Gavyn Davies got into terrible trouble for saying that the BBC catered for a smug minority among its viewers. Actually, when one looks at the BBC's cultural output, it seems to me that he may have a point. With a few exceptions, programmes about books, art, music or history are much less informative than any good newspaper article. If a television play, drama series or film of a classic play can be excellent, the cultural value of a six-part dramatisation of Vanity Fair, or whatever, doesn't seem very high to me, and I've never seen a profile of an author that could begin to compete with a mildly competent biography.
Television programmes of this sort are, on the whole, interesting and informative only if you know absolutely nothing about the subject. I quite enjoy popular science programmes and wildlife programmes, because my ignorance is almost total. But I can't remember ever having seen any discussion of literature or history that did more than scratch the surface of the subject.
Gavyn Davies was right in a way; television is directed towards the sort of audience that likes to feel that it is learning something, but doesn't want too much culture. It isn't going to engage a really curious mind, and it probably won't appeal to the mass audience. At best, as in Robert Hughes's series about the history of American art, American Visions, it might just persuade people to go and buy a book on the subject. It's only at that point that discovery begins.
This scepticism about television's loudly trumpeted cultural and historical investigations is stirred by the imminent appearance of a project of quite startling idiocy and tastelessness. The Trench, which begins on BBC 2 tonight, aims to place ordinary people in a recreation of a First World War trench, and explain the circumstances under which soldiers lived and fought. Other historical reconstructions of this sort have been rather successful; Channel 4's series The 1900 House and The 1940s House gathered large numbers of viewers, curious about long-gone domestic tasks.
I suspect that those series were so successful because there are few detailed books about domestic trivia from the past. The exercise in each case was grotesquely artificial, of course; you can recreate a household, but not the society a family existed in. But it is not easy for the general, curious reader to find a book which explains how the Edwardians cleaned their teeth, washed their socks, and when they ate their dinner, and most viewers, I suspect, overlooked the artificiality because the information was not very familiar.
In the case of The Trench, it is hard to see how the artificiality can fail to topple over into comic absurdity. Anyone who takes an interest in the First World War won't find it hard to read a book about conditions in the trenches, and the set-up leaves out almost everything. They aren't going to be fired at; they are not going to suffer from any serious illness (the BBC is not likely to let anyone go down with trench foot or dysentery, and shell-shock hardly seems much of a risk).
Nobody is going to be shot for desertion; the assumptions of the people taking part in the exercise are not going to resemble the beliefs of the boy soldiers of the time. It is not going to be very much like the First World War at all, really, and the whole thing sounds in astonishing bad taste. Next year, no doubt, Holocaust, in which whole families live behind the skirting board for two weeks before being rounded up, sent to mock-ups of concentration camps and then, er, not killed.
Like much of BBC television's historical and educational programming, this sort of thing has very little value.The Trench, like all television programmes about the past, labours under a demonstrably false assumption that people in the past thought and acted exactly like us, and are only interesting because they are like us. Hence those gruesome programmes in which some telly-don assures us that someone, anyone – Helen of Troy, Caroline of Anspach, Lord Palmerston – was "the Princess Diana of the day".
First World War soldiers are meant to have reacted to life in the trenches in exactly the same way that an IT consultant from Manchester does now. In fact, the past is interesting because it is not in any respect the same as our lives now. Any understanding of history has to start from that assumption.
The cultural value of television doesn't lie in this sort of thing. It only engages memorably with higher thought when it simply records one of the performing arts – a musical performance, a play, an opera. Explanation and transcription, on the other hand, almost always produces terrifyingly superficial results.
And The Trench, in a way, is a handy excuse for a current failure to produce any intrinsically interesting television. No Play for Today, no Fawlty Towers, little in the way of sensible and searching discussion on any imaginable topic. This looks like a contribution to learning, but don't be fooled; it is really just an excuse for not trying harder.Reuse content