Publication Date

April 1, 1999

On reflection, perhaps Mickey Mantle's upscale burger joint on Central Park South wasn't the best place for the BBC producer to talk me into writing a television history of Britain. The Venerable Bede, the Cromwells (Thomas and Oliver), and Mrs. Pankhurst all felt a long, long way away and so did I. Flattered, but unpersuaded that I was the right person for the job, I tried to point out this distance to the producer, Janice Hadlow, herself a historian by training, who had gone into making television documentaries instead of the academic job market. My unsuitability, I thought, and said, could hardly be more glaring. I had lived in the United States nearly 20 years. I had hardly written or published anything on British history. On the other hand I thought the idea of a major series on British history was terrific. It was extraordinary, really, that there had been a series on American history, on the history of British art, and countless excellent documentaries on various aspects of British history, but no single attempt to tell the whole story, Boudicca to Blair. (Later, I would find out why.) It was such a good idea that I compiled a long list of colleagues and fellow-writers who I felt would be perfect for the assignment. And the best of British luck, I privately thought.

Two years later, and with the series well under way, or so I assumed, the producer flew back to New York and repeated the offer—this time in tandem with the head of one of the two BBC television stations. I repeated my obvious disqualifications, to which I added the fact that I wanted to spend urgent time finishing an already long-delayed book about Rembrandt and Rubens. I also had written and presented enough history and art history documentaries for the BBC to have a healthy respect for the grinding labor involved, both before production got under way and on the shoot itself. So I was about to make another round of polite excuses, when it became obvious that the reasons I was giving myself for not tackling the daunting, ambitious enterprise—my remoteness from academic British history and its ongoing debates and disputes, my Atlantic perspective, and my immersion for years in visual sources—were precisely the reasons why I was being approached in the first place. The producer was flirting with a colossal gamble—that my own rediscovery of British history (which I had, admittedly, taught at Cambridge and Oxford for 10 years between 1966 and 1976) would compensate for my obvious lack of scholarly credentials. This was a gamble so breathtakingly reckless as to be well nigh irresistible. "Think of it as a homecoming," she said.

I was not yet at "yes." If an eight-part series had been proposed, I might have agreed then and there. But it was obviously impossible to do anything like justice to British—not English—history in eight hours. This would be 16 hours; still not enough time to do the immense subject justice, even at a popular level, but more than enough time to finish off even the most motivated and energetic writer-presenter. On the other hand, as Janice Hadlow shrewdly pointed out, I seemed to have spent a good deal of my life as a historian brooding on national identities of one kind or another—Dutch, Zionist, French, German, and even, in an amateurish way, Polish. Unaccountably (except for the chapters on the Greenwood in Landscape and Memory) I seemed to be steering clear of Britain! And now was the time when all kinds of assumptions about the British past and future, about the cohesion or lack of it in the Disunited Kingdom were in play. Perhaps it might be possible to build a television history that would be something more than a Whiggish, Churchillian narrative devoted to England and the “rest,” but rather the story of the interaction of Scots, Irish, English, and Welsh, of the pain as well as the gain of the experience.

And then there was the embarrassing but incontrovertible fact (seized on by the producer for whom I was having growing respect with each encounter) that I was going around making proclamations about the need to make history truly popular; to get it out of the academy and into the schools; for historians to recover a sense of public vocation; to take part not just in conferences and seminars, but in exhibition projects, children's history-book writing andŠtelevision and film documentaries. Some years ago at a conference in Boston called "Telling the Story," I had been simultaneously impressed by the massed talent of both filmmakers and scholarly historians all committed to the work of popularizing good, challenging history, but equally depressed by how much time each community spent pointing out the shortcomings of the others. "It's nice but it ain't history," was the refrain of the academics. "It's scholarship but it won't do in a visual medium," was the response of the filmmakers. Even the likes of Ken and Ric Burns and Henry Hampton came in for some hard knocks. For that matter, I myself had some mild criticisms of the standard PBS history documentary (even when done supremely well—as for example, by the producers of The American Experience); in particular the almost formulaic dependence on an archive/talking head alternation, with a voice-over narration from some unseen omniscient presence. The effect, I’ve thought, was a striving for a kind of consensual inoffensiveness, leaving only the talking heads to supply the occasional note of eccentric nonconformity or dispute. Perhaps this muffling of the idiosyncratic voice, or the shamelessly subjective narration was the result of the laborious funding process with its relentless peer review scrutiny; perhaps it was a willed desire for scholarly balance or a concern for a “seamless” kind of visual storytelling. Either way the approach seems to me occasionally to take the sting out of history. And the enduring historical voices—Gibbon, Michelet, Bancroft, Braudel—have, I’ve thought, been stingers.

British television (like British culture) is more tolerant of outrageous eccentricity, less fearful of the subjective voice and the wayward interpretation; it likes to make those things part of the story. And so it has often made more room for author-driven documentaries, of the kind done brilliantly by Robert Hughes and Andrew Graham-Dixon (and tried here only in Robert Sterns's unapologetically polemical history of modern architecture). Under the guidance of brave and creative producers and directors, historians have been trusted with something more serious than the role of a talking head or the ubiquitous "consultant." They have been given the opportunity to be at the conceptual heart of the whole enterprise; to write full working scripts, to find locations, even make suggestions for shots; and become a partner in the cutting room. (All this presupposes, of course, the kind of historian willing to take the complexity and demands of that work seriously enough to spend time learning its specialized techniques and idioms.)

So here was the BBC offering me the time, the money, and the opportunity to work in a collaborative enterprise meant to generate a national public discussion about the historical meaning of British identity. It would be on film (super 16), not video. It would be the first documentary series expressly made for high-definition digital television. It would be tamed into versions specifically designed to be integrated into school curricula and for interactive discussion on the World Wide Web. It would tell its stories not just through texts, but buildings, paintings, landscapes, music, artifacts. Wasn't this precisely the kind of thing I had been imploring my colleagues to take seriously?

Of course, a year into production (and just three films shot) there have been chastening moments, not least when, in advance of the first shoot I was handed the "Hazard Assessment Sheet" produced by the BBC for all location crews. At left were the list of hazards to which the Presenter (me) was about to be exposed. These started with ''Falling over Cliffs" (as in White, Dover) and got worse, as in "Falling into Roman Bath—Risk: instant contamination with menococcal meningitis," or "Falling overboard from boat in rough Scottish and Irish waters." The general proposed remedy for virtually all of these was "take Presenter immediately to hospital" with the occasional additional recommendation of getting him to a stomach pump as speedily as possible. And you thought chairing a job search was rough?

And there have, in fact, been moments when the hubris of the whole project has made itself horribly evident, accompanied by hoarse whispers of "what the hell are you doing here?" as when, for instance, I found myself attempting to deliver lines at one in the morning in a Neolithic tomb (to which one crawled down a 30-foot tunnel on hands and knees) with the temperature around 35, or teetering on the stump of a classical pedestal over those richly meningitis-loaded waters at Bath, or lurching into a force 7 gale off Beachy Head, or attempting to make my teeth stop chattering long enough to say something about Hadrian's Wall, or mopping the blood from a hole in my shin where it had been attacked by a piece of stray masonry in Caen, or merely, of course, having to say the same lines eight times over in various positions and bitterly regretting one had written them at all.

And yet, there have also been moments of pure unlooked-for illumination: watching light trickle through the stained-glass window in Bede's church of St. Paul's Jarrow and fall on the abbot's chair; understanding the ascetic logic of Becket while standing amidst the snow-white columns of the Cistercian abbey of Pontigny where he built his "government" in exile; the gaudy Byzantine grandeur of the Angevins while looking at the serpentine decoration of the ruined columns of Rochester castle; the claustrophobic press of axes and swords within the scrubby little space that decided the destinies of England on Senlac Ridge in 1066.

So the producer was right. The experience has been a homecoming. Whether it will be worthwhile history is another matter. But all of us in this daunting, exhilarating enterprise will give it our best shot.

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