The need to think laterally about history

Colin Thomas says the makers of a BBC Wales landmark series should avoid playing safe

What is history? It seems that Michael Gove, the Secretary for Education, doesn’t find this a difficult question. Inspired by a talk by defender-of-empire, Niall Ferguson, he has announced his intention to impose a grand narrative on history teaching in schools.

The ‘what is history?’ question was one that much preoccupied us during the making of The Dragon has Two Tongues 25 years ago. When HTV brought me in as producer and director of the History of Wales series that had been commissioned by Channel 4, it only had one tongue, that of Wynford Vaughan Thomas, who had already drafted a structure for the series.

The argument then was only peripherally about television techniques. Instead, it was much more to do with different approaches to history and historiography. I wanted the series to have two presenters and, although Wynford was implacably opposed to bringing feminist historian Angela John on board, he was more sympathetic to giving Gwyn Alf Williams the role of a second tongue.

I had first encountered Gwyn Williams through the History Workshop movement and we were both influenced by Colin MacArthur’s booklet Television and History, produced by the British Film Institute in 1978. Before a frame was shot, Wynford, Gwyn and I immersed ourselves in what was then the current thinking about historiography – Wynford tending to rely on G.R. Elton’s The Practice of History (1967) and Gwyn on E.H. Carr’s What is History? (1961). I was particularly struck by Carr’s line – “Study the historian before you begin to study the facts”.

Whoever makes the new Welsh history series that will be broadcast by BBC Wales in 2012 should also look at current thinking about historiography. Post-modernism has shifted the terms of the terms of the debate. I recommend a reading of History and the Media (2004) edited by David Cannadine and In Defence of History by Richard J. Evans – make sure you get the 2000 edition of the latter with its passionate Afterwords defence of history against some of the dafter assaults of the post-modernists.

Two short quotes from these suggest the way in which they can stimulate original approaches to the BBC Wales commission. Cannadine writes (page 4):

“…as written and presented, media history is still largely confined to linear narrative. It needs to be more experimental, and to try other modes of exposition and presentation.”

In his Afterwords chapter Richard Evans writes:

“The idea of history as progress has been abandoned. Innovation has come above all from historians writing about the marginal, the bizarre, the individual, the small-scale.”

In the far off days when The Dragon was commissioned, producers and directors were given a comparatively free hand. However, since the 1980s there has been a massive concentration of decision making in television, both inwards and upwards. At S4C, C4 and BBC, the prevailing assumption seems to be that the centre knows best.

Whatever the weaknesses of The Dragon on issues of gender, we were determined that throughout it would maintain an awareness of the importance of class. Series like Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation in the 1970s, and David Starkey’s Tudor series in more recent years, all too often assume that what was happening to the 5 per cent top dogs was happening to the nation. Gwyn’s contributions always ensured that the high drama of political history did not push to the margin the social history of the same period. This should also be of crucial importance in the new series.

We always thought of the 13 programmes of the C4/HTV series as only part of a wider project. If viewers had their interest sparked by the series, we wanted them to be able to follow up on that interest. Hence the four document packs that accompanied the series, containing material from the primary sources that are so important to good historians. With the help of able and energetic education officers we were also able to set up nearly two hundred discussion groups, many of them outside Wales, which focussed on the key question addressed in each programme.

Now some of that backup could be provided through the BBC’s excellent web sites or through a Facebook group, but this should be planned from the outset, designed to run in parallel with the series. The arrival of the Kindle electronic book reader and the I-pad and what Sue Halpern in the New York Review of Books (June 10, 2010) calls the Vook – a book with embedded video – suggests all kinds of exciting new technological possibilities.

In the Television and History booklet, there is reference to a television producer who admitted that, in a television programme on recent German history, he had encountered an issue which, although important historically, was difficult to illustrate… so he simply left it out. We determined that we would never allow that to happen in The Dragon. Through whatever means was necessary – animation, re-enactment, crane and helicopter shots – we would find a way of maintaining the visual interest.  The new series, like ours, will be transmitted on the network so its makers will also have to find a way of making their series entertaining and accessible not only to audiences in Wales but also throughout the UK.

We also aimed to connect past to present and some would claim that The Dragon – and Dai Smith’s BBC series Wales? Wales! also transmitted 25 years ago – helped to shift the Welsh vote in favour of devolution. Aware of the potential significance of the new series, the Centre for the Study of Media and Culture in Small Nations at the University of Glamorgan recently convened a meeting of historians and television producers to talk over possibilities. There was a certain wariness about giving away too much information to potential rival bidders for the commission but general agreement that the new series represents what was described as “a massive opportunity”, especially the opportunity to reach younger audiences, and that it is vital not to play safe.

There were moments during the making of The Dragon when I was terrified that the tensions between its two presenters would cause the whole concept to fall apart. But I am glad that all those involved were prepared to take a risk and hope that, at what looks like being a very difficult time for our nation, BBC Wales will also prove to be bold and adventurous.

This article first appeared in the summer 2010 issue of the IWA’s journal, Agenda.

Colin Thomas is a freelance television producer and director.

One thought on “The need to think laterally about history

  1. It’s a pity there is no mention on programmes Welsh History subjects being presented by television “personalities.” Rather than by Historians who have academic Background.

    I would much prefer to see a programme presented by someone whose published contribution I have read and which gives me some idea of their position.
    I certainly do not want to see a repeat of the David Dimbleby/Andrew Marr interperation of History.

    We have many Welsh Historians working or retired who could front such a programme so lets go with one of them.

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