In praise of the ‘Nazi Channel’

UKTV History shows that commercial channels can provide enlightening programming, too.

Patrick West

Patrick West

Topics Culture

Some people outside the UK may be interested to know that here in Britain we have a television station that is seemingly devoted to the Nazis. It’s called UKTV History.

I was reminded of this channel’s obsession with the Second World War by the following letter in the current issue of comic-for-grown-ups, Viz, which reads: ‘Could I take this opportunity to remind the UKTV History channel that a lot of history happened before 1939, and a substantial amount of it has also happened since 1945. Not only that, some of it didn’t happen in Germany.’

On the surface, this is a fair point. UKTV History is indeed besotted by the Second World War. On this Thursday alone, eight of its programmes were devoted to this conflict. But the (presumably fictitious) correspondent to Viz misses several points.

First of all, populist history (and TV is by its very nature populist) always concerns war. War, viewed from afar, is exciting. It contains all the core components of a great narrative: heroism, suffering, sacrifice, camaraderie, violence, the (perceived) battle between good and evil. The reason UKTV History doesn’t regularly air programmes about crop rotation in the thirteenth century or about the enclosure system during the Industrial Revolution is that these events are devoid of human interest, and are thus just rather boring.

Secondly, populist history is always patriotic and chauvinistic. This is why you don’t get many programmes on any history cable station in the UK about Britain losing the American War of Independence to the colonials, the establishment of concentration camps in South Africa during the Boer War, or the torture of innocent Irish Catholics in Northern Ireland in the 1970s. No, it’s always how we beat the Germans in 1945 (ignoring the fact that it was actually the USSR wot won it), or how the Duke of Wellington’s English soldiers beat the French at Waterloo in 1815 (even though it was the Prussians wot won it, and 30 per cent of the British Army then was actually Irish; and let’s not forget it was the Welsh bowmen wot won Agincourt).

I haven’t seen any corresponding history channels in Germany or France, but I would wager that in Germany that they are not all about Kristallnacht, Auschwitz, the Stasi, or other shameful episodes in that country’s history. I would guess they might be about the Franco-Prussian War of 1871, or about Beethoven, Hegel, Goethe, Wagner and Nietzsche. Even the sacking of Rome by the Visigoths in 410AD might get a look-in. Similarly, I doubt French history channels would dwell upon that country’s shameful collaboration during the Second World War, but are very much more likely to re-run documentaries about Vercingetorix, Charlemagne and Napoleon.

Thirdly, history cable channels are designed for retired old men, who often remember the Second World War. So why deny them the chance to relive it, to put it into context, to remember (subconsciously) those who never grew old with them, who will forever remain young – and dead? And don’t forget young, male students, who also have a predisposition for watching television in the daytime and who have a similar fascination with war.

Yes, UKTV History does have a fixation with the Second World War. But this overlooks its broader approach. It’s actually quite catholic in its tastes. On Thursday, for instance, it also had a programme called Battleplan, which was about… the First World War.

In seriousness, that day it also had a repeat of Antiques Roadshow, something about Boudicca, a programme about Hannibal (no, not the one out of The A-Team) and a documentary about the Stuart dynasty. UKTV History may be obsessed with Nazis, but if you look at its schedule, it is actually more varied and informative than you might think.

This all the more makes the BBC’s output look contemptible. For all its protestations about trying to inform and educate the public (at our expense), the BBC is now a joke. BBC4 does have some interesting fare, but BBC1’s schedule now seems mainly to consist of reality shows, pro-NHS propaganda in Casualty and Holby City, programmes about what rubbish old antiques people want to flog from their attic, and re-runs of Diagnosis Murder. BBC2 seems to repeat Have I Got News For You on a daily basis – when it’s not covering the Paralympics or the Liberal Democrat conference, two events I have still yet to find a single person interested in.

Elsewhere, BBC3 is beyond parody. Here are some of yesterday’s offerings:

7pm: The Real Hustle, double bill. How to use distraction techniques to steal from holidaymakers. Then how to beat card sharks.

8pm: Don’t Tell The Bride. A groom-to-be is given £12,000 to provide his fiancée with the wedding of her dreams.

9pm: The World’s Strictest Parents. Teenagers are sent to experience the parenting regimes of families across the world, beginning with the God-fearing Garnetts in Alabama.

This is the kind of stuff that makes Jeremy Kyle look like John Humphries.

It thus seems a perverse irony, and one which goes against the correct-minded thinking, that the publicly-funded BBC is these days serving up this populist mind-rot, whereas private television stations funded by advertisements and subscription can provide populist, yet very educational programmes. The myth that only publicly-funded TV can enhance the mind is exactly that: a myth.

Sure, UKTV History may have too much about Hitler. But I’d rather watch something about the Nazis, or the Stuarts, or the Visigoths, than be subjected to some tiresome bourgeois morons telling me how they are going to redesign their gardens, or what useless, worthless cack some couple from Ipswich or Bournemouth have in their attic.

Patrick West is spiked‘s TV columnist.

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