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History on Television

2013 May 9

cover history on television

I have just sent off a positive review of a new book, History on Television, by Ann Gray and Erin Bell to the Public Historian. The book discusses, analyses and categorises a range of history programmes on mainly British television channels. The most interesting part of the book is the range of behind – the – scenes interviews with programme schedulers revealing their control over what audiences are permitted to see. As one commissioner explains  ‘our classic history channel viewers today we call Roy who is 55 years old, we pretty much know what Roy likes, he likes military history… they don’t call us the Hitler channel for nothing…’

It is both personally re-assuring but also deeply depressing that as Gray and Bell argue, ‘clever and intellectual women pose a “threat” to the “natural” order of femininity and masculinity and especially in the very public arena of television’. Their argument is strengthened through extensive interviews with historians. As one female historian explained, ‘David Attenborough was given to me as an example on which I should model myself, and I think they were always terribly worried that I would appear too academic; and they were very anxious that I should appear extremely enthusiastic. Which is fine because I’m quite good at seeming enthusiastic because I am feeling enthusiastic. But I think they wanted a kind of naïve enthusiasm… On the one hand they seemed to want someone who was an expert to present it, but they wanted you to present yourself as a non-expert.’

This book should have a wide readership on public history, heritage and historiography courses. It would also be good reading for certain programmers as a way of challenging their conservative approaches to what and who ‘the public’ should be allowed to see on their television screens…

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