TV History Documentaries… Anything New?

Lucy Worsley’s recent documentary, Six Wives with Lucy Worsley, premiered on BBC 1 in December 2016. Personally, I was eager to tune in not only because I love the Tudor’s but I enjoy Worsley’s documentaries. Who would not love to dress up in historical costumes in beautiful settings? However, despite the opening promising that these documentaries would be different and reveal new aspects to the personalities of the six wives of Henry VIII, this was contrary to what I felt was presented.

The first episode focused upon the life of Catherine of Aragon and it was soon clear that once again, Catherine and Anne Boleyn would be the main focus of this series and that the other four wives would be quickly acknowledged but not really expanded upon. In the first episode, apart from looking at a gorgeous roll detailing the joust in celebration of the birth of Henry and Catherine’s first born son, I felt that what was presented was nothing new about Catherine. I never saw her as an ‘angry woman’ that Worsley says is commonly accepted.[1] In fact, my view of Catherine was precisely what was shown in the episode – a ‘steadfast and popular queen’.[2] Thus I argue nothing new at all. The second episode focused in on Anne with some time towards the end dedicated to Jane Seymour. Once again, I felt that there was nothing ground breaking or new being put forward. The only episode which I felt that I truly learnt something was in the final episode which focused on the latter three wives: Anne of Cleeves, Catherine Howard and Catherine Parr.

I know that I may not be representative of the average viewer of the programme having graduated in History with a First and having loved this period since I was a little girl. However, I still enjoy these documentaries and want to watch them as do, I’m sure, others in my situation. In fact, I argue that the majority of people who sat down to watch this documentary did have an interest and some background knowledge about the Tudors. That is the hook for many people; they enjoy the period and want to learn more. However what was presented, for the most part, was nothing ground breaking or new. It was just seemingly trying to overturn casual stereotypes that people have about these wives.

Bar being disappointed in the documentary as a whole, I was willing to just have my private little grumble to my boyfriend and moan about how I would like more hard hitting, adult history addressing new topics. However, newspaper articles came to my attention talking about this documentary and using it as a larger example of history documentaries as being outdated and needing change. As someone who not only loves documentaries and wanting to learn about anything and everything, I am also deeply interested in public history (something which is shown through my wish to enter into the heritage, museum and archive career). These articles made me think more about documentaries as a format. Thus this inspired me to write this blog post.

Early documentaries and what are documentaries aims?

When considering early documentaries, The Great War series (1964) and A. J. P. Taylor’s lectures are good examples. The Great War series was revolutionary in using military historians to write the scripts.[3] Taylor’s lectures was literally just himself stood in front of a camera talking about a topic for thirty minutes; however he ended up becoming a household names.[4] The Great War series is of particular interest because it was written by historians and consequently influenced by opinions and research on the topic. John Terraine took up a contrary position to Basil Liddell-Hart (much to his anger), and used the thirteenth episode, ‘The Devil is Coming’, to portray the Somme in a different light to what was seen in popular culture at the time (e.g. Oh What a Lovely War).[5] Terraine did not make Haig out to be a butcher and a German point of view was put forward with Germans wishing for peace.[6] People did complain about the way that this sensitive battle had been presented but I believe it shows us that in the 60s, there was a view that documentaries could be a place to put forward different perspectives and to challenge the status quo.[7]

However, this is being idealistic and neglecting what did happen. Terraine’s script was considered too ‘academic’ and the producer seemed to want to go down a more emotional route through the use of poetry (not the most reliable, sound historical source but still somewhat useful).[8] This is the first issue and hint as to what documentaries aim to do. They have to attract an audience and be entertaining. Despite the success of Taylor’s university type lectures, that format was not really continued. This emotional ideal is transposed 50 or so years later within Worsley’s documentary. She visited the graves of some of Henry’s wives and after announcing their death, a black screen with their name, dates and how long they had been married to Henry appeared on screen.[9] Very poignant but also creating an emotional atmosphere. Thus, we see a longevity within this idea and hence I argue, one of a documentary’s aims is to emotionally involve you within the story in order to engage you and keep you watching. It is almost like documentaries, with their acted scenes, are always part drama because one person talking about a topic would not be considered interesting enough.

A second hint is stated by Badsey:

‘there must be one version of history, and usually it must be the one that is closest to accepted popular myth. Historians have been allowed to present controversy only as a ‘personal view’ and never in a major series’.[10]

The controversy that came about in the Great War series was because Terraine was going against perceived views about the war (ones that were held deeply by the population). However, this idea of having a set history is again represented by Six Wives. Boldly claiming that she was going against these held views, I feel, ultimately, Worsley failed in doing so in the first two episodes.[11] The stereotype of Henry VIII wanting a son and the turbulent years of the late 1520s/ 1530s were hammered home again in this documentary. I’m confident that most people know this and I am increasingly irked whenever these are repeated again and again. The reason as to why the last episode escaped is because I do feel that it did a good job in arguing against common perceptions. ‘Popular myth’ seeps into other documentaries or history based programmes. Horrible Histories, wanting to teach ‘stuff they don’t teach you at school’, in the majority of aspects, puts forward a very stereotypical view of each period it covers.[12] But we have to ask ourselves, is this the right format to be debating the status quo? After all, most people watch TV to relax and do not want anything strenuous and too confusing. Moreover, one may argue that this form of history is good for people who are not familiar with the period and can use it as a stepping stone to further learning. These are all fair points and ones that I do agree with. I will put on a documentary when I am tired. I will put on one about a topic I have no great knowledge in. But what I cannot agree with is this idea that documentaries aim to just present the ‘facts’ when both the Great War series and Worsley’s documentary aim to counter these myths and present a new, truer if you will, version of history. I feel that documentaries tend to present facts in a way that is inviting to beginners and for people watching for entertainment purpose. They may sometimes try and challenge well held beliefs, but it is done in a way which feels like they are just presenting facts so as to be not so heavy for the audience. As a result, like Worsley’s documentary, it may end up with common knowledge just being repeated.

Consequently, I feel that documentaries seem to want to entertain and involve us emotionally in a story in order to keep us watching but that there is, because of the format that it is in, little attempt to move away from common knowledge as a result. Six Wives was a prime time show claiming to tell a new history but personally, it was just a repeat of previous documentaries on the same subject such as those done by David Starkey. Is this pandering to what the audience wants to see? Is it a fear of making programmes engaging for all? Does this mean that documentaries will always be restrained by the shackles of the format and audience and consequently never really put forward anything new?

Documentaries moving forwards?

The answer is no. Despite journalists calling proclaiming that TV history was history, I believe that there have been some good documentaries which do entertain but also inform.[13] But I do feel that moving forward, we do need a ‘revolution’ and shake up to production.[14] From reading these journalists, one would have thought that Worsley’s documentary was reflective of all others out there but this is not the case.

Firstly, there have been good documentaries which I feel have achieved what is mentioned above and yet included debate and new things. One was The Last Days of Anne Boleyn.[15] This had historians such as David Starkey and authors like Hillary Mantel arguing against each other and debating the theories as to why Anne fell. Each put forward their beliefs and historiographical schools of thought were present in the three main ideas of a deformed child, courtly factions and Anne’s guilt. Sadly, this format does not seem to have repeated itself, but it was such a fantastic documentary and showed that this kind of historical debate could be achieved and done well within this format. It did not take the viewer for a beginner and presented facts alongside opinions in a way that let the viewer decide for themselves. This is noticeably lacking in a lot of documentaries like Worsley’s as we, the audience, are told the facts and how the presenter has interpreted them with little hint that there are other ways of viewing events.

Moving forward, a simpler change that could be made to documentaries is doing something different. Golby moans how ‘we’ve basically pecked the carcass clean of all the meat’ and Rees goes further saying that TV and the Tudors should go their separate ways.[16] However neither of these scenarios are true or should happen. With reference to Rees, the Tudors are a fascinating period but what we see on our TV screen is very focused around Henry VIII or Elizabeth. This is repeated time and time again and as I have already said, Worsley’s documentary is practically a repeat of the one done by David Starkey in 2001.[17] Lay correctly points out that there are new things we can learn.[18] A documentary on William Tynadale, who wrote the Bible in English, entitled The Most Dangerous Man in Britain, detailed the life of such a controversial figure who is relatively unknown by people today.[19] But this is not confined to the Tudors and expanding upon Golby’s lament, just the other day, I watched a Lucy Worsley documentary about a young Mozart which was niche and interesting.[20]  There are many others I could name. However, I argue that what Golby and Rees are describing is misleading and not quite true. We have done certain topics to death like the six wives of Henry VIII but there are new aspects that could be explored in some many different time periods.

Documentaries about little known or underappreciated topics, are the way forward I argue. If the kind of debate seen within The Last Days of Anne Boleyn has not been copied and thus perceived to not suit this format well, then perhaps new life could be breathed into documentaries by doing topics that no one has done before or on ones that get little attention. The ones that I mentioned above I found so interesting and, although I know that sticks to the ‘present the facts’ formula, it made me as a viewer want to go and know more. Thus the documentary as a format achieves an aim of being entertaining and informative but at the same time, brings something fresh which may spark an interest and thus encourage further reading. Through this, one can engage in larger historiographical debates.

If someone really does want to make a documentary about a topic done so often then perhaps taking a different approach would achieve a similar aim to above. Worsley’s mistake, I feel and as I have shown, was presenting the same old facts. Although she may have filmed in new places like the Vatican, it was still focused on Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn and consequently, letting the others have about fifteen to twenty minutes screen time each.[21] What would have made the documentary stand out would have perhaps been focusing on the latter three wives or even just one. Worsley had some interesting views on Catherine Howard. It would have been so interesting to see a full hour of Worsley delving deeper into Howard’s history, looking at more primary sources and perhaps bring in some of the debate around her. This would incorporate all that I have talked about above and I feel would still be an entertaining programme for all.

Conclusion

I understand that there have been and will be constraints on documentaries as a format. They have to appeal to a mass audience and hence why challenges to the status quo never really come to fruition and basic facts are re-laid to us. While this may be frustrating to some, I believe documentaries are a place where historical ‘fact’ can be challenged and this thought links us all the way back to Terraine in the 60s. This idea was perceived at the very beginning of documentaries as a format and it has been adjusted and shown in modern day through The Last Days of Anne Boleyn. Moreover, I have shown how it can be woven into current presentation means used in documentaries with my Catherine Howard example. However, the reason why I believe Worsley is unfairly taking the brunt of the criticism for historical documentaries of today is because she presented something which was not original. This is not to say that some of the things inside her documentary were not unique, but the premise itself had been done many times before. I really feel that the first steps that documentaries should take is to start focusing on unique, untouched aspects of history. There are some out there and they do allow a fantastic way for those with little knowledge in a period to become acquainted with it. By doing this, it would help to silence some of the critics whom we have seen write off this medium as defunct. They may not be the historiographical debate that I would love to see, but they would definitely fit the medium and audience they are being presented to, whilst still being fresh.

Bibliography

Primary

Secondary

[1] ‘Six Wives with Lucy Worsley’, BBC, (UK, 7th December 2016).

[2] Ibid.

[3] S. Badsey, ‘The Great War since The Great War’, Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, 22:1 (2002), p. 39.

[4] James Snell, ‘Historical television retains tremendous power, potency, and great potential for educating and entertaining millions’, History Today, 25th November 2015, <http://www.historytoday.com/james-snell/defence-history-tv&gt; [accessed 3/1/2017].

[5] Mark Connelly, ‘The Great War, part 13: The Devil is Coming’, Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, 22/1 (2002), p. 21

[6] Ibid. P. 26. John Terraine, ‘Episode. 13: The Devil is Coming’, The Great War, BBC, (1964).

[7] Connelly, ‘The Great War’, p. 26.

[8] Ibid. p. 22.

[9] ‘Six Wives with Lucy Worsley’, BBC.

[10] Badsey, ‘The Great War’, p. 40.

[11] ‘Six Wives with Lucy Worsley’, BBC.

[12] I did a presentation at University about Horrible Histories and its presentation of the First World War in which I argue that a typical Lions led by Donkey view. This is a view that has gripped popular culture since the 60s and looks like it will continue as this view of the war will be picked up and viewed as fact by children into adulthood and beyond unless they are told otherwise. Charlotte Daynton, Presentation for Module HI6029, The University of Kent, 2016.

[13] Examples are: Paul Lay, ‘History on television is long overdue a radical rethink’, History Today, 14th December 2016, <http://www.historytoday.com/paul-lay/television-history-and-its-discontents&gt; [accessed 3/1/2017]; Jasper Rees, ‘It’s time six wives with Lucy Worseley was taken to the Tower – review’, The Telegraph, 14th December 2016, <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/tv/2016/12/14/time-six-wives-lucy-worsley-taken-tower-review/&gt; [accessed 3/1/2017].

[14] Lay, ‘History on Television’.

[15] ‘The Last Days of Anne Boleyn’, BBC, < http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p015vhp1&gt; [accessed 3/1/2017].

[16] Joel Golby, ‘Six Wives with Lucy Worsley: why TV history shows are for the chop’, The Guardian, 7th December 2016, <https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2016/dec/07/six-wives-with-lucy-worsley-henry-viii-history&gt; [accessed 3/1/2017]; Rees, ‘It’s time’.

[17] ‘The Six Wives of Henry VIII’, IMDB, < http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0358884/&gt; [accessed 3/1/2017]

[18] Lay, ‘History on Television’.

[19] ‘The Most Dangerous Man in Tudor England’, BBC, < http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p0185y5g&gt; [accessed 3/1/2017].

[20] ‘Lucy Worsley: Mozart’s London Odyssey’, BBC, < http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p0185y5g&gt; [accessed 3/1/2017].

[21] This is in stark contrast to a confused comment that seems to argue the opposite. Found in response to Gerard O’Donovan, ‘Six Wives with Lucy Worsley shows an engagingly different side to Henry VIII’s wives Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn: Review’, The Telegraph, 7th December 2016, <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/tv/2016/12/07/six-wives-lucy-worsley-shows-engagingly-different-side-henry/&gt; [accessed 3/1/2017].

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