Beam Me Back, Scotty

Living history series - with their expert-authenticated clothing, period-specific living quarters and average Joe cast members - are breathing new life into history programming. The format, which blends serious research of the past with live action, is popular with TV viewers for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the 'you-are-there' immediacy more often ascribed to the likes of Big Brother and Survivor.
October 1, 2002

Living history series – with their expert-authenticated clothing, period-specific living quarters and average Joe cast members – are breathing new life into history programming. The format, which blends serious research of the past with live action, is popular with TV viewers for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the ‘you-are-there’ immediacy more often ascribed to the likes of Big Brother and Survivor. As a result, broadcasters such as PBS in the U.S., History Television in Canada and the U.K.’s Channel 4 are devoting more air time to living history shows. What makes them saleable is no secret – traditional history viewers like them, and so do new audiences. But, what it takes to produce these programs is more of a mystery.

The cost of living

The two primary ingredients in living history series are everyday people and historical accuracy, a sugar-and-spice balance that comes at a premium. In the History Television hit Pioneer Quest: A Year in the Real West, Winnipeg, Canada-based prodco Credo Entertainment paid CDN$25 (US$16) for a toothbrush that had the right hog’s bristles. During pre-production for Quest for the Bay, about life as an 1840s fur trader, Frantic Films, also of Winnipeg, ordered a boat builder to replace all of the caulking on a vessel, because it was from a different era than the one depicted in the show.

‘Living history is a bit like a duck swimming – it looks really smooth and elegant, but you can’t see all the effort that’s going on beneath it,’ observes Janice Hadlow, head of the specialist factual group at the U.K.’s Channel 4. Hadlow has been instrumental in living history success stories such as 1900 House, 1940s House and The Edwardian Country House, coproduced with London-based indie prodco Wall To Wall Television.

For The Edwardian Country House, a 6 x 60-minute series that has 19 volunteers visit the British Empire’s stiffly class-conscious social system of 100 years ago, Wall to Wall took over a 56-acre estate in Scotland for several months. Hadlow declines to give specific figures, but she concedes that this history program ‘is not cheap…the logistics of it are absolutely extraordinary.’ She continues, ‘If you take over a house the size of Manderston, where we did The Edwardian Country House, and you’re there for 12 weeks, you just don’t know [the costs]; it is very frightening.’

Says Sydney Suissa, the former senior vice president of programming for factual networks at Toronto, Canada-based Alliance Atlantis (and now VP of production at Toronto’s Barna-Alper Productions) who oversaw work on Pioneer Quest and Quest for the Bay, ‘You have no idea of the emergencies that come up, things that break, things that happen, extra shooting days that were not accounted for.’ Case in point: One of Pioneer Quest‘s participants, Tim Treadway, had to be helicoptered to hospital, suffering from an inflammation of the lining of the heart. (He recovered.)

Pioneer Quest challenged two couples to live for one year on an 1870s homestead on the Canadian Prairies. Faced with a large time frame, and all that can go wrong in that period, it’s very hard to accurately forecast a budget, says Suissa. ‘These are the kinds of shows that require really big contingencies because of the unknown elements.’

One way to keep expenses down is to turn to hobbyists and collectors, notes Richard Melman, head of programming for the History Channel in the U.K. ‘If you’re working with a good reenactment group the cost can be very reasonable,’ he says, adding that £100,000 ($153,000) is the approximate budget for a program like History U.K.’s Battle Stations, a war copro with Bristol, U.K.-based Flashback Television that leans heavily on the talents of reenactors and military collectors. ‘But if you’re doing a proper living history program, then the sky’s the limit.’

History U.K. increasingly uses the assistance of dressed-up hobbyists to provide both the factual accuracy and the entertaining spontaneity in its living history content, Melman says. For example, London-based Mallemaroking Productions’ Charging into History: Living Historians and the Study of the Past follows the mock battle that takes place each year at Kirby Hall, U.K.; participants spend as much as £26,000 ($40,000) of their own money to ensure their collections – their dress and weapons range from that of Roman Legionnaires to German panzer troops – are as accurate as possible, says Melman. Because the prodco made use of this resource, the budget for Charging was only £20,000 to £30,000 ($31,000 to $46,600).

Walk the walk, but bury the pig

The efforts to achieve authenticity may seem extreme, but they are effective in helping participants travel back in time. Hadlow notes that the cast of Edwardian Country House went so far as to remain in character when they knew the cameras weren’t rolling. She was surprised by how thoroughly they adopted their circa 1910 roles, even walking to church 10 kilometers away on a day off from shooting.

Still, critics aren’t convinced of the purity of the recreation. ‘We’ve always had the occasional comment’ about accuracy, Suissa acknowledges. ‘For instance, there was a fire in the first few months of Pioneer Quest and the homesteaders’ pig died. The pig was horribly burned, so they had to put it out of its misery and shot it. The people who were on the land felt so awful and it was just so horrible to them, they couldn’t bear to do anything else but to bury it. That’s a modern, urban sensibility,’ he says.

After the episode aired, armchair historians took issue with the burial. Suissa recalls: ‘A number of viewers wrote and said, ‘Well, I can tell you, the pioneers would not have wasted that pig. They would have rendered it and not let it go to waste.’ And they were absolutely right.’

But, the anxieties behind the camera pay off in the unscripted drama in front of it – the ingredient that sets the flavor of living history apart from the traditional doc brew of academic expert, archival footage and eyewitness account.

‘If I had tried to commission a doc on the pioneering experience in Canada, I would have had about three viewers,’ says Cindy Witten, VP of original production for factual and BBC Channels at Alliance Atlantis, the company that owns Canada’s History Television. ‘I can’t imagine a way to tell that story that would have been as engaging as living history,’ she says of Pioneer Quest.

The final episode drew 624,000 viewers on a Sunday night in June 2001, setting a record for History Television. Witten notes that living history programs touch a chord with more than ‘pure World War II history viewers,’ although that audience is on-board as well. ‘People love it,’ she says. ‘I think there is a lot of wind in those sails.’

As a result of their popularity, History Television has grown Pioneer Quest and its creative offspring – Quest for the Bay; Klondike: The Quest for Gold, about gold-mining in the 1890s; and the forthcoming Outport Quest (w/t), about economically indentured fishermen in 1920s Newfoundland – into a sub-genre of its own. Bay, like Pioneer, has already aired; Klondike will air in January 2003; and Outport is in pre-production. All (except for Pioneer) are produced by Frantic Films.

Cultural connection

Audiences in the U.S. are also flocking to living history, and in that rush are the steadfast viewers of history programs. John F. Wilson, the co-chief programming executive at Alexandria, U.S.-based PBS, says viewership data is unable to categorically separate out the veteran history-watcher from the newly converted. ‘But,’ he continues, ‘based on the fact that these programs attract good audiences – in terms of size – we have to assume that [living history] is taking what is a core PBS audience and bringing new viewers to it as well. And, I’ve not heard any objections: there hasn’t been any sort of outcry from viewers of ‘traditional’ historical documentaries that this is something they’re not interested in.’

PBS’s living history, or ‘observational documentary,’ entries include last spring’s Frontier House, which explores the settling of the U.S. West, and the recently announced Colonial House, which drops contemporary families into the 17th century to illuminate the world of America’s founding fathers (production is slated to begin in 2003). Both are coproductions with New York public channel Thirteen/WNET and Wall To Wall.

Part of what draws audiences to living history are stories that have national implications and settings that are culturally significant. Wilson explains, ‘I think there is a natural tendency to want to see yourself on TV, or at least people that you can identify with… Living history is about being able to experience – even vicariously – the past through the lives of modern-day people. It helps that you can relate to the modern-day people.’

Says Suissa, ‘The Klondike gold rush is one of [Canada's] myths and one of the great historical icons [Canadians] can hang their hats on. Evolving from fur traders is a huge part of Canada’s history, in terms of how the country was opened up,’ he says of Quest for the Bay. ‘To resonate, living history programs absolutely have to have this cultural and social root. It just would not work otherwise; people would not be as interested.’

Alliance Atlantis’ Witten agrees that familiarity fosters empathy for a show’s participants. ‘It’s so experiential… You’re seeing people with their hands covered in blisters, trying to plow this muddy field knowing those potatoes are probably never going to grow because it’s so wet,’ she says, recalling a scene in Pioneer Quest. ‘[Living history] brings it to life in a way the archives and the experts and the traditional doc storytelling doesn’t do.’

The appeal of living history may not be universal, however. Nikolas Huelbusch, head of documentary coproductions at Mainz, Germany-based pubcaster ZDF, observes, ‘The German market somehow isn’t mature enough for this kind of program.’ He says that arte aired 1900 House, and it was popular, but only on ‘a thematic evening on the Victorian Age.

‘German audiences want to know exactly what to expect. If it is a doc – an historical doc – it should be made in a traditional way,’ Huelbusch explains. ‘If it’s a show like Big Brother, it is for another audience. This combination of documentary with entertainment – or the surprising aspect of how people behave in an unusual environment – that’s something that is difficult both for the audience with traditional expectations and the audience that is open for innovation,’ he says.

Don’t let bygones be bygones

Channel 4′s Hadlow says it is the romantic element that hooks viewers to living history programs. ‘But not romance in the sense of, ‘I want to be a 17th-century duchess and not have any worries,” she explains. ‘It’s more complicated than that.’ What is novel, she says, is a nostalgic yearning and ‘the sense of finding yourself’ that the citizen of the modern world experiences while confronting the daily realities of life in a bygone era.

Emphasis must be placed on who is chosen to populate these shows, says Hadlow. ‘There has to be a good human dynamic,’ she explains. ‘Characters have to emerge, they have to confront difficulties and either overcome them or fail… [Living history programs] work best when the audience feels it can root for somebody.’

Also, interpersonal tension must arise – the ratings-grabber. ‘You look for a dynamic of people who you think are going to spark off each other both positively and negatively. You do cast for relationships to form,’ says Hadlow.

Part of the risk and reward of living history is that it can’t be choreographed like drama, or tightly scripted like a standard history doc. Notes Hadlow, ‘People are living their lives, and you can’t know who is going to find it impossible to cope with some task, or who will turn out to be rather good at it – it’s unpredictable.’

Television viewers enjoy that unpredictability, says Mick Csaky of U.K. prodco Antelope. ‘It is the little details of recognizable…emotional interaction,’ he says.

‘I’m not sure that has a lot to do with history,’ Csaky adds. ‘I think it has a lot more to do with real people – as they’re called – on television for the audience to relate to.’ In that regard, living history can be seen in the same genre as Big Brother, he muses. ‘I’m not sure it gets you to the absolute nub of history, it just gives you some well made and often entertaining television.’

As Wilson sees it, living history is not a revolutionary break from more traditional history programming, but part of a continuum. ‘It’s all adding to the body of work,’ he says. ‘We shouldn’t see living history as a radical departure from regular history films. If you look back over the course of television programming, it’s a constant evolution. Even straight-ahead history documentaries are different [today] from their predecessors 15 or 20 years ago.’

As with any successful trend, there are detractors, and living history is no exception. But, if television is like a democracy, with citizens voting with their eyes, then the ballots are in: programs with period-specific equipment, and featuring average people, will set the agenda for years to come.

‘In the end, it’s the content that counts, not the format,’ says Csaky. ‘No amount of innovative format creation can make up for an absence of strong content. I think the programs that last for most viewers, in the end, have some sort of content beyond the format.’ `

About The Author
Jonathan Paul is a Toronto-based writer into creativity, content, advertising, tech, comics, video games, film, TV, time and space travel.