History is a notoriously boring subject. Nothing happens in it. There have been no wars, revolutions, inventions, sex, famines, parties or wild behaviour in history. That means that broadcasters such as the BBC have to work hard to liven up history when it comes to their programming.
The latest such initiative aimed at making the boring story of human activity vaguely appealing or “fun” is the announcement by the BBC today that it has hired the loveable cockney rogue actor Danny Dyer to present a history for BBC One.
“The EastEnders actor is presenting Danny Dyer’s Right Royal Family as the corporation tries to “inject fun” into some of its factual programming and create so-called event TV to combat streaming rivals such as Netflix. After the ancestry show Who Do You Think You Are? revealed last year that Dyer was a descendant of William the Conqueror and Thomas Cromwell, the actor will explore 800 years of history by living in the style of his forbears.”
There is, as the Americans say, so much to “unpack” in those two sentences. Before that, an apology – I wasn’t being serious when I said that history is boring. It is not boring and it doesn’t need Danny Dyer to make it “fun” or exciting.
The BBC is in an epic fight for survival and it is signing its death warrant with decisions like the Dyer hire. The Corporation is getting flayed alive by Netflix. That is up-market Netflix, which bought the peerless ten-part Vietnam documentary made by Ken Burns for PBS, the Public Broadcasting Service. Up against this the BBC puts a cockney comedian to dress up as Henry VIII. Will Dyer sing I’m Henry the VIII I am, in the reprehensible style of Herman and the Hermits?
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It is a measure of how bad the situation has become at the documentary end of the Beeb that the programmers point to Lucy Worsley as evidence they still do the proper, serious stuff.
The Guardian again:
“The BBC’s history commissioner, Simon Young, said there was room in the schedule for complex history shows – pointing to A House Through Time, next year’s five-part series on Margaret Thatcher and Lucy Worsley’s recreation of the wedding of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert – as well as informative “pleasure and entertainment”.
A House Through Time is a terrific programme in the field of social history, but it hardly counts as complex television history that can go up against Ken Burns on Vietnam or the American Civil War. Let’s see what the Thatcher series is like. Will it be presented by Darcey Bussell or Craig from Strictly Come Dancing dressed as Thatcher? And is there anything on BBC FOUR that does not already feature Worsley? Other historians – male and female – are available.
BBC executives, if they are reading this, will say they do use other historians, and it is true that there is good stuff buried in the schedules. They will be crestfallen that their efforts to grow audiences are mocked, as they will be, widely.
But it is deeply frustrating watching a national institution cock this up, with our money. There is an alternative approach. This month, BBC Radio 4’s relentlessly up-market and serious show In Our Time with Melvyn Bragg celebrated its 20th anniversary. It has a devoted following; it would never get commissioned now because it treats its audience like adults.
Both the trends in media and the BBC’s own history demonstrate that there is a great hunger out there across the social spectrum for information and intelligent explanation, free of patronising gimmicks and populist idiocy. PBS with Ken Burns and then Netflix figured this out. Why can’t the BBC?