Oliver brands show-bashing historians Muppets

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PRESENTER Neil Oliver described two leading Scottish historians as the "grumpy old men" from the Muppets yesterday after they criticised the BBC series A History of Scotland, which he hosts.

The first five episodes of the history show wrapped up last night with the final parts to be screened late next year.

A series of top historians contacted by The Scotsman yesterday said they had not bothered to watch the show or had disliked what they had seen.

Several, including Professor Allan Macinnes and the leading historian Tom Devine, questioned why Mr Oliver, a broadcaster and journalist but not a professional historian, was presenting the programme.

But last night Mr Oliver responded: "Every time I hear those two men's names it makes me think of the two grumpy old men on The Muppet Show. They truly are the Statler and Waldorf of Scottish history."

Statler and Waldorf are the two elderly men making caustic comments from the box at the Muppet theatre.

"If Allan Macinnes or Tom Devine knew anything about making a good television series, their criticisms would be worth listening to, but they don't and they aren't," he continued.

"We set out to make a television programme that would appeal to people from all walks of life and the viewing figures make it clear that we have done that."

The show's executive producer, Neil McDonald, said the programme earned an audience share of 25 per cent, or one in four Scots watching television at the time.

More than 500,000 watched the screening on BBC 1 and another 200,000 saw the repeat on BBC2, with a "good pick-up" on the BBC iplayer viewing on the internet.

Insisting it was made with the "most qualified historical consultants", Mr McDonald added: "It has been incredibly well received across the board." He said it had met its aims of putting up-to-date research into the public domain, and getting Scottish history talked about and debated across all walks of life.

Mr Oliver, the floppy-haired popular historian, archeologist and broadcaster best known as presenter of Coast, has attracted criticism ever since it was announced he would be the presenter.

The two historians singled out by Mr Oliver had attacked the show from the start, but they were not the only ones criticising it yesterday.

One Edinburgh University scholar said: "I don't want to be quoted (by name] but I hated it." Author and historian Paul Henderson Scott said episodes were too long and a bit muddled.

"I feel it's a bad way to present history, one individual wandering about and making remarks," he said.

Mr Devine, one of Scotland's best-known historians, said he had been travelling and did not watch the show. He spoke, however, of a "growing swell" of colleagues sensing "a very great missed opportunity".

Prof Macinnes complained of "awful and disjointed scripts delivered by an escapee from central casting".

So what do the experts make of the BBC's 'A History of Scotland'?

A missed opportunity and a touch too much Braveheart

Paul Henderson Scott Author, former chairman of The Saltire Society

"I feel it's a bad way to present history, one individual wandering about and making remarks. It's partly narrative, and partly dramatised; it's all a bit of a muddle it seems to me.

He's producing rather new theories. Every now and again some kind of historical character appears, but mixed up with the narrator as if they were on speaking terms.

The episodes are all too long. If you are going to have something quite complicated, an hour is too long to hold the interest. Half an hour would be better than an hour. It's really quite demanding.

On the other hand it's a very good thing indeed that the BBC should be doing Scottish history, particularly with the talks on Radio Scotland, Walking Through History.

The theory of episode four (Language is Power 1411-1503] is that there was a great conflict between the Stewarts and the Macdonalds, and the Stewarts rather ruthlessly won out, and from that point Gaelic, Highland Scotland was separated from the rest. It was a rather bold and original theory, and to present it like that in a programme like this is too unexpected and too demanding."

Alex Murdoch Edinburgh University

"BBC Scotland is trying to draw in a general audience and it's a very difficult compromise. There are enormous challenges to overcome.

A decision was made to employ a presenter with experience in the media rather than try to identify a historian. I feel too much television history revolves around talking heads of worthy academics and that's visually boring.

However, it's an effort by BBC Scotland to present history for a very wide audience and compromises have to be made. I have no criticisms of trying to present popular history, I wish BBC Scotland would invest seriously in programmes that reflect current research.

Tom Devine Head of school of history, University of Edinburgh

"The two iconic programmes in television history of the past have been (the BBC series] The Great War and (the American television series] The Civil War. Both of those had no presenter. They had resonant voices in the background, people such as John Gielgud and Laurence Olivier, and quotations from diaries.

Why do they need someone up front like that who is not even a historian, an actor reading lines? There's a growing swell of people from what I've heard, saying that this is a very great missed opportunity, because they will not invest in it again for ten years."

Professor Allan Macinnes University of Strathclyde

"Having seen Sunday night's episode (Language is Power 1411-1503], I wouldn't be tempted to see more of it. No expense has been spared on the presentation side, and that's brilliant. But the scripts are disjointed and a bit clichd, and I think the presenter is somebody who escaped from central casting for Braveheart. The style of presentation is unbelievably awful. It's above primary school level, but it's not up to GSCE standard. They wholly distorted it, as if the Macdonalds ran the whole of the Highlands, and they didn't."

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