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Media: Have I got ancient news for you

It may not be as sexy as comedy or wildlife, but history is the latest TV ratings-puller. By Darius Sanai
THE BRITISH fascination with examining and retracing the past shows no sign of abating. The ratings reveal that the past, whether in the form of DIY archaeology, jazzed-up history or serious documentary, is more popular than ever.

The biggest attention-grabber this year has been C4's Time Team, a Sunday- night show about amateur archaeology which has gained a 3.6 million audience- rating and a devoted fan-club numbering 25,000. The book of the series is at number three on the Sunday Times bestseller list, the channel has had massive demand for memorabilia, and it won an award at the British Television Society awards last week.

This Saturday BBC2 starts a new History Zone. Viewers will be able to watch a two-hour block of historical and archaeological programming, featuring shows such as One Foot in the Past and Meet the Ancestors, to complement Friday's Comedy Zone and Sunday's Animal Zone.

Even with the channel's pedigree, elevating documentaries of the Gulag to the same status as Have I Got News For You and the antics of furry creatures, shows confidence in the pulling power of the past.

Jane Root, BBC2's controller and the woman responsible for the History Zone, says history has only recently become so sellable. "Lots of things have happened in the past 10 years or so that mean history is no longer dull and dusty," she says.

"Programme-makers have become really good at storytelling, at narrative history, and now there's a feeling of taking part. Even 10 years ago it was considered impossible to show a programme about pre-20th century history. That has changed."

Ms Root, who took over at the channel late last year, announced at the time that "you can't afford not to be brave on BBC2". But is BBC2 breaking new ground or just reacting to the ratings? "Running any channel, you do some brave things and others that build on past success," Ms Root says. "While with comedy we're pushing back boundaries, here the boundaries are about engaging people in different ways."

There's something reassuringly British about it. The British are by reputation a gentle nation, and there seems nothing more British than the idea of having a nice cup of tea while watching some people dig in a suburban garden in the hope of finding a saucer dating from the 17th-century.

Paula Snyder of C4's Time Team says TV is responding to a general fascination with the past. "In the run up to the Millennium, people are asking more questions about who we are and where we come from. It's fascinating to explain: all the bones and artefacts and bits of pottery have helped shape our destiny." Time Team has, in the words of Tim Taylor, the series producer, used "quirkiness" to make it attractive. "Before, the tradition in televising archaeology was to get some wonderful expert who would talk down to the audience. The key with us was to do it live, and risk failure." The popularity of this approach speaks for itself: the show's website receives 1.5 million hits after an episode.

"To make compelling TV you find people using new techniques to illustrate history," says Jenny Barraclough of Mentorn Barraclough Carey, leading documentary makers. "And it's not just about the ancient past. How am I going to convey what it was like for someone in a trailer park in the 1960s American South, waiting for one of the first heart transplants? You get a figure sitting in a trailer park in a 1960s ambience, and maybe turn it sepia. The viewer expects these things, and it gives them an idea of the humans involved. The key is the anecdote: that's what works, and that's what's changed."

Mrs Barraclough used these techniques in NBC's popular History of Ancient Civilisations. She produced the programmes on the Ancient Greeks and the Menoans, and though the 1996 series won an Emmy, it was criticised for being overly populist, using extensive dramatic reconstruction and anecdote in documenting the ancient world.

"It hasn't played here, perhaps because it's seen as too populist," she says. "But it's amazing NBC commissioned something like that. It was brave of them, and it worked."

There is, however, a fine line for broadcasters to tread between turning viewers off by sounding like a fifth-form history lesson, and trivialising the past by reducing it to a series of human-interest anecdotes. "The key is balance," says Jane Root, pointing out that the History Zone programming also features Into Africa, a series about the precolonial history of the continent.

The "Zone" packages are more marketing ploy than policy change, Ms Root admits. "Nowadays, with the multiplication of channels, you need to navigate your way around complex choices," she says. "We wanted to make it easier to find an element you can call your own." Through that logic, a prime- time Saturday night History Zone on state-owned television, in a nation consumed by its complex history, seems extraordinarily apt.