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Television is not as easy as you might think

Henry Elkins steps in to defend Jeremy Paxman

The worlds of academia and television are wary bedfellows, especially when it comes to the subject of history. Both are full of individuals with strong, not to say strident, opinions and ‘dog eat dog’ competitive attitudes.

They say a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. I know a modest amount about the First World War and I readily admit – borrowing from a Churchill comment upon Clement Atlee – that I have much to be modest about.

Nevertheless, from my position of superficial empowerment, I had approached the published programme of events marking this year’s centenary of its commencement with a sense of combined fascination and trepidation. Accordingly, my attitude towards anyone attempting a television series on something as momentous as the First World War is admiration and sympathy.

Fellow television presenters with an interest in the subject, never mind sundry academics, are as likely as not to be somewhat sniffy about it – partly because, however well it is covered and produced, it is necessarily going to ‘condense’ the detailed facts and generalise the story; and partly because, sitting at home watching it being broadcast, to one degree or another they are inevitably going to convince themselves that, given a similar opportunity, they could have done better.

We are now three weeks, and episodes, into Jeremy Paxman’s Monday night series Britain’s Great War. Here’s a review by David Blair, as featured on the website of the Daily Telegraph today – BRITAIN’S GREAT WAR

I’m much more forgiving of Paxman than Mr Blair. For whatever its faults and omissions, I’m enjoying this series, with its mix of serious narrative and occasional well-chosen human interest stories.

Mr Blair and his ilk forget that academia and television are two very different disciplines. I’m sure there are hundreds of eminent university professors and authors who could produce better ‘histories’ of the First World War than Jeremy Paxman.

However, I’d be happy to suggest that very few of them could do so within the constraints inevitably imposed by a vehicle of just four 60 minute episodes.

Or – to put it another way – I suspect that, nine times out of ten, I’d far rather watch a television series on the First World War presented by Jeremy Paxman than one presented any number of academics and critics.

My point is that ‘good’ history, however that might be defined, doesn’t automatically make for good television.

By the same token, of course, good television won’t always represent good history.

However, if for these purposes these two are mutually exclusive, frankly I’d prefer to watch good television – rather than good history – on the screen in the corner of my room, thank you very much.

I can always read good history at my leisure.

 

About Henry Elkins

A keen researcher of family ancestors, Henry will be reporting on the centenary of World War One. More Posts