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.

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
film
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.

    Woman who was sent to three Nazi death camps describes how she escaped the gas chamber

    Auschwitz liberation 70th anniversary

    Woman sent to three Nazi death camps describes surviving gas chamber
    DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

    The inside track on France's trial of the year

    Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
    As provocative now as they ever were

    Sarah Kane season

    Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

    Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    Army general planning to come out
    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea