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
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The Independent Culture
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 ...