Campaign for faster history

The problem with history on TV was exemplified by the programme I saw last night (on UK History channel) about ‘The Secret Files of the Inquisition’. Of its kind, it wasn’t too bad and in particular, they made some attempt to discuss the evidence, what it covered and what it didn’t. (Though given they made a big deal about the Vatican archives only being opened in 1988, it was odd that they started with material that had been available for considerably longer. Le Roi Ladurie’s famous study of Montaillou, based on the same records, was translated into English in 1978; I’m not sure how much earlier it was done in French). The reconstructions were, as always, slightly ludicrous, but there was at least enough material to give them some specific detail. The problem was the pace. It wasn’t helped by having a lot of advertising breaks, but why do history programmes feel the need to make it all so slow?! You have a shot to show that Montaillou’s a rural area and the visual wallpaper just goes on and on without a commentary, adding nothing. Given all our supposed new TV literacy, the rapid-fire dialogue and scene cuts that are common in other genres, why do history programmes still tend to treat their audiences as if they’re primary school children, who can’t have more than one solid fact every couple of minutes? Almost all the history programmes I see have this same tendency to tedium. Having heard David Starkey lecture, he’s about twice the pace that he is on TV. Maybe you can’t get up to lecturing speed (which is hard to follow for the inexperienced) in a show intended for a general audience, but you could easily have a bit more punch. A reasonable pace is possible: the current Peter Ackroyd series on the Romantics (highly recommended) shows that (Details at (There is, however, a reason for this unusual quality: it’s a co-production with the Open University and so specifically aimed at the better educated). With last night’s programme, a moderately interesting 50 minutes could have been a much more better programme, if they’d just been prepared to be a bit bolder about the speed. It would have been good to be given more of a flavour of how the interrogation techniques worked, for example. I find the subject interesting, but I’m not sure whether I’ll bother to watch next week, if it’s going to be so tedious a style.


One thought on “Campaign for faster history

  1. TV is an excellent medium for interviews, natural history programmes and dramas but it’s seldom ‘educational’. The only series I admired was Kenneth Clarke’s 1969 Civilisation . Repeated – I think in the late 80’s – critics called it authoritarian, condescending and simplistic but I think it still worked – the cultural artifacts stuck in the mind.

    Watching subsequent art, history and archeology programmes I’ve usually felt disracted by the presenter’s mannerisms, dress code and quantum leaps in geographical location. Science programmes such as Horizon are even worse because they discuss ideas. Televising people in lab coats staring at a bench or swivelling round to look at the camera is ridiculous especially when every mention of ‘particles,”galaxies’ or ‘moulten larva’ is a cue for a picture. Radio is a better medium – listeners could concentrate on the words without distraction.


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