History on TV...
It's not the first time I've commented on TV history. There's a particular approach that has become almost inescapable, one that is very easy to poke fun at and, apparently, one that programme-makers have no idea how to refresh. Professor Robert Bartlett would probably sit right at the centre of this archetype, walking dramatically through ruins at every opportunity, narrating in that almost Attenborough-ish way where there are more pauses than actual talking, showing us the odd document. The one of his that I watched recently (while ironing shirts for work, with the baby asleep - rock and roll all the way in my house) saw him repeat, several times over, the phrase 'it is said that...'. Hmm. Perhaps you didn't ought to find it a place in your relatively short script for the programme, then, because if it's only said that, rather than something to which you can give a bit more weight, the fact that it might be sensational isn't enough to merit inclusion. Ah, well. There isn't much in the way of written record for pre-Norman England, and it does make it hard to ground some of these claims. But his programme is (was? I think it's about ten years old, although it is currently being repeated on BBC 4) is interesting enough, and I will be watching the second and subsequent parts.
Susannah Lipscomb is a rather different prospect. She still does the things: the walking through ruins, the documents in those weird moving close-ups, the slow narration. But she does also get dressed up, and on this particular documentary, wades into a river to demonstrate the danger of wading into a river in Tudor-era woollen clothes. Which, it turns out, is remarkably dangerous. There's a sort of Nigella Lawson quality to her programme (Hidden Killers of the Tudor Home - a very sensible and low-key title...), a real sense that she, rather than the history she is relating, is the star of the show. I can't remember whether I made the same point relating to the Hannah Fry programme about whether maths is invented or discovered, but the programme makers have, frankly, fetishised the woman presenting it. In Fry's case, about 90% of the programme was sensible, her talking about maths, demonstrating, asking questions. 10% of it was ludicrously unnecessary shots of her prancing around formal gardens showing off her red hair. It seems that the people who made her programme also made Lipscomb's programme. 'These are women', they seem to have said, 'and, despite their intelligence, they also seem to look good on camera.' There was a meeting - readers of a certain age and set of cultural markers may have 'a strokey beard meeting' in their head - where it was agreed that instead of making (just) a serious maths or history programme with all the usual tropes, they'd make that and throw in a few of these additional 'but just look at her' bits.
There's a bit of me that wonders how complicit the two women I've just mentioned are in their presentation as women. Then there's another bit of me that thinks exactly how awful what I've just written is. There's nothing I can usefully say about their choices, other than to hope for a world in which women on TV, presenting history, maths or science programmes, are not unusual enough for there to be this need to highlight difference. I suppose that it might be possible to level the same accusation at the people who make Brian Cox's TV programmes, because there is a definite 'look at him' element to them. These pieces are visual, and need to be watchable in that sense. Bartlett's Normans programme seems to achieve that by showing me a series of spectacular cathedrals and castles. Although, for some unknown reason, Bartlett seems to inhabit a sort of permanent winter, in which the sun is always low in the sky and he always needs a big coat on outside. For some reason, that seems to be our picture of the medieval period: no summers, only mud, fog, crows cawing. The Tudors, and no I don't know why, seem to be allowed to exist in the sun as well. In fact, I can't think of a Tudors documentary where the weather was miserable or obviously cold. I will obviously now be making the autumnal weather very prominent as the events of late 1549 take place... I can't even tell whether they belong in book IV yet. We'll see!
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