History: Wanted: film clips of ancient Rome

What do history programmes do when there is no archive film? They behave like fifth-formers; History Hunters C4 The Romans in Britain BBC2

T elevision is a superb medium for recounting the history of the past hundred years. From the BBC's The Great War in 1964 to The Cold War, currently being shown on BBC2, the formula of archive film, plus interview and expert comment, has hardly varied, for the simple reason that it works so well. It is also an honest way of dealing with past events, putting actual evidence and testimony on the screen, without reconstructions and dramatisations.

However, this aptitude for presenting the past does not extend into the obscurity of time beyond the camera's eye. Even still photographs are a very inferior resource for the television historian. Deprived of archive film material, television is left with documents, paintings, architecture and talking heads, none of which makes for riveting viewing.

One way of avoiding the charge of dullness is simply to classify a programme as "educational", so lowering the expectations of the audience, while adding a sense of worthiness to the project. Even though it comes in an early-evening slot, the new BBC series on Roman Britain is an Open University production; and, though many OU series are quite watchable, they have no need to pretend that their main purpose is to entertain, rather than to instruct. In reality, educational television - like education itself - has long been borrowing techniques from entertainment genres, to help to put information across.

The Romans in Britain, however, is fairly conventional in its approach. It has a presenter, Guy de la Bedoyere, whose trademark is his motorcycle; he may have taken a hint from Adam Hart-Davis of Local Heroes (another history programme that makes dry history palatable). All the programmes have linking shots of Guy (or his helmeted double) powering across the countryside along what might as well be the same stretch of tarmac, so little does it meaningfully link one location to the next. Here he is getting off the machine above the white cliffs; now we have him parking it near Maiden Castle; moments later, he has arrived, bikeless, in the midst of a re-enactment of a battle.

The screen demands to be filled with something, so this kind of history, as well as its biking presenter, makes plentiful use of stock footage, old feature films, and the sort of people who like to put on skirts and breastplates at weekends to play legionaries fighting one another across a muddy field. Would-be Celtic farmers are not forgotten, nor (in later episodes) historical cooks who pretend to love liquamen, builders and decorators who specialise in wattle and daub, and theme parks where the staff have to dress up in antique costumes and say: "I am a Celtic princess ...", or whatever; anything, in fact, to make the screen move. The trouble is that this hotchpotch is likely to create as many misconceptions as it dispels: if you show close-ups (from a B movie) of chariot wheels with knives on them, this is what some people will remember, not the presenter's voice saying that "Boudicca certainly didn't have knives on her chariots". And if Carry on Cleo is nonsense - it never pretended to be anything else - why also quote from that?

The Time Team's History Hunters adopts a much narrower focus and a hands- on approach; it has the feel of fifth-form history fieldwork. The original Time Team applied a similar formula, with an element of gameshow, to archaeology: presenter Tony Robinson offered a resident group of archaeologists, plus a few guest specialists, a site to investigate in a given time, and at the end totted up their score (in pottery shards, medieval coins, etc). In History Hunters, Robinson assembles three new teams for each programme and launches them on an investigation. For some reason, the time limit still applies, though it made more sense when the task was to dig a trench across a field. Here, the raw materials are in the care of archivists and librarians, who can keep you waiting days while they retrieve a document from storage. One particularly unconvincing scene here had Robinson shooing two women out of a Blackpool pub to find a piece of paper at the Public Records Office in London. They hadn't even checked whether the trains were running, let alone the timetables.

This may be low-tech, DIY history, but it still needs its experts. There is a resident adviser, Carl Chinn, who waves his arms around and shouts a lot, trying to convince the class that local history is unbelievably exciting. There are archivists and curators aplenty, plus timber-dating experts, fire insurance investigators (who concluded that the Crystal Palace fire was accidental) and even, when the series went to Blackpool, a rock historian - whose special subject was not music or geology, but confectionery.

If this was a joke, nobody laughed. The guiding principle is fun, not humour. It was no accident, surely, that the first three programmes are about leisure: a Londoner's day out at the Crystal Palace to watch circuses, sideshows and chariot racing; the development of Blackpool from a quiet village to a bustling holiday resort; and the pubs of Nottingham. Even when pubs were not the object being investigated, they play a large role, as meeting-places for the teams to compare notes and plan their campaigns.

The Nottingham progamme illustrated the best and worst of History Hunters. It was the least like The Romans in Britain, and the most like a gameshow, with teams from each of three pubs in the city competing to prove that theirs was the oldest - a matter, one might say, of strictly local interest. But the point of the series is not the results, but the method by which they are obtained. In this sense, History Hunters does tell you something about how history is done and might encourage some viewers to do it for themselves. If only everyone weren't so darned enthusiastic ...

Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
The Baker (James Corden) struggles with Lilla Crawford’s Little Red Riding Hood

film...all the better to bamboozle us
Arts and Entertainment
English: Romantic Landscape

art
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

music
Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Strictly
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

    Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

    Christmas cocktails to make you merry

    Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

    Paul Scholes column

    It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
    Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

    Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

    2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas