Informative they may be, but BBC documentaries feel a bit stale
Watch three BBC history programmes in a row and despite their vastly different subject matter (World War I, the Stuart dynasty, the Winter Olympics), all you can see is the similarities in the house style. The BBC history machine is so entrenched it supports its own magazine and several websites: barely a day goes by without a new documentary on something from the past popping up on one of its channels, not to mention the radio. And, of course, the other channels to varying degrees also produce history programmes. Virtually nothing, especially from the 20th Century, is forgotten, especially if it can have Nazis or the Titanic in the title.
Which is obviously A Good Thing, as the famous Santayana quote says that we might be condemned to repeat it otherwise and no one wants more Nazis or rubbish ships. The sheer amount one can learn in any given week is staggering, an educational boon available to anyone which must increase the nation’s overall IQ. Still … it does get a bit samey sometimes.
Each of these three programmes, for instance, has an authoritative presenter filmed wandering around in libraries, in archives, on slopes. Britain’s Great War (a series launching a massive centenary commemoration) has Jeremy Paxman, beardless here and in his ‘plain-speaking, detached journalist’ mode rather than the political fencer of Newsnight. The Stuarts has Dr Clare Jackson, a Cambridge academic with a long list of peer-reviewed publications. And Dan Snow’s History Of The Winter Olympics has the amiable history graduate/dynastic presenter, shot atop a mountain like Maria Von Trapp in a parka. One, you will notice, has rather more academic credibility than the others, but realistically both Snow and Paxman are drawing on the work of others anyway in pulling together a general picture and will use academic consultants.
There is some that is familiar in each one: the stream of patriotic volunteers; the outcry of the Kirk over Charles’ reforms; the triumph of Torville and Dean. Some that will be new, too, to most of us: the Prime Minister and half the Cabinet in unexpected tears as war broke out; a young Charles I running off to Spain in a false beard to be feted by Catholic priests; the Jewish ice hockey player who competed for the Nazis.
Each also throws in some famous faces: Julian Fellowes, related to Lord Kitchener; footage of our current Royals to illustrate their predecessors; skater Robin Cousins. Paxo trumps them all by interviewing 105-year-old Violet Muers (since deceased), who vividly remembered witnessing the bombardment of Hartlepool as a scared child. But Jackson has the best quote, a queasy pro-union boast from James VI and I that: “I am the husband and all the whole isle is my lawful wife.”
All three programmes are soberly made, full of illuminating facts and well worth a watch if you’re interested (though Snow’s slaloms into a ‘greatest sporting moments’ countdown at points). But maybe this way of doing things is getting old: time for something new?
Britain’s Great War
Monday, BBC1, 9pm
Thursday, BBC2, 9pm
Dan Snow’s History of the Winter Olympics
Friday, BBC2, 9pm