Charles Nevin: A great plague of history has afflicted my TV

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The Independent Online

All right, all right, I know you get out a lot; you, by definition, as a reader of this newspaper, dash between this and that, hither and yon, sniffing at the zeitgeist, deep sampling all manner of cultural activity, glass of wine here, merry quip and little sausage wrapped in bacon there. You wouldn't laugh at a Turner Prize entry. I, by contrast, am 50, tired, and spend a lot of time in. I also use phrases like "hither and yon", another indicator of the gulf between us.

So you won't watch much television. So perhaps I can be of some service, mark your card in case you get stuck in a lift with someone like me, heaven help you. After we'd finished with the weather, these troubled times, and whatever happened to manners and respect, there wouldn't be much left but television.

Actually, though, while you're here, has anyone done any research on the coincidence of the disappearance of manners and respect with the disappearance of the hat? Once the thing to doff with has been taken away, where's the reminder and the incentive and the general ambience conducive to all the rest of it? I only ask.

Anyway, television. Big trend you will have missed. History. Impossible to escape. Programme after programme. Why? I don't know. Perhaps there will be a programme on it. A chap I was stuck with in the lift the other day said it was because history programmes were cheap to make. All they needed was a lively and learned front man wandering around in front of where the action had taken place, lecturing, and occasionally using the odd gesture to make a point. The bloke in the lift went on for rather longer than necessary about the late AJP Taylor doing it in a studio without so much as a fancy backdrop. Riveting, he said, but we were stuck in a lift.

Besides, it can't be that cheap. Dr Starkey, who's in them all the time, has a very nice overcoat. Dark blue, well cut. Professor Schama, the other one I see a lot of, doesn't have an overcoat, being more of a blouson type, but he does seem to change pretty often. And, pace AJP, the visuals are getting more and more expansive. I had to switch off a programme about the Great Plague after the fourth lingering shot, with accompanying groans, of something really nasty, suppurating. They don't seem to stint on the actors as much as they did, either, when a few fellows from the Sealed Knot had to whip up a bit of atmosphere and one of them always had a slightly too wobbly stomach for the charging bits.

Something else I've noticed, too. Up until now, no matter what the provocation of the commentary, King Henry VIII, or whoever, has had to glower silently, or just mouth at a courtier. Terrific potential for a Benny Hill sketch. (Benny Hill? Comic, dead a few years now, not exactly cutting edge then.) And I've always felt rather sorry for them, because, being actors, they're obviously bursting to have a go; but now, sometimes, they do get to give the odd little speech.

It's probably my imagination, but the increase of the visual aids seems to have lessened the queue of expert talking heads. This gives me a chance to talk to you about one of my favourite bugbears, which is the curious use by these people of some strange sort of historic present tense, as in, "Cromwell is upset... Charles is weak... Nelson doesn't care, he takes his ships... Now, this is exactly what Richelieu wants."

I don't know why this annoys me so much, but it does. A condescension, the implication that we can only understand in terms of the present, that sort of thing. Don't worry, I can bang on for hours like this. Probably wiser to take the stairs.

c.nevin@independent. co.uk

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