Why must social history documentaries invariably lead to the “Crying Shot”

"It might just as well be shouting, 'Come on, mate, cry!'”

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Watch any social history documentary on one of the big, popular channels, and you can be pretty sure there will be tears. Not your own, unless you’re sobbing with boredom through National Treasures Live, but those of the people taking part. These are invariably game members of the public who are having a go at living like their ancestors, or perhaps celebrities researching their family trees.

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There are usually extravagant obsequies over people, often very distant relatives the participants couldn’t possibly have known, which means they’re weeping over the deaths of strangers. This happened in almost every episode of Who Do You Think You Are? but you have to expect that because famous people like a good public blub over just about anything.

Yet increasingly nice, ordinary people like you and me are routinely primed to have a good old cry about things that happened in the past. Take Turn Back Time –the Family (Tuesday BBC1), on the face of it an interesting experiment where families dress up and live as their predecessors in the early 20th century. They can be a bit wet – in the Second World War one, the mums sniffled when their kids were “evacuated” and the dads were sad when they were sent to “War”. (Come on, no-one is going to kill you.) And earlier, Edwardian dad snivelled when he had to go to the theatre without his wife. Still, fair enough, it’s a TV show and, as we know, empathy is everything now that television history is simply The One Show in doublet and hose.

But I don’t like the bits where the show’s historian comes on and regales a family with a sad story about ancestors who have died tragic premature deaths. This leads to the Crying Shot, the expulsion of hot tears. You can feel tension in the room as everyone behind the camera is waiting for the sobs. Invariably they come. Thus in the war instalment a family was taken to one side by the historian and told of distant relatives (of course, they can’t be anything else) who were killed in a bombing raid on Brighton in 1941. Mum burst into prolonged tears and was comforted by Dad. Yet neither of them even knew of the existence of these unfortunate people until just minutes before.

In Britain’s Secret Treasures (Monday to Friday, ITV1), a man is told of the remarkable First World War heroism that won his grandfather the Distinguished Conduct Medal. He remembers his grandad and is visibly moved, though dry-eyed and dignified. But the camera lingers pruriently. It might just as well be shouting, “Come on, mate, cry!” And, as if under obligation to do the right thing, the poor man admits to “welling up” before he’s comforted by presenter Anita Rani. Job done!

Though I don’t blame the participants, this is risible and makes gawpers of us all. Of course these are sad stories and you’d have to be a moron not to be moved. But there’s a healthy difference between being moved and being almost goaded, albeit implicitly, into tears. A reader complained to RT last week about the treatment of young children in the first episode of Turn Back Time, who were visibly upset when their dad was acting chilly and Edwardian.

Who, in real life, stares at someone in distress? Don’t we offer to help or at least we look away. But maybe distress is a TV commodity – if you don’t wail, you can’t feel. 

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