History on TV is in crisis

Enough of Twiggy's thoughts on the monarchy - history programmes on television need a serious revamp, says Alison Graham


Don’t laugh, it will happen one day soon – a new television history series where the cast of The Only Way Is Essex re-creates key battles of the English Civil War using eyelash curlers and mascara wands. Meanwhile, in a redbutton one-off, Jesse J will take us through the dissolution of the monasteries with Matt Baker as Sir Thomas Cromwell, before they perform a duet of Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me.


People, we are drowning in cheap history. Take Jubilee-themed National Treasures Live on BBC1, where Dan Snow, a proper historian, was metaphorically yoked to a hairdresser from The One Show for some bizarre Titch and Quakers routine where Dan explained why we have kings and queens… to the hairdresser. The hairdresser, Michael Douglas, then offered his views. Listen to him speculating on Charles I’s activities, the night before he was executed: “I bet he got mighty tanked up.” This is on BBC1 at prime time. Sit down and weep because the barbarians are no longer at the gate, they have taken the gate off its hinges and are eating lunch on the lawn.

And Larry Lamb, an actor who used to be on EastEnders, presented a piece about street parties before being asked by Dan Snow (poor Dan), in Westminster Abbey, remember, and not, say, in a café where no one clears the spilled sugar from the table: “What do you make of the Queen?”

Really, is this what we have become? Are we supposed to be in thrall to what someone who used to be in EastEnders thinks of the Queen and what he remembers of the Coronation (the street parties, since you ask). But this is history on television and it is bad. I haven’t even mentioned Twiggy’s contribution to the same programme, where she somehow made 60 years of a constitutional monarchy All About Twiggy.

History on television is now little more than a branch of entertainment departments with the occasional honourable exceptions like Michael Wood’s The Great British Story: a People’s History (Fridays BBC2). Serious history is shuffled away like an uncle with a dirty secret at a family party. History is now a big TV soap that’s all about character, about the little people who swept the hearth.

Or it’s about Griff Rhys Jones jokily re-creating epic historical British journeys (Britain’s Lost Routes, Thursdays BBC1) or Professor Brendan Walker making over a 1950s house in a jokey way (The House the 50s Built, Thursdays C4) or even the otherwise highly admirable Lucy Worsley pretending to be Nell Gwynne.

History is in crisis: in schools it’s wrapped in the damp cloth of “humanities” or it’s being dropped altogether as a GCSE subject by an increasing number of pupils and schools – 159 state secondary schools failed to enter a pupil for a history exam in 2010 according to Education Department figures.

So now is the time for television history to (re)assert itself, otherwise whole generations of kids will grow up thinking Richard III is some kind of film franchise.

What would you rather tune in to? Do you agree with Alison that we need more serious history programmes on our TVs? Or would you quite happily watch the TOWIE cast tackling epic battle scenes? Post your thoughts below… 


And for a reminder of some great historical programming, check out the trailer to Alison’s recommendation, The Great British Story: a People’s History – shown on Fridays at 9.00pm, BBC2.