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Letter from London: History’s healthy, says Hadlow

As darkness fell last Thursday, and most Kings College, London students were scurrying away from their classrooms, a decidedly older crowd was moving against the tide and making its way to the Edmund J. Safra Theatre. They had come to hear one of their fellow history alumnae speak about her job: BBC2 Controller Janice Hadlow, discussing the health of history in television.
October 26, 2009

As darkness fell last Thursday, and most Kings College, London students were scurrying away from their classrooms, a decidedly older crowd was moving against the tide and making its way to the Edmund J. Safra Theatre. They had come to hear one of their fellow history alumnae speak about her job: BBC2 Controller Janice Hadlow, discussing the health of history in television.

In an often rapid-fire delivery, Hadlow shared her perspective of a quarter century working on history programs. The high water mark of serious history programming, according to Hadlow, took place in the ‘deceptively calm’ decade between the end of the cold war and 9/11, as the new millennium gave rise to a reflective mood among a nation, and an appetite for big history series such as Laurence Rees’ The Nazis: A Warning From History, a huge hit for the BBC in 1997.

This boom time for serious factual was followed by what Hadlow termed a ‘necessary correction,’ and a shift in the zeitgeist as the rise of new media led to a fragmentation of audiences, and changes in viewing habits. The fallow period which followed the turn of the century was beneficial to the health of television history, she argued, as program-makers creatively evolved ways to ‘colonize’ other factual forms, so that serious history began cropping up in science programs such as BBC2′s Atom series and in British natural history programs like Coast. Hadlow called the latter ‘one of BBC2′s most resiliently popular shows,’ in its exuberant exploration of the topography and history of Britain’s coastline.

The 2000s have also seen a breakthrough in the decidedly tricky challenge of turning the national passion for genealogy into watchable television. Wall to Wall’s Who Do You Think You Are, in which celebrities trace their family histories, proved to be a ratings bonanza, as sympathetic subjects (which Hadlow dubbed viewers’ ‘virtual family’) explored their often tragic family histories, bringing emotional power and immediacy to history. Both Coast and WDYTYA were ‘powerful ambassadors for the idea of history programs for audiences who aren’t natural viewers of history,’ Hadlow said.

After steering a raft of niche history topics to fruition at BBC4 – ‘a uniquely protected television space,’ – Hadlow is determined that she can deliver an equally rich mix to BBC2, which she calls ‘the intellectual engine room of British television.’

While there is room for specialized, challenging fare not expected to bring in high ratings, the channel will also necessarily focus on popular history programming, which often brings in mass audiences. The latter is dependent on the new breed of modern day presenters, including both historians like Simon Sharma, and ‘trusted guides’ such as journalist Andrew Marr, whose 2007 History of Modern Britain series proved a critical and ratings success.

According to Hadlow, as we near the end of the decade, history programming is headed into another boom period. More than ever, given the sobering current climate, there is a need for television to offer authority, and to synthesize the conclusions of scholars in a digestible way. ‘I’m convinced it has the power to endure – it has universal human curiosity at the heart of its appeal,’ she said.

Ironically, as Hadlow looked back on history in television in the peaceful surroundings of academia, at her workplace across town, television was once again making history. Nick Griffin, head of the far-right British National Party, was appearing for the first time on the venerable Question Time program, a controversial move which has been debated for weeks in the press. As he appeared alongside a number of panelists who could not bear to look at him, scores of policemen struggled outside Television Centre, sometimes unsuccessfully, to keep back hundreds of angry protesters, putting the BBC once again at the center of this media-obsessed nation’s headlines.

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