Castle'.

In the spring of 2001, midway through the third year of my doctoral research, and after an intimidating interview and screen test, I landed the job of presenting a six-part TV series on British castles. It was a peculiar career twist, made possible by a relatively recent phenomenon: the rise of the celebrity TV historian. At that time both David Starkey and Simon Schama were riding high in the ratings, and the quest was on among production companies to find more presenters in the same mould.

Being accepted for this role was thrilling but at the same time impossibly daunting, for the very success of presenter-driven TV history had provoked (and continues to provoke) much heartfelt criticism – especially from other historians. Detractors often object that a single ‘authority’ figure provides the audience with only one viewpoint; that such programmes tell the audience little, if anything, about the academic process; that they glorify the presenter, rather than the process of historical inquiry. Why, the critics ask, can’t we have programmes which recognize that there are varying and contradictory views on every subject: that there is rarely consensus, and often no single ‘right’ answer?

My answer is that the alternative format – an anonymous voice-over inter-cut with the talking heads of academics – risks the even greater danger of making history appear imprecise, even to the point of irrelevance. Unless done with greater scrupulousness than most programme-makers are prepared to concede, such an approach gives the impression that history always boils down to the opinion of one person against that of another. I have often faced this misconception about the nature of my chosen discipline. Among my friends and family, it was usually assumed that, when it comes to the past, ‘no-one really knows’. As with other areas of intellectual endeavour, distrust of expert opinion loomed large, a viewpoint seemingly endorsed by the very fact that the experts themselves, when given a chance to air their views, could not agree on what happened. Television thrives on controversy, and history programmes which seek to play this up, willingly or not, pander to such prejudices.

Dr Marc Morris at Bodiam Castle

Dr Marc Morris at Bodiam Castle

Faced with these criticisms and alive to these prejudices, I resolved that, if I was going to present a TV series, I was going to prove that what I said was true. Lacking the credentials and authority of a Starkey or a Schama, I fell back on my training as a doctoral student. Inevitably, my own D.Phil. topic – a serial biography of the thirteenth-century earls of Norfolk – was an obscure one. In the course of my research, however, I realized that, while the earls themselves held little intrinsic interest for non-historians, the processes involved in investigating their activities most certainly did. The accumulation of aristocratic debt to the Crown, for example, proved to be a subject of breath-taking dullness; yet the way in which the evidence for such debt is uncovered – unrolling the huge, cumbersome original rolls of the medieval exchequer – never fails to excite the curiosity of observers. Several times whilst working at the Public Record Office I have been politely interrupted by people who want to know what these huge documents are, when they were written, what information they contain, and so on. Hence the finished TV series (which, after much agonizing, was entitled Castle), while it featured lots of shots of me striding around moats and battlements, also made extensive use of documentary evidence. I looked at, among other things, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and Domesday Book; Exchequer and Chancery rolls; licences, charters and deeds; parliamentary records and private letter collections.

Personally I am far happier with the idea of historians presenting their own material and substantiating their arguments rather than merely standing on the side-lines advising. Considering the many pressures and criticisms I was likely to face prior to accepting a presenter’s role, I fortified myself with one thought: the words spoken to the camera would be my own. Pictures and sound could be trimmed, spliced and re-ordered, but at the end of the day it fell to me to deliver the commentary script. The presenter, therefore, has a degree of power and a veto that is denied to the historical advisor, the researcher or the talking head. It meant, in my case, constantly having to argue the case for the inclusion or exclusion of certain elements with successive directors and producers, but ultimately it ensured that the whole enterprise was more rigorous and less flabby than it would otherwise have been. For this reason alone, the cult of the telly don is to be welcomed.

The pairing of television and academic history is not a match made in heaven. TV, for instance, likes hyperbole and superlatives, and one can easily understand why: one cannot seduce viewers with the promise of learning more about the second-most important ship ever built, or one of the least crucial encounters of the First World War. To some extent, therefore, historians must indulge producers in their choice of topics. On the other hand, they must take a stand when the desire to make a programme marketable involves dubious or even dishonest presentation of the facts. One of TV’s most unhealthy tendencies in approaching the past is the mistaken belief that all research must be presented as ‘new’, ‘recent’, ‘startling’ and ‘shocking’. Rather than dealing in genuine novelty – by asking, for example, new questions, creating new narratives, and introducing audiences to subjects, places and themes that they might not have previously visited – lazy television prefers to start with the crushingly familiar (the Nazis, the Pyramids, etc) and claim that, thanks to ‘shocking new evidence’, the story is only being understood now ‘for the first time’. This, it goes without saying, is rarely the case, and the disservice that such disingenuousness does to generations of previous scholars, as well as the arrogant, present-minded attitude it reveals, hardly need to be emphasized.

All the more reason, therefore, for academic historians to get more rather than less involved. It would be nice, for instance, if academics were able to review TV programmes. Television reviewers can and do praise or condemn programmes on such criteria as how clear and original they are, how well presented and well made. They are rarely, however, in a position to judge the validity of the historical arguments being put forward, whether or not there is sufficient evidence to support them, and whether the scholarship on offer is up to date. Rather than dismiss history that is genuinely popular, we should engage with it – both as contributors, and as critics.

- Marc Morris