They've seen the future, and it's history The BBC is increasing its coverage of the past, and debunking some myths in the process. Maggie Brown reports
Tuesday 13 December 1994
This is partly because some programmes connected with the two world wars (the recent D-Day coverage, for example) have won adoring audiences, especially among middle-aged and elderly people.
But it is also because the BBC has proved adept at handling history, with little challenge from any other UK broadcaster, just as a number of key archives in Eastern Europe and the former USSR are opening up.
As Laurence Rees, head of the newly beefed up history unit, says, it has something of a mon-opoly on the subject. Earlier this year its flagship Timewatch series collected two Emmy awards.
Additionally, the BBC is now repeating The World at War, a masterly former Thames Television series that uses sombre war footage to explain the various turning points of the Second World War Two, and preparing another massive tranche of programming for 1995 to celebrate the end of the Second World War.
Recently, the BBC also ran a well-received account of the fall of the Berlin Wall. This was made by Janice Hadlow, the former editor of The Late Show, who becomes joint head of history and will concentrate on the Reputations series.
But Mr Rees, an intense and amusing man, stands for a particular style of revisionist his- tory programme. He eschews the celebratory approach. Rather, he seeks to demolish untruths, and to use television and its resources to explode myths.
He made his name with The British Betrayal, which took as a starting point the libel trial brought against Count Tolstoy by Lord Aldington over his account of events in 1945 when Cossacks and White Russians were forcibly handed over to the Soviet army. Mr Rees, who read law at Oxford, studied the entire trial transcript and was mesmerised by the testimony of eye witnesses: one reported flame throwers being turned on people by British troops; another recalled how Cossacks were tricked to get on to trainstaking them to their deaths by being told to dress in full regalia for a meeting with generals.
His special obsession, however, is the rise of the Nazis, and this may well develop into series in several years. Schindler's List, says Mr Rees, "exactly hits what is wrong with our view of the Nazis as a demonic group of non-human beings, transported to earth from Planet Tharg in black shiny boots. The only lesson to take from the period is to be grateful they are all gone. That to me is wrong.
"National stereotypes form a very useful purpose. It's easy to think that all Nazi tendencies were in the Germans of the Third Reich.'' Mr Rees becomes serious. "We should know they are in all of us.
"I've spent the best part of a year trying to understand how it can happen, and it's very easy; all too easy to understand.''
Mr Rees runs the risk that his attempts at understanding the process will be confused with forgiving the Nazis.
"It remains possible for it to happen again,'' he says, quoting TS Eliot's The Rock: "Do you need to be told that whatever has been can still be?''
On Schindler's List he says: "I'm sure it's true, but it only shows the very last minutes of a crisis. It is inexplicable if you present it like that. Things don't happen like that, a crisis evolves - in the case of Hitler's rise and the Nazis, from the
moment he joined Antoine Drexel's party. Concentration camps started outside Munich in the early days; they were brutal and horrible. The trouble is, everyone goes to them, but they were not extermination camps.'' Those came later.
"Once the war started, it was easier to keep things quiet. Schindler's List comes in at the end of a horrible process - it's inexplicable. No one thinks they could do it themselves, it's not human.
"I believe one is fortunate where and when one is born.'' His voice drops. "Those who were not there make moral judgements about those who were.''
Mr Rees is proud of his brand of revisionist history programmes. He is fascinated by the way a piece of duff information can echo and magnify down the ages. But he has doubts whether television is entirely suited to bringing reality home. "Why it's so fascinating trying to shift people's perceptions is that they don't want them shifted. TV is an emotional medium, and they react emotionally, even to an intellectual debate.''
Mr Rees was behind the Dresden Bombers programme, screened 18 months ago, in which a German survivor confronted those who had carried out the raid. Bombers jammed the BBC's switchboard.
For all his seriousness, Mr Rees really wants the ratings. "I have been fortunate to have been brought up through programmes. The first thing I think of is the viewer.'' He is the son of the actress Julia Mark (who played Nora the barmaid in The Archers)and Alan Rees, former head of BBC Pebble Mill.
He joined the BBC as a research assistant in 1978, when he was 21. He recalls his time on the current affairs programme Nationwide with natural humour: he lost a Tyrolean dancing troupe; a ferret got loose in the studio; and he was laughed at for missingthe Pope's death (it was his day off) and then ridiculed for suggesting an item on it the next day. But he says he learnt his trade in 18 months on Esther Rant-zen's That's Life.
His career in historical films began when he embarked on a biography on Noel Coward, and realised that the dead were easier to handle than the living.
BBC2 kicked off the new season of Timewatch in November with the kind of debunking he loves - The Myth of the Spanish Inquisition underlining the ambition to be provocative. It quoted Spanish historians claiming the inquisitors were victims of protestantpropaganda - that they never tortured people for more than 15 minutes. It has followed this up with a programme called Hitler's Secret Weapon, the Nazi production of the V1s and V2s. It has also looked at the horrors of the English Civil War, the theorythat the Sphinx is far older than the adjacent pyramids, and the track record of Khrushchev. Last Sunday it examined the relevance of Machiavelli to modern politics.
The series is meaty, wide ranging, provocative. Classic BBC2 programming.
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