Huw Wheldon Lecture 2011 with Bettany Hughes: TV - Modern Father of History Royal Television Society Huw Wheldon Memorial Lecture


Huw Wheldon Lecture 2011 with Bettany Hughes: TV - Modern Father of History

Bettany Hughes uses the 2011 Huw Wheldon Memorial Lecture to argue that history on television is thriving and enjoying a new golden age.


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Transcript


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Hello.

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I just quickly wanted to share a story with you.

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Back in the early 1990s, I went in to the BBC for a meeting with a senior producer.

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It seemed to me that history just wasn't getting a fair crack of the whip.

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And so I talked animatedly about the discoveries that could be made,

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the insights shared.

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I waxed lyrical about the natural connection

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between our lives and the lives of those who'd gone before us.

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But then came that awful moment when I realized that I was doing all of the talking,

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and what was coming from the other side of the desk was a chill wind of disapproval.

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Basically, my little speech was going down like a cup of cold sick.

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"Let me tell you something," the producer said.

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"One, no-one is interested in history any more.

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"Two, no-one watches history programmes on television.

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"And three, no-one wants to be lectured at by a woman!"

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Well, as you can imagine, that put a certain degree of fire in my belly.

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Not just because the man in front of me was revealing attitudes to sexual equality

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that would have sat quite happily in the more repressive regimes of antiquity,

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but also because he was proving himself ignorant and out of touch.

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Instinctively and intellectually,

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I knew he was wrong.

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But mind you, he wasn't alone.

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There were many at the end of the last century who thought that history in general,

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and TV history in particular,

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had simply had it.

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The vultures were circling.

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One academic, in 1992, published a book called The End Of History And The Last Man

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which argued that mankind's ideological evolution was over

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and that history itself had run its natural course.

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Let's hear from him.

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But first, let me turn to you, Francis Fukuyama.

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Now, let's get the thesis straight.

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You're not saying that history with a small "h" has ended,

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it's History with a capital "H".

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Now what is this History with a capital "H" that's ended?

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Well, that's precisely right.

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Obviously, day-to-day events are not going to stop happening.

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History with a capital "H" is what you might say is the overall evolution of human society.

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It seems to be what you've seen happening in this century.

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When we began, there were many competitors to liberal democracy,

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left-over hereditary monarchies, fascist dictatorships,

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communist totalitarianism.

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And virtually all of those major competitors have now disappeared by the end of the twentieth century.

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Fukuyama was making a rather convoluted intellectual point about the progress of history,

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but it chimed with the age.

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On TV and on the streets there was a fascination with youth culture

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that implied that the past was somehow ridiculous and pointless.

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And you can just tell that from the TV output of the '80s and '90s.

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Benighted producers were trying painfully hard to make history relevant

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and more than a little funky.

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So just let's look at a couple of programmes from that period.

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The first, a format show called That Was The Year,

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and the second, a snippet from a 12-part series charting the history of every country in the EU.

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The headlines for Monday January 27th.

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Fire broke out at the new House of Commons this afternoon.

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Work was interrupted for two hours whilst the flames

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in the unfinished clock tower were brought under control.

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The MPs continued their debate in Westminster Hall nearby.

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It's thought the fire was started by the plumber's soldering equipment.

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JAZZ MUSIC PLAYS

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Grundtvig preached enlightenment. No war or need or ignorance.

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A working idyll where the best of everything was for ordinary men and women.

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Jazz dance,

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it's not the obvious way forward, is it?!

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It is rather gratifying that it's history itself that has proved

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those 20th century naysayers wrong.

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Because although history did feel a little beached in the '80s and '90s,

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this century, TV history has been swimming very successfully

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against the tide, particularly in the last couple of years.

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The figures are impressive.

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Last year, the BBC produced around 130 hours

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of original history content for TV,

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way more than any other year in the last two decades.

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Recent research tells us that over half the population,

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a staggering 30 million people,

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have watched history on BBC One over the last 18 months,

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while the kids' show Horrible Histories has been seen

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by more than 50% of all six to twelve-year-olds in the UK.

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What's more, a number of British-made history programmes

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regularly sell to more than 50 territories worldwide.

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And other broadcasters including Channel 4, ITV, Discovery

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and National Geographic are planning major new series

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about the past for next year.

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So, how do we explain this renaissance,

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you could even argue, this golden age, for the genre?

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Is it perhaps calendrical?

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At the end of the 20th century, the approach of the millennium

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seemed to promise a new dawn.

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But then, of course, we all realised that the year 2000 would NOT usher in

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a miraculous epoch of bright, shiny, novel solutions to the challenges

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that our species has had to deal with for close on a million years.

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We realized that not all the answers lay in the future.

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Could it also be that heritage and nostalgia provide a refuge,

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somewhere warm and safe to scurry to as our conflicted modern

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society hurtles its way towards an uncertain future?

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Or is it simply that TV now tells the stories denied airtime

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in our pressed education systems?

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Well, although all of these are important factors, I actually think

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there is something more fundamental, more interesting going on here.

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What I'd like to argue today is that the popularity of TV history

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is not simply the result of a fashion amongst TV commissioners,

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critical though that is.

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It's not even just an indicator of the preoccupations of our anxious age,

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but a function of the fact that history has finally begun

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to fulfil its true potential on screen.

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I believe television and history share a stem-cell,

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that they were both created with the same purpose -

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to understand not only those immediately around us,

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but what lies beyond our direct experience.

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And I'm going to argue that when TV history is true to these

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historical roots, it becomes more dynamic, more charismatic,

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in fact, essential viewing.

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So in this lecture I am going to explore great ways of putting history

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on television, and explain how, to my mind, a formula for winning

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a modern audience to the genre can be found deep in our prehistoric past.

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Now I'm not saying all of this in a mildly messianic way just because

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that pesky producer traumatised me when I was a young woman.

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Let me put some evidence in front of you.

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If you like, a short history of history.

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History was famously invented along the coast of Asia Minor

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by Herodotus, the father of history, in the 5th century BC.

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Herodotus was part of a radical movement that sprang

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from Western Anatolia and the Eastern Mediterranean

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in what's been described as the Ionian Revolution -

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a time when a blind belief in fate and the power of the gods was nuanced

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by a new and rather wonderful idea.

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The Greek word for it was historiai,

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and originally it simply meant any kind of inquiry into the world.

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Well, Herodotus was a convert to the enquiry cause.

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He was a bright lad from the pretty coastal settlement of Halicarnassus,

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modern-day Bodrum in Southern Turkey.

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We think he spent much of his youth in exile,

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tossed across the Mediterranean by the warring politics of the age.

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But Herodotus looked up from his troubles,

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stared out across the sea and came to a game-changing decision,

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to make beyond the horizon his business.

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Travelling through exotic lands, interviewing those he met along the way,

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drawing contextual conclusions from his discoveries,

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and then writing all of this down so it could be shared by others,

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Herodotus invented a new form of human expression.

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Herodotean history,

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historiai, was a combination of observation, analysis,

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enquiry and muthoi -

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both myths, stories, as we understand them, and facts,

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points of information that helped humanity navigate through life.

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Historiai was a set of discoveries best made by taking real-time journeys.

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It was a discipline that jigsaw-puzzled together all kinds of evidence -

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oral, material, political, geographical,

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anthropological, and it relied, above all, on vivid landscapes

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and the irresistible stories of the people within them.

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This fledgling hybrid of arts and science

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had characteristics remarkably similar to another mode

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of communication that would be born 25 centuries later.

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The televisor, what we now call the television.

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Really, it should be no surprise that as soon as TV is invented

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history has a presence.

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Cue TV's first telly don, AJP Taylor.

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Here's a clip from 1961 and his ITV lecture on the First World War.

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You must imagine a civilised world which moved, in one sense,

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very fast, much faster than its ancestors had done

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in the sense that it went by rail, but also very slow.

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When you arrived at the railway station,

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you still had to rely on horses or your own feet.

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The whole pattern of the First World War, all the way through,

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you see me coming back to this, is of enormous quantities of men,

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munitions, machines being delivered to the front line

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and then the actual rate of battle

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just the same as it had been in the days of Napoleon or the Romans.

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Great stuff. And no notes or autocue!

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AJP Taylor set the bar for TV history through the '60s and '70s.

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Charismatic storytellers like Mortimer Wheeler, Alistair Cooke

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and Kenneth Clark followed.

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It's a period that has often been cited as TV history's true golden age.

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But I think that's over-romantic, nostalgia-tinged selective memory.

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Because, to be honest, there were an awful lot of history duds

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on air at that time too, people who were pompous and stilted and narrow-minded.

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I've spared their blushes by not including the clips.

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These lecturers don't, I think, reach a gold-standard

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because in production's terms, and in history's terms,

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there is something key missing.

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Obviously, early TV historians were constrained by the immaturity

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of their medium and their budgets, but what is lacking from a lot

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of the programmes, and what can be exploited by producers today,

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is a sense of the fresh-air adventure you find in Herodotus's works.

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For my money, TV history works best

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when it exploits the ancient tricks of the trade.

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Discovery, first-hand experience, contact with ordinary people,

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compelling communication and analysis.

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And one of the masters of the Herodotean art,

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one who raised me and a whole generation of history-starved teenagers was,

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and still is, Michael Wood.

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Here's a clip from Michael's 1998 series, In The Footsteps Of Alexander The Great,

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where he traced the 20,000-mile journey

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taken by the Macedonian leader in his bid to conquer the world.

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We meet him here, in the Hindu Kush of Afghanistan

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and the Makran desert in Iran.

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As he came over these passes,

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he'll have remembered the words of his tutor, Aristotle, who said

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from this point, it ought to be possible to see the ends of the Earth,

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and the great ocean the Greeks believed surrounded it.

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Alexander now knew for sure this was wrong,

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that vast and densely-populated lands lay ahead.

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He was driven to see them.

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The question now becomes not, when is he going to stop,

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but how far can he go?

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Out here, you really do wonder why on Earth he brought his army

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through this appalling wilderness.

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It almost makes you wonder whether he wanted to punish them

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for what happened at the Beas River, for not following him

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to the ends of the Earth.

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Among the Greeks, the most popular explanation was this.

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Simply, that it was there.

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He'd been told the journey was impossible for an army,

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and because of his inner demon, he just had to do it.

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He had to excel everybody. He had to do what nobody else had done.

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Michael travelled through 16 countries to make that show,

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including Israel, Egypt, Iran and Afghanistan.

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All places of course still on the fault-lines of history.

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But what makes this great TV history is the fact that Michael meets

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and talks to locals along the way, just as Herodotus did,

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immersing himself in their cultures and world-views.

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Because surely just as important as a physical exploration,

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TV should sponsor a cultural and intellectual adventure.

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This, I think, is key.

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It's a notion found in one of the earliest words on earth -

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ghosti.

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Ghosti, which, by the way, gives us our words "guest" and "host",

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is an ideology, a word idea that emerged around 6,000 years ago.

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It's part of the prehistoric language system Proto-Indo-European,

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a kind of international mother tongue whose influence stretched from Ireland to Iraq.

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Back then, people realized that in order to survive and to progress,

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they had to develop a code of ethics that favoured xenophilia rather than xenophobia.

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A kind of international etiquette, a default position

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of interest and trust rather than suspicion and aggression.

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Just imagine it.

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A stranger approaches you on the distant horizon, but instead

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of slaughtering him from a distance, you welcome him into your home.

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It's a way news, new goods, new ideas can be exchanged.

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Ghosti stems from a conviction that man flourishes best

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when he invites the unknown across his threshold.

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TV history, to my mind, has a responsibility to put

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ghosti into action, to do the beyond-the-horizon business on our behalf.

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To encourage new experiences, new cultures,

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new worldviews, if you like, the future, into each and every living room.

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And I think this is particularly pertinent in our increasingly globalised and democratic world.

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Today, not only do we have to understand what our global neighbours are doing,

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but there is a burning issue of whose story we are telling

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and who has been chosen to tell it.

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Of course, TV histories should be generated by a representative quota

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of those people who make history.

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Er, that's all mankind!

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Seems obvious, doesn't it?

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Well, one thing you may have noticed in the clips so far

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is that all the faces you'll have seen, great as they are,

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demonstrate an excess of the Y chromosome.

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They're all blokes.

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Women were allowed on TV to present history,

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in fact, as early as 1957, but the first female historian's outing was,

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wait for it, a history of frocks.

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It was presented by one Doris Langley Moore.

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And you just have to take a look.

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This is a hat, and this is a hat.

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There seems to be a certain, slightly crazy streak in most fashions.

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We notice it quite clearly in clothes that have gone out of date,

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but in each generation, only a handful of people,

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who are seldom very popular,

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can see just how irrational they and their contemporaries are.

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It's easy for us to see, for instance, that there's

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something a trifle unreasonable about a feminine outline like this.

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Women whose heads were shadowed by huge hats like this 1911 model

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laugh at women who wear theirs

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perched on the top of their heads, as in the 1890s.

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And women who wear their hats on the top of their heads think a hat

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on the back of the head is comical.

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The date of this one is 1878.

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But to anyone who never wore a hat at all,

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all three would appear equally demented.

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Excitingly for milliners around the country,

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that was the first British television series shot in colour.

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Although with no ability to transmit in colour for another decade,

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only the Queen Mother got to appreciate the full gaudy splendour

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of the show, in a private viewing.

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Good for her, because there is absolutely nothing wrong with frocks,

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or programmes about frocks, per se.

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The history of fashion and of the minutiae of life,

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broader social histories, are a vital part of the human story.

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But that male-preponderance, and, then dare I say, stereotyping,

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does beg the question,

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is there a danger that TV history can close, rather than open minds?

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Does it sometimes deny historiai and ghosti?

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Because I just have to tell you something. Researching this lecture

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I asked the kind people at the BBC to pinpoint exactly when

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a female historian was first allowed to present a BBC history series.

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We looked right through the archive from the '50s onwards.

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There were some excellent single programmes,

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but no substantial, long-running documentaries

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presented by a historian who was also a female of the species.

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Until, finally, in February 2000, Breaking The Seal was aired

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on BBC Two presented by Bettany Hughes.

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Now, I include that factoid not, I promise you, with self-referential

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triumphalism, but simply because it is so staggering, so shocking, isn't it?

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I know the hurdles I had to leap over to be allowed on air.

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So my rallying cry to the TV industry is to remember TV should expand

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rather than contract society's horizons.

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It should break through the limits of the present.

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Don't just stick with the tried and tested, be ahead of the game.

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Because look at what's happening now.

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Female historians are, and not before time,

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being allowed on TV to present meaty stuff.

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The TV ecology is finally looking more representative, more mixed.

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In the last year, we've see bumper history series

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presented by Amanda Vickery, Lucy Worsley, Francesca Stavrakopoulou and Mary Beard.

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All on prime time, winning great audiences and critical acclaim.

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So, here is one mother of history.

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Mary Beard in last year's hit Pompeii.

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On a mission to investigate not just the deaths

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but the lives of the people of that traumatized city.

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And I hope she won't kill me, but I've chosen a clip where

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she is doing almost the frock thing, trying on jewellery,

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but bringing a whole lot more to it than the story of hats.

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This is really exciting for me, it's the first time I've ever touched

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any jewellery from Pompeii.

0:22:080:22:10

I'm going to be naughty and put the bracelet on,

0:22:100:22:12

and however cynical you are, no matter how much of a boring, old academic you are,

0:22:120:22:17

it's still exciting to wear a bracelet worn 2,000 years ago, and nothing will stop me

0:22:170:22:24

thinking that's exciting.

0:22:240:22:26

I think this is very attractive, actually.

0:22:290:22:32

Picking it up, you can feel instantly it's heavy, it's a solid bangle.

0:22:320:22:37

But what strikes you about it instantly, is it's so big.

0:22:370:22:41

It's not only women who wear bracelets, this could be men's jewellery,

0:22:410:22:45

for this big, hunking man.

0:22:450:22:47

That show attracted more than 3.5 million viewers.

0:22:490:22:52

It seems, at times,

0:22:520:22:54

the audience positively enjoys being lectured at by a woman!

0:22:540:22:59

I know one of the things that Mary was keen to do was not to lay

0:22:590:23:02

out a single, grand tablet of stone in her thesis,

0:23:020:23:06

but a number of smaller truths,

0:23:060:23:08

if you like, to experience her way towards historical authenticity.

0:23:080:23:12

And this approach chimes with my second challenge to

0:23:120:23:15

the TV of the future to remember that when TV history is produced,

0:23:150:23:20

the budget should ultimately not just hang on to historiography's coattails,

0:23:200:23:25

but fund an advance in historical discovery itself.

0:23:250:23:29

TV should be an active agent in the historical process.

0:23:300:23:34

The resources available to the medium, the technologies used

0:23:340:23:37

and the sheer brain-time spent in TV production,

0:23:370:23:41

should encourage TV to sponsor discoveries,

0:23:410:23:43

to interrogate the past in a way that yields new historical truths.

0:23:430:23:48

One way of doing this is to encourage men and women

0:23:480:23:52

to be in two times at once.

0:23:520:23:53

Its so-called living history.

0:23:540:23:57

Channel Four had a big hit with The 1900 House

0:23:570:24:00

and others eagerly picked up the baton.

0:24:000:24:03

From Victorian Farm to Rome Wasn't Built In A Day,

0:24:030:24:06

all have given us history as reality TV.

0:24:060:24:09

We think of these as vogueishly modern formats,

0:24:110:24:14

but TV caught the reality bug back in the 1970s,

0:24:140:24:19

with a bit of free-love nudity thrown in for good measure.

0:24:190:24:22

Living In The Past was an experiment in reconstructing an ancient way of life.

0:24:330:24:36

For one entire year, a group of 12 young people and three small children

0:24:360:24:40

first built, then lived and worked on a replica of an ancient British farm,

0:24:400:24:45

cut off from the modern world.

0:24:450:24:47

They didn't attempt to become ancient Britons, that was obviously impossible.

0:24:470:24:52

But for the whole year, they wore, or didn't wear, the same kind of clothes,

0:24:520:24:55

lived in the same kind of buildings, raised the same crops and livestock and use the same tools

0:24:550:25:01

which archaeologists and historians tell us were used more than 2,000 years ago in the Iron Age.

0:25:010:25:07

A year on an Iron Age farm! I like history but I have to say,

0:25:090:25:12

rather them than me!

0:25:120:25:13

Well-made experiential history clearly has enduring appeal.

0:25:150:25:19

The great Roman orator Cicero declared, "History is

0:25:190:25:23

"the witness that testifies to the passing of time.

0:25:230:25:26

"It illuminates reality, vitalizes memory and provides guidance in daily life."

0:25:260:25:33

Which perhaps in part explains why TV history succeeds when transparently,

0:25:330:25:39

on the screen, people are shown working their way through the past

0:25:390:25:43

to understand more about the lives of their ancestors and their own.

0:25:430:25:47

But living history isn't, of course, the be all and end all

0:25:470:25:50

of on-screen historical discovery.

0:25:500:25:53

Although for 60 years, TV and academia

0:25:530:25:56

have frequently elected to speak different languages,

0:25:560:26:00

now there's a lingua franca,

0:26:000:26:02

in the form of scientific exploration and digital technology.

0:26:020:26:06

Satellite imaging, holograms,

0:26:060:26:09

MRI scans of artefacts and bones, RED technology

0:26:090:26:13

computer generated imagery, forensics like DNA testing.

0:26:130:26:16

All techniques now used extensively by academics and media executives.

0:26:160:26:23

Rather than being uncomfortable bed partners,

0:26:230:26:26

the union between techno-savvy history and TV

0:26:260:26:29

can be very productive.

0:26:290:26:31

Here are two fantastic examples from this year.

0:26:310:26:35

Back From The Dead: Nelson's Navy, made by Channel 4,

0:26:350:26:39

and Egypt's Lost Cities on BBC One.

0:26:390:26:43

Channel 4 collaborated with bone experts

0:26:430:26:45

to bring the dead back to life,

0:26:450:26:47

while the BBC used satellite space imagery

0:26:470:26:50

to track archaeological remains lost deep underground.

0:26:500:26:54

And the results are genuinely ground-breaking.

0:26:540:26:59

What I found so remarkable

0:27:010:27:03

in the skeleton

0:27:030:27:04

was when we examined the jaw.

0:27:040:27:07

When we look at the normal side, we see a nice, square angle.

0:27:070:27:11

When we look at the other side,

0:27:110:27:14

the angle of the jaw has become very reduced in size,

0:27:140:27:17

and very abnormally shaped.

0:27:170:27:19

This abnormality is the result of a savage cut wound.

0:27:190:27:23

This injury would have been caused by a vertical slash,

0:27:230:27:26

probably by a heavy blade like a cutlass or sword,

0:27:260:27:29

and this would be a vertical slicing down the face,

0:27:290:27:32

cutting through his cheekbone and cutting right through into his jaw.

0:27:320:27:36

Sarah is a pioneer in the new science of space archaeology.

0:27:410:27:45

What we've done is we've taken the high resolution space photographs,

0:27:450:27:52

and I've combined it with state of the art infrared technology

0:27:520:27:57

and, lo and behold, the map of a whole city.

0:27:570:28:03

-Holy sh...

-Cow!

-Cow!

0:28:030:28:07

It was very densely occupied.

0:28:110:28:13

-You can almost see hints of city streets.

-Yeah!

0:28:130:28:17

Elite housing.

0:28:170:28:19

You get almost like a complete architectural plan of the city.

0:28:190:28:22

All in all, using that NASA technique

0:28:240:28:26

originally developed for spying,

0:28:260:28:28

Dr Sarah Parcak discovered 17 potential new pyramids,

0:28:280:28:33

3,000 ancient settlements and 1,000 burial sites.

0:28:330:28:38

Other archaeological projects have now got access to this data.

0:28:380:28:42

So it is a genuine contribution to history.

0:28:420:28:45

As a first principle of TV-making, history, it's clear,

0:28:450:28:49

should be discovered not just via TV, but thanks to TV.

0:28:490:28:54

And this isn't valuable just because it's all quite interesting stuff.

0:28:540:28:59

Today, we are bombarded with news stories,

0:28:590:29:03

high-octane versions of current affairs

0:29:030:29:05

and the reports of citizen journalists 24/7.

0:29:050:29:08

Voltaire called history a "tableau of crimes,

0:29:080:29:12

"follies and misfortunes",

0:29:120:29:14

and he could have been describing some of today's news channels

0:29:140:29:17

and web offerings.

0:29:170:29:18

Well, I reckon the TV industry has a duty to fight fire with fire.

0:29:180:29:24

As news departments soak up the latest equipment,

0:29:240:29:28

vast budgets and escalating TV hours,

0:29:280:29:30

we surely have to invest in TV histories to help comprehend

0:29:300:29:35

the back story of what we are seeing played out in front of us.

0:29:350:29:39

To learn not just the what, but the how and the why.

0:29:390:29:44

The events of 9/11, the crash of 2008 have forced us to realise

0:29:440:29:49

we can't take a steady lifetime of predictable events for granted.

0:29:490:29:54

We have to wise up, to understand why bad things happen,

0:29:540:29:58

to explore the shared foundations

0:29:580:30:00

of our increasingly internationalist lives,

0:30:000:30:03

sometimes so we can shore up the cracks

0:30:030:30:06

before the whole edifice comes tumbling down.

0:30:060:30:09

Now, some politicians have already realised the value of doing this.

0:30:090:30:14

Let's hear from Boris,

0:30:150:30:18

the man who puts the polis back into political comment.

0:30:180:30:22

And here he zones in on the Crusades

0:30:220:30:24

to explode some myths about the so-called Clash of Civilisations.

0:30:240:30:29

In November 1095,

0:30:320:30:35

Pope Urban II made the single most provocative speech of all time.

0:30:350:30:39

He called for a crusade,

0:30:390:30:41

a campaign to speed up the second coming of Christ,

0:30:410:30:44

by recapturing the holy places where Jesus had died on the cross

0:30:440:30:48

and wrestling them from Muslim control.

0:30:480:30:51

Pope Urban thereby launched two centuries of intermittent mayhem

0:30:570:31:01

featuring greed, treachery, sadism and religious mania,

0:31:010:31:05

and he created a symbol of Western aggression in the Middle East,

0:31:050:31:10

a symbol so potent

0:31:100:31:11

that some Muslims believe the Crusades have never actually ended.

0:31:110:31:16

And that's why we need to understand that bizarre conflict.

0:31:160:31:21

The massacres, the cannibalism, the blood that flowed down these streets,

0:31:210:31:26

if we are to understand how it is that the word "crusade"

0:31:260:31:30

still contaminates the Muslim idea of the West and of Western intentions.

0:31:300:31:37

Without this kind of long-view analysis of current affairs,

0:31:390:31:43

there is a terrible danger of living in

0:31:430:31:45

what the historian Eric Hobsbawn described as

0:31:450:31:49

a sort of permanent present.

0:31:490:31:51

If you ignore the laws of cause and effect,

0:31:510:31:54

laws which form the foundation of historical enquiry,

0:31:540:31:58

you end up high on the rarefied air of the here and now.

0:31:580:32:03

The recent riots brought that home to all of us.

0:32:030:32:06

Looting, violence and destruction

0:32:060:32:10

seemed a valid route to a new pair of trainers.

0:32:100:32:14

The bloodstains of one of the riot's casualties

0:32:140:32:17

still mark the pavement at the top of my road.

0:32:170:32:21

It's a reminder of how quickly,

0:32:210:32:23

without any sense of the consequences of our actions,

0:32:230:32:26

society can descend into barbarity.

0:32:260:32:28

TV is often blamed for de-sensitising the next generation,

0:32:280:32:34

but how great would it be if TV history could re-sensitise,

0:32:340:32:40

could steer us away from that permanent present

0:32:400:32:44

that Hobsbawn cautioned against?

0:32:440:32:46

History's job is not just to catalogue the world,

0:32:460:32:50

but to try to comprehend it.

0:32:500:32:51

One of Herodotus' fellow countrymen,

0:32:510:32:55

Dionysius of Halicarnassos,

0:32:550:32:57

maintained that history is philosophy.

0:32:570:33:00

Teaching by example.

0:33:000:33:03

And I agree.

0:33:030:33:05

History can and should act as a moral agent.

0:33:050:33:10

So, my last plea for the night.

0:33:100:33:13

It seems axiomatic that a knowledge of the past

0:33:130:33:16

can foster a more acute understanding of the present

0:33:160:33:19

and of the future.

0:33:190:33:21

In fact, this is physiologically proven.

0:33:210:33:24

We store memory across our brains and reconstruct the past creatively.

0:33:240:33:29

Memory is, neurologically, a foundation for future thinking.

0:33:290:33:36

History exists, because history reminds us

0:33:360:33:40

to remember to think better.

0:33:400:33:43

There's also an interesting linguistic seam to follow here, too.

0:33:440:33:48

The word "historie", enquiry, stems from the word "histor",

0:33:480:33:52

a wise man or a judge,

0:33:520:33:54

and that in turn has its roots in Indo-European "widtor".

0:33:540:33:58

"Wid", to know, to see, to understand,

0:33:580:34:01

and "tor", the agent of the knowing, seeing and understanding.

0:34:010:34:05

This gives us our words "vision", "video",

0:34:050:34:08

"visual" and, of course, "television".

0:34:080:34:10

Linguistically, a historian and a televisual demonstration

0:34:100:34:15

of well-judged ideas are one and the same thing.

0:34:150:34:19

Early historians chose to tell tales that mattered,

0:34:190:34:23

stories from which whole communities could learn something.

0:34:230:34:28

So too TV history should put material out

0:34:280:34:31

into the shared public space that makes a difference.

0:34:310:34:35

Recently in a programme

0:34:350:34:37

where I looked at the history of the idea of forgiveness

0:34:370:34:40

over two millennia,

0:34:400:34:41

I discovered that this particular word idea

0:34:410:34:43

could have tangible benefits for society,

0:34:430:34:46

that a praxis of forgiveness

0:34:460:34:48

has in fact been essential to our health and survival.

0:34:480:34:53

It was a thought that was driven home hard when I went to New York,

0:34:530:34:56

to meet the widow of Tom McGuinness,

0:34:560:34:59

the pilot of the first plane that was flown into the Twin Towers.

0:34:590:35:03

Despite massive criticism from her compatriots,

0:35:030:35:08

Cheryl has chosen not to forget what happened,

0:35:080:35:12

but to forgive the men who killed her husband.

0:35:120:35:15

This is just a very brief moment at the end of that interview

0:35:150:35:18

down at Ground Zero.

0:35:180:35:19

I know that this is only the second time that you've come back here,

0:35:240:35:28

and I can only imagine how hard it must be for you.

0:35:280:35:31

It's difficult. Quite frankly, it takes me right back to that day,

0:35:310:35:37

and I just remember it so vividly still, especially being right here.

0:35:370:35:42

What you hear sometimes is people saying if you don't forgive,

0:35:420:35:47

if you just seek vengeance, then you're always trapped in the past.

0:35:470:35:51

I think that's absolutely true.

0:35:510:35:54

I think you need to forgive to be able to move forward in your life.

0:35:540:35:57

Forgiveness does have a point.

0:36:010:36:04

It's more than just an ideal or a comforting idea.

0:36:040:36:08

It's a dynamo that has real power to change lives,

0:36:080:36:11

and so forgiveness is all that we have

0:36:110:36:14

to break the cycle of retribution and vengeance

0:36:140:36:18

that I see in play from the beginning of history itself.

0:36:180:36:21

A cycle which, if it's taken to its logical conclusion,

0:36:210:36:24

can only result in a zero-sum endgame for all of us.

0:36:240:36:30

Forgiveness is a gift.

0:36:300:36:32

It allows us to move on and to let go.

0:36:320:36:36

Understanding another's pain

0:36:430:36:45

is one of the most humanising acts our species can engage in.

0:36:450:36:49

History allows us to empathise with men and women

0:36:490:36:53

from other parts of the world and across time.

0:36:530:36:55

It's one of the reasons I think TV history

0:36:550:36:59

is not just an optional extra,

0:36:590:37:01

not just the icing on the cake, a bit part in human culture,

0:37:010:37:06

but has a vital job to do, as a tool to help us live our lives well.

0:37:060:37:12

In the course of this lecture,

0:37:120:37:14

I've explored the huge potential for history on TV.

0:37:140:37:18

I've shown how TV history is at its best

0:37:180:37:21

when it remains true to its ancient roots,

0:37:210:37:23

while keeping a weather-eye on the future,

0:37:230:37:25

embracing cutting edge technology and science

0:37:250:37:28

and engaging with contemporary issues.

0:37:280:37:31

It's something we're more confident about doing now,

0:37:310:37:34

which is why I think TV history is enjoying such a rich renaissance.

0:37:340:37:39

But we can go further.

0:37:390:37:42

Like the prehistoric concept of ghosti,

0:37:420:37:44

which encouraged men and women to expand their own horizons,

0:37:440:37:48

intellectual, material and physical,

0:37:480:37:51

so TV history should encourage the viewer to step over battle-lines,

0:37:510:37:55

across national borders and beyond the ring-fences of ignorance,

0:37:550:37:59

prejudice and xenophobia.

0:37:590:38:02

Just before I finish,

0:38:020:38:04

I forgot to mention that pesky producer's parting shot.

0:38:040:38:10

I'd ended our meeting by mumbling something about good history

0:38:100:38:13

being essential to nourish the next generation.

0:38:130:38:16

And as I walked, dejected, out of the door, he called out,

0:38:160:38:20

"We don't want missionaries in this business."

0:38:200:38:24

Well, I think, in one sense, we do.

0:38:240:38:28

We want historians on TV who have a mission to discover

0:38:280:38:32

and to understand, together with the viewer.

0:38:320:38:35

That producer's lack of vision can perhaps be forgiven,

0:38:350:38:38

because in the 1990s, history was struggling.

0:38:380:38:42

But his scepticism proved him to be of his age and not ahead of it,

0:38:420:38:47

and that, in itself, is anti-historical.

0:38:470:38:51

The very purpose of history is to allow us to look, confidently,

0:38:510:38:54

to the future.

0:38:540:38:56

As these young revolutionaries in Tahrir Square reminded us.

0:38:560:39:00

It was uninhibited, raucous joy.

0:39:060:39:09

We've been here every single day,

0:39:090:39:11

and today we brought our son to see this historic moment.

0:39:110:39:14

He will read about this in books when he grows up.

0:39:140:39:16

The fall of President Mubarak

0:39:200:39:22

is a moment of great historical significance,

0:39:220:39:25

not just for Egypt, but for this entire region.

0:39:250:39:27

In just over two weeks, the people have taken on a brutal police state

0:39:270:39:32

and overthrown an authoritarian leader who appeared to be in control.

0:39:320:39:37

Their achievement will change the Middle East.

0:39:370:39:41

History derives from the word for a wise agent.

0:39:420:39:46

We need to keep TV history smart, vigorous and forward-thinking.

0:39:460:39:52

As creatures of memory, we should cherish our discipline

0:39:520:39:56

in its increasingly democratic, digital form,

0:39:560:39:59

because televisual communication, doesn't just relate history.

0:39:590:40:04

Now, it can make history too.

0:40:040:40:08

Thank you.

0:40:080:40:10

Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd

0:40:400:40:42

E-mail [email protected]

0:40:420:40:44

Bettany Hughes uses the 2011 Huw Wheldon Memorial Lecture to argue that history on television is thriving and enjoying a new golden age. She explores why programme makers should look to the ancients for inspiration, how television can become an active player in the historical process itself and why people are looking to the past to help navigate a complex modern world.


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