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TV UK, 11 July

Is this history we're watching, or cod psychology?

Dolan Cummings

Topics Politics

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Channel 5’s new slogan for its history programmes is Alexander the Great or Hannibal or whoever ‘without the lecture’. Presumably this is supposed to appeal to the trendy new ‘history is the new rock’n’roll’ market.

As is happens, though, the Greatest Heroes in History series (Fridays at 8pm) is pretty conventional, punctuating its talking heads with maps and statues and so on as if David Starkey never happened. Last week’s programme on Alexander was not bad, if less than gripping – at only half an hour long, it had the feel of a good idea badly executed. The latest in new-fangled TV history is The Frontier House (Channel 4, Sundays at 8pm).

Dishearteningly, this is an American show (PBS) inspired by the worst of British, The Edwardian Country House, The Trench et al. Three American families are invited to spend several months living in 1880s conditions in Montana. There are the usual irritations: twenty-first century families in frontier conditions simply don’t behave as frontier families would have done. Most absurdly, perhaps, they are not allowed to shoot wild animals because they are in a wildlife reservation area.

In fact, programmes like this are less about history than about cod psychology. The genre is really a branch of Reality TV, taking people out of their normal environments to see how they cope and interact. The highlight of the opening episode was one woman breaking down because she couldn’t wear makeup. (One of the programme’s experts delicately explained that makeup is for whores.) Not so much Wild West as Wild Wuss.

But Bill and Ted’s Excellent Prize for the Worst History Programme goes to Barbarians (Channel 4, Mondays at 9pm), which is more conservative that The Frontier House, but is clearly the result of a great deal of misguided creative effort. Presenter Richard Rudgley used the words ‘I believe’ about 50 times in the opening two minutes, giving the impression he had come straight from a focus group. Worse, he used the most grating of new TV history clichés, setting up the conventional account of things and then telling us that ‘the reality may have been very different’. Aargghh!

Specifically, Rudgley believes that the barbarians have had a raw deal from historians because of Roman propaganda. All that charging around razing cities to the ground really damaged their PR, and Rudgley is determined to set the record straight. We were told that the Huns were not uncivilised: they just ‘valued different things’ from the Romans. Yes, the Romans valued cities, the Huns valued charcoal. Terrific.

Bizarrely, Rudgley cited the Hun custom of squashing the heads of infants in their favour. Apparently some European tribes emulated the custom, indicating that they looked up to the Huns. And if the Huns had thrown themselves into the Danube, would these lesser barbarians have followed? It is a funny definition of civilisation.

A better case can be made for Theoderic and his Ostrogoths, except that in settling Italy and embracing Christianity they kind of relinquished their barbarism. It was a triumph of civilisation rather than a vindication of ‘barbarian culture’. Unperturbed, Rudgley argues that as an Arian Christian who tolerated Catholicism, Theoderic was a sort of proto-pluralist, not like those awful fundamentalist Byzantines. So there you have another barbarian value: multiculturalism.

Having been dragged around Ravenna by Attila the Hun when I was eight, I had a vague memory of its Ostrogoth history, but Rudgley was in no hurry to fill in the gaps. Instead he stood in front of the mosaics in the church of San Apollinaire pretending to wonder why there were so many curtains in the picture. Then he went off in Blue Peter mode to make his own mosaic, before coming back to explain his stunning discovery that Theoderic’s mosaics had been altered by the Byzantines to hide the Ostrogoths. What vandals! (Boom, boom!)

Next week we are told that the Vikings were not just a bunch of rapists and murderers, but in fact very successful traders and occasional farmers. Again, this is the kind of revelation I was well aware of at the age of 10. How does Channel 4 get away with presenting the contents of a children’s history book as a devastating challenge to our understanding of the history of Western civilisation? It is a ridiculous pose.

Notwithstanding the efforts of Attila, I often feel like a cultural orphan, living in the wake of a generation that has been too busy ‘valuing other things’ to recognise the difference between barbarism and civilisation, and which now expects to be congratulated for tossing out the occasional saccharine-drenched nugget of knowledge.

The rise of history programmes is often cited as evidence that TV is not ‘dumbing down’ but getting more intellectual. The reality may be very different.

Dolan Cummings is publications editor at the Institute of Ideas, and editor of Culture Wars. He is also the editor of Reality TV: How Real Is Real?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

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