It can be a hard concept to grasp but a lot of what we see on television is not real. Even the people who are involved in creating the fantasy can forget sometimes. This week, the actor Martin Clunes told how he had intervened to stop surgeons operating on his wife’s appendix because his medical “instinct”, developed over nine years of playing the grouchy Cornish GP Doc Martin on Sunday evenings, told him it was the right thing to do.
Now Mary Beard, the Cambridge classicist and presenter of Meet the Romans, has highlighted the fact that not everyone who talks about history on television is a historian in real life. In other myth-busting news, Lord Sugar’s HQ is nowhere near The Shard, and MasterChef’s Gregg Wallace has never been on the Michelin board. Yet somehow we accept these minor inauthenticities because it is television, and, well, that’s entertainment.
More precisely, Beard is lamenting the use of well-known faces on history shows, whose knowledge about Caligula or the Gulag comes from an autocue, rather than a PhD. “We need to claim – or keep – a place for specialists themselves, writing and presenting programmes on what they really know about,” she said. Of course there should be such a place. The anti-intellectualisation of television – Caravaggio assessed by Crimewatch presenters – is a depressing trend. But highbrow will always have its home in the lecture hall. This is television – home of the middlebrow – there is a place for people who are simply good presenters.
With Beard, the BBC has hit the double whammy, an expert with charm, the television equivalent of that one inspirational teacher everyone remembers fondly from school for bringing a subject to life. For every memorable teacher, though, there are plenty of boring ones, and there is no reason why an academic should be a natural on the small screen. Some, like David Starkey, take to it. Others risk putting viewers off the topic for good. And that is where a lively, well-known figure – a Joanna Lumley, a Grayson Perry – can work magic. What matters is that the stories, not who is telling them.