A history of the world, without consequences

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If anyone doubted that history is the new rock'n'roll, they need only look to the BBC's autumn schedules to see the proof. History is pouring out of every programming slot, from recreations of Pompeii and the Roman Coliseum on BBC1 to computer games played against the great generals in Time Commanders and biographical drama with Byron on BBC2.

Aha, say the critics, these are just spatterings of culture meant to show the BBC is not just dumbing down. If only they were. There is nothing highbrow about a programme on Oliver Cromwell that has the title Cromwell - Warts and All, or a biodrama on King Charles II sold as a "dynamic romp through history set in the corridors and bedrooms of power". Nor is there anything too academic about BBC2's offering on Byron which is billed as "exploring contemporary themes like the cult of celebrity and media manipulation". He was also a creative genius who wrote some of the most compulsive poetry in the English language. But we can let that pass, presumably.

And why not? You can get awfully snotty about what the popular media does to serious academic subjects from science to the classics. And our good professors of history duly have, dismissing in a survey this month in History Today the current vogue for the subject in the most lordly terms of distaste at its "trivialisation". But in fashion history indisputably is, and there is nothing intrinsically wrong, let alone new, in the media plundering the past for our present entertainment.

The public loves good stories and characters bigger than life, and history provides plenty of both. In previous ages there was a demand for heroes and heroines, exemplars of moral virtue. So it was in with Florence Nightingale, King Alfred, Richard the Lionheart and Baden Powell. Today the demand is for something more earthy, lust and love, so Byron, Charles II and a warty Cromwell it is. Biography is the best selling form of non-fiction at the moment and, if that is true of books, so it should be true of television.

So, too, with historical recreations. Go to any National Trust house, or English Heritage monument, and you will be greeted by an assiduous effort to recreate life as it was. The kitchens, the decoration and the gardens are all being re-erected to reproduce exactly a certain time. Computers have allowed television to do the same even more imaginatively with the ancient world. We don't need to imagine what the great eruption of Vesuvius that engulfed Pompeii in AD79 was like. The computer will do it for us. It's a form pioneered by the Discovery channels on satellite and cable and taken up with enthusiasm by commercial television. So here comes the BBC to ride in the slipstream.

We can at least thank the BBC this time that biodrama and computer recreations have taken some of the allure away from the endless documentaries on war that have dominated the history channels for the last decade and more - although even here Channel Five is pushing the form even further with digitally colourised (and surprisingly effective) reels of the First World War, and BBC2 is claiming that its Time Commanders series this autumn will use the latest technology to enable "wannabe warriors to enter a virtual world and take on the greatest generals in history". Napoleon must be quaking in his boots.

The difficulty isn't just that these programmes have only a passing relationship with the facts. What we don't know about the thoughts and feelings of people in the past we fill in with our own sentiments. Nor is it that the current obsession with theme-park recreation fixes the past in an immobile frame lacking all the dynamics of change and evolution.

But then all ages have seen the past through the prism of their present. The Victorians overlaid history with the moralism of their age. The post-First World War invested it with a pessimism of personal flaw and failure. The post-Second World War replaced people with the people, an abstract view of time and tide through the recollection of the masses. In a sense we have come full circle back to a moralising view of the past through its personalities, only we invest it with the view of celebrity, sex and relationship with which we see our own times. If our sense of the past is so impoverished, it is because so is our own view of the present.

The really insidious drawback of television history is that, by making the past so accessible, we make it all too easy to believe that we understand it. Recreate it all on the screen, with actors or computer images, and you deprive the viewer of the space, and the need, to understand the past in its own terms - what were the pressures on individuals as they made their decisions and where they fitted in to the changing pattern of events in their lives.

Worse, it leads us to see events as dramas without consequences. A battle happens and is won or lost, a ruler lives or dies. But they belong to no past of their own and they have no effect thereafter. And so we see events today. Tony Blair is elected, his opponents lose. End of game until the excitement of a new one. We invade Iraq and win. And that's that. On to the next war. We seek to understand no causes, nor examine any impacts. Life as segregated episodes. But then that's perhaps how we see our own lives.