RADIO / Past caring: Robert Hanks deconstructs R4's history coverage

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The Independent Culture
History is all in the past these days, which probably sounds obvious. What I mean is that nowadays you don't get any history, not on the BBC; just current affairs dressed up. Take That's History (Radio 4, Saturday) - an infuriating title because it implies a rounded view of its subject when the programme actually suffers from tunnel vision. The past is regarded as a preparation for the present, and every item has some sort of modern spin put on it.

This week (the second programme, but there was too much Prague around last week to do it justice), the slaughter in Rwanda was taken as a peg for a discussion of the changing (or, if you prefer, unchanging) role of the United Nations through history. The approach of the Bank Holiday prompted memories of mods and rockers 30 years ago and a history of the teenager. And there was a look at suicide through the ages that had to be tied into the anniversary of the founding of the Samaritans.

There's nothing especially dunderheaded about any of the individual items on paper, but why they demanded a new series is a mystery. The UN discussion, by some way the best thing here, didn't teach you anything you wouldn't expect to learn from Age to Age - which That's History replaces - or, come to that, on an out-and-out current affairs programme like Analysis.

The teenagers' story could, likewise, have fitted into Age to Age without a murmur, unless it was a murmur against the appallingly low level of thought that Claire Rayner brought to bear on the subject. She started with the worn-out device of an apparently modern diatribe against some contemporary evil being revealed as having been written centuries ago (in this case we had Socrates on surly youth), before moving on to factual cliches (coffee bars, Bill Haley, seat-slashing, etc) and wrapping up with a pitiful generalisation (teenagers are now an important social group).

The run-through of unusual suicide methods through the ages (including swallowing a wooden spoon - handy to know about if the relatives have locked up the cutlery), might have stepped straight out of Hindsight, the programme that presents history as a compilation of quirks and eccentricities. At a pinch, though, it might have fitted into Age to Age.

The real problem is not the quality of the programme (we have, after all, got that cuddly Roy Porter in charge), but the way that it - like Age to Age - treats history as an adjunct of the news. It's a view that the Government wants to play down, since it has excluded contemporary history from the national curriculum, so it's perhaps worth being reminded of it. But when it's the only history you get, it's terribly limiting - so many outwardly irrelevant topics are never going to be touched. There ought to be room for a programme that treats the past as worth knowing about for its own sake, or as so inescapably bound up with the present that importing topicality is unnecessary.

It was certainly unnecessary in Turning the Tide (Radio 4, Thursday), a feature about the 1968 campaign by a group of Hull trawlermen's wives to improve trawler safety standards, after 58 men died in nine days. Even leaving aside the conflict between profit and regulation - a debate that the European Union has made topical again - there was the young John Prescott on hand as representative of the seamen's union. At the same time, though, this all seemed very remote - strong unions and a mighty fishing fleet based on a tight- knit community (with brass bands for emphasis). Now that's history.

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