Essay: On the reconstruction site
It's one thing to imagine the past, quite another to see it on TV. But what if there is no archive footage?
Sunday 14 February 1999
I am currently working on a factual series about the past - the real past, before archive film. One of the programmes begins before they had cave painting. Our early meetings have been congenial: we all agree that we do not want to film historical reconstructions. We fortify ourselves against the simple-minded temptation, when faced with a story about a man on a boat in the year 1609, to put an actor on a boat in period costume and film him.
Occasional staged glimpses of the past have been tried for as long as there have been historical documentaries with, at best, mixed success. Many people believe that the problem is just the failure of the illusion: an actor in a wig will always look like an actor in a wig. If this were true, however, costume dramas would be impossible. I think the problem is more to do with a clash of genres. A historical drama asks you to suspend your disbelief only once. A documentary with drama in it, on the other hand, asks you to turn the disbelief on and off more often than is feasible.
At our meetings, the received wisdom that reconstructions are wrong makes us so secure in our resolve that we regale each other with tales of other series that succumbed to the ghastliness of the wig, the quill, and the sandal. But our euphoria is short-lived. Silence descends; heads are recradled; hands, previously scintillating with glee, return to listless doodles. We have remembered that we are going to have to find something to put on the screen, and 50 minutes is a long time to be staring at two Hogarth prints and a wide shot of a National Trust property.
The truth is that a story about a man on a boat raises the precise expectation of seeing a man on a boat. Film makers at this point look for a compromise position, words like "impressionistic" and "stylised" are used. Sometimes a way can be found of giving a fleeting view of the past without straying too far into kitsch. But such devices often pall before the film is out.
In Station X (Channel 4), the recent series about the wartime code breakers of Bletchley Park, the programme maker Peter Bate decided to go ahead with full-scale reconstructions. We saw, through the veil of time, (a combination of filters and smoke) people from history going about their business in period costume. But I wasn't laughing. I was too busy looking at the past.
The scenes actually worked. This was partly because the production had money, it is true, but there was more to it than that. Often it was the simple, inexpensive things that worked best. That huge tableau of cypher folk on the lawn (tot it up for yourself: the extras, their fees including world rights, their transport, their catering, not to mention make-up and wardrobe) looked rather like a banner reading "Look at me directing a feature film," until the close-up of a young man juggling three pears. Suddenly we really saw a code breaker at play - if he could juggle pears he could probably crack Enigma.
The part of our brain that watches television is like a child: it wants to believe in magic, if you give it a chance. Each shot in a film has meaning in it - the turn of a head, the resigned motion of a secretary putting away a file at the end of a shift, the eeriness of a room empty but for one desk - the film-maker just has to ensure that each bit fits in with the story. When it works the child-viewer inside us can be delighted. At that point it is even possible to fall back on shaky devices like covering remarks about office politics with a shot of the watery sun through the clouds, or a key meeting between the British and the Poles with shots of the trees in nearby woods.
Peter Bate's was not a chronological narrative; he took a supermarket dash through the available material, and returned with a trolley load of fine anecdotes. As the bonfire of secrets that began and ended the series reminded us, the past is a wasting asset, and the fear of losing it makes you want it more. We saw the Bletchley veterans visiting old haunts, followed by lunch at the Enigma Tavern; the series invited us to take a trip down their memory lane and it was a hard offer to resist. Perhaps the message is that programme makers have become too diffident about showing the past. The child in front of the box is a sucker for a good yarn, in any age. To provide it all you need is complete mastery of the grammar of film and, of course, a huge budget. I shall put this at our next meeting.
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