TV is dumbing down history

Alison Graham on why history series need to have bite rather than patronise viewers

Given the fear, violence and uncertainties of the present, it’s not surprising that television wants to lead us by the hand to take comfort in the certainties of the past. Britain’s Hidden Heritage, National Treasures Live, Village SOS all look back to ages that seem more stable, more gentle than our own.


But why does it all have to be so patronising, so mimsy, so whimsical; does the past have to be covered in sugar and presented to us in cute, neat, digestible chunks? I like Village SOS, where communities come together to do good by renovating old buildings and turning them into something valuable and useful. But Britain’s Hidden Heritage and National Treasures Live are awful, little more than playgrounds where history is boiled down then strained through a sieve of condescension.

Implicit in both is the infantile viewpoint that history is about the little people, not the people who won battles or started religions. It’s about the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker. Everyone made an equal contribution, it is strongly suggested. Britain’s Hidden Heritage is particularly afflicted by this low-level historical viewpoint. In last week’s episode, Clare Balding visited Audley End in Essex (a country house) to read its Victorian cook’s handwritten collection of recipes.

Your granny probably had something similar, possibly your mum, too. Yes, of course, it’s interesting as far as it goes. But the blameless cook was made out to be a combination of Edith Cavell and Joan of Arc. This book of recipes was loaded with a significance it doesn’t possess, so by the end of the segment Clare looked all serious as she told us: “I feel as if I’ve really got to know her [the cook].”

Oh really? Just from reading a recipe book? How does that work? Did the cook add a few little pointers to her personality and world view? “My recipe for lemon curd tart. And, by the way, the workers control the means of production. And my gusset is too tight.”

Of course, Britain’s Hidden Heritage must have its Blue Peter moments, too, where the presenters try out a craft and, what do you know, find that they aren’t very good at it. I’ve never understood the point of this. Anyone who has learnt to walk upright can appreciate the skills of others. I don’t need Flog It’s Paul Martin having a go at cutting sandstone: “Only when you start cutting stone yourself do you realise how tricky it is.” Mmm, I think I could have worked that out for myself, thanks Paul.

National Treasures Live is just embarrassing, with its “celebrity contributions”. Ruby Wax on the history of psychiatry! Gregg Wallace presenting a piece on rationing in the Second World War, which was so nothing-y it was almost transparent, as the privations of the war years were turned into a fluffy, neat narrative, drained of any real interest.


Well, you can keep it. I want my history to bite and to make me think, not send me to sleep. And address me as an adult, please.