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 Wither the TV history documentary

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Meles meles
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PostSubject: Wither the TV history documentary   Mon 08 Jun 2015, 21:58

Purely coincidence ... but I noticed that this evening A-N was lamenting a poor TV documentary about the Templars that had reverted into the usual conspiracy theories ... while at the same time I was griping about a documentary about the Armada which had the presenter swanning around on a modern yacht pronouncing such light-weight gems as, "and here it was that the battle was fought ... in a stiff gale, just like today", while the camera portenteously panned very slowly over a flat calm sea and cloudless sky! But are modern audiences so shallow and incapable of understanding, or even being remotely interested in, anything unless it's got CGI, a 'celeb', and 're-enactments' .....  like in Armada where Anita Dobson, the poor actress playing Elizabeth I, who was made to portray the queen as some sort of grotesque neurotic cross between Batman's 'The Joker' and Dickens' 'Lady Haversham'?

In the 1970s, Joseph Bronowski's philosophical series "The Ascent of Man" regularly had top viewing ratings ... even though it was often unscripted and so at tmes Bronowski would pause, sometimes for 20 seconds or so, to gather his thoughts, or even more memorably his emotions, before delivering off the cuff, deeply meaningful words. The result was awesome and as I say it consistently got good ratings. Even earlier were AJP Taylor's famous history lectures ... broadcast by the BBC in black and white, each 30min lecture was delivered, in a single take, direct to camera, with no notes and no auto-cue. And yet again to huge viewing figures.

What's happened? Is the interest and attention span of the average public really so small nowadays? Or is it that the TV executives and producers are seriously under-estimating, and selling short, their viewing public?
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PostSubject: Re: Wither the TV history documentary   Mon 08 Jun 2015, 22:48

I think many today would struggle to concentrate for the duration of your post, concise though it undoubtedly is.
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PostSubject: Re: Wither the TV history documentary   Mon 08 Jun 2015, 23:32

There are still a few worth watching but most are on BBC 4. There are some presenters who can be relied upon but as soon as I see Dan Snow's name attached to anything I just don't switch on for the sake of my blood pressure.
I'll have a look at pretty much anything by Alisdair Sooke, Jago Cooper, Andrew Graham-Dixon, Michael Scott, Mary Beard, Waldemar Januszczak and a few others out of the current crop of classicists, archaeologists and art historians and Jim Al-khalili and Marcus du Sautoy for science stuff but you're right that there's a dearth of the kind of sweeping, magisterial and synthesising series like 'Ascent'.

There was talk of a remake of 'Civilisation' but who is there today who could write and present something of that ilk? The BBC would probably role out Steven Bloody Fry. If anyone, I might suggest Neil MacGregor but he's high tailed off to Berlin.

Tp be fair, now that the BBC is cash strapped and forced to justify itself in terms of audience share against a myriad of channels churning out pap and in the face of the barbarians in government (can you imagine Cameron and Osborne settling down to watch hours of Bronowski?), what hope is there?

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PostSubject: Re: Wither the TV history documentary   Tue 09 Jun 2015, 08:21

Have you changed the wording of your original post, MM? I had it in my mind that you used the interesting word "magisterial" when you first mentioned the presentational style of Bronowski.

That made me think about whether - in a postmodern world - being "magisterial" is acceptable anymore. We mistrust these days anyone "having or showing great authority". Even on this site, a Fellow of St.Cross College, Oxford, a Fellow of the British Academy and the Professor of Church History at Oxford University, can be dismissed as a mere "pedlar" of ideas - or of "yarns":

@nordmann wrote:
  The Reverend Doctor Diarmaid MacCulloch Kt FBA FSA FRHistS is peddling an old yarn that has worn very thin indeed. In fact he's lying.


So is academic authority - like God and the infamous parrot - now dead? Trust no one these days, be impressed by no one, even a Bronowski or a MacCulloch?

David Attenborough seems to be an exception, but then he talks to us of animals, birds and beetles, not history, art or philosophy. Perhaps scientists are still allowed to be magisterial. And Attenborough comes across as being a man of great humility as well as one of awe-inspiring scholarship. That's a winning combination: David Starkey could learn a few things from Attenborough - and not just about penguins.

I think most people still recognise - and appreciate - rigour, substance, scholarship. And the true "magister" does not always want agreement: he or she provokes - stimulates - lively debate, discussion, argument. Many BBC productions -  both drama and documentaries - still do that. All is not (quite) lost.

Dan Snow and his ilk provoke only irritation.
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PostSubject: Re: Wither the TV history documentary   Tue 09 Jun 2015, 08:29

Temp wrote:
be impressed by no one, even a Bronowski or a MacCulloch

That's like saying "laid low by a disease, even as serious as cancer or an ingrown toenail".

PS: Whither wither?
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PostSubject: Re: Wither the TV history documentary   Tue 09 Jun 2015, 08:56

Of course Bronowski was a genius, whereas MacCulloch is not, but he - and his documentaries - are excellent - and not just the religious stuff, but also, for instance, programmes such as his recent offering about Thomas Cromwell. MacCulloch is obviously no Sooty lightweight*, nor is he a mere pedlar of yarns. It is utterly ridiculous to suggest such a thing. As for the toenail/cancer remark - what a very odd comparison. Perhaps I have misunderstood.

It might surprise some people that I agree with all of the following. The extract is from the Simon Critchley essay on Bronowski's The Ascent of Man, published in the New York Times. Note he says that most of the TV back in the early 1970s was "garbage":


http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/02/02/the-dangers-of-certainty/#more-151682


Bronowski began the show with the words, “One aim of the physical sciences has been to give an actual picture of the material world. One achievement of physics in the 20th century has been to show that such an aim is unattainable.” For Dr. Bronowski, there was no absolute knowledge and anyone who claims it — whether a scientist, a politician or a religious believer — opens the door to tragedy. All scientific information is imperfect and we have to treat it with humility. Such, for him, was the human condition.

This is the condition for what we can know, but it is also, crucially, a moral lesson. It is the lesson of 20th-century painting from Cubism onwards, but also that of quantum physics. All we can do is to push deeper and deeper into better approximations of an ever-evasive reality. The goal of complete understanding seems to recede as we approach it.

There is no God’s eye view, Dr. Bronowski insisted, and the people who claim that there is and that they possess it are not just wrong, they are morally pernicious. Errors are inextricably bound up with pursuit of human knowledge, which requires not just mathematical calculation but insight, interpretation and a personal act of judgment for which we are responsible. The emphasis on the moral responsibility of knowledge was essential for all of Dr. Bronowski’s work. The acquisition of knowledge entails a responsibility for the integrity of what we are as ethical creatures.


Sorry, MM, straying from your interesting topic already. I was trying to think about your OP - honest.

*EDIT: apologies to Sooty, who is, of course, also excellent.


Last edited by Temperance on Tue 09 Jun 2015, 16:21; edited 2 times in total
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PostSubject: Re: Wither the TV history documentary   Tue 09 Jun 2015, 13:46

BBC 2 are starting a 3 part series on Napoleon tomorrow night;

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b05yxzlj
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PostSubject: Re: Wither the TV history documentary   Tue 09 Jun 2015, 14:02

On the whole, withering is about right.

I watch, lament then take to my ref books or Wiki, Promoting the promoter is tiresome  I am however reeling on the impact of personal experience documentary about German citizens in Europe after VE day. No presenter, just recordings and film.
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PostSubject: Re: Wither the TV history documentary   Tue 09 Jun 2015, 14:34

Never mind;

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PostSubject: Re: Wither the TV history documentary   Tue 09 Jun 2015, 15:27

Oh, joy.

Thank you, Trike.

I told you all was not lost.

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PostSubject: Re: Wither the TV history documentary   Tue 09 Jun 2015, 17:22

PS



For Dr. Bronowski, the moral consequence of knowledge is that we must never judge others on the basis of some absolute, God-like conception of certainty. All knowledge, all information that passes between human beings, can be exchanged only within what we might call “a play of tolerance,” whether in science, literature, politics or religion. As he eloquently put it, “Human knowledge is personal and responsible, an unending adventure at the edge of uncertainty.”

Born-again atheists please note the underlined bit.

Posted from the edge (not of insanity, I hope).
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PostSubject: Re: Wither the TV history documentary   Tue 09 Jun 2015, 21:49

@nordmann wrote:

PS: Whither wither?

Wither - sans aitch - was deliberate. I also considered a final question mark ... but then discarded that too.
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PostSubject: Re: Wither the TV history documentary   Wed 10 Jun 2015, 00:11

Does anybody remember the early 1960s documentaries presented by Sir Brian Horrocks?  It's all rather blurred by the passage of time but they did hold my interest, though like Fawlty Towers there were not many programmes.

Will today's children like Clangers I wonder or will the new version be watched by the generation that remember the original?  Still they remade Muffin the Mule and Bill and Ben.  I wonder if anybody will ever re-boot Noggin the Nog which was from the same stable as Clangers I think; I have a soft spot for Noggin, Gragulus (is that how you spell the bird's name?) and the Ice Dragon et al.
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PostSubject: Re: Wither the TV history documentary   Wed 10 Jun 2015, 09:20

Ah, Bill and Ben. My terrors about the world began with those two. I identified very much with Little Weed: her frantic warnings to B&B to "Get back in your pots!!" still resonate. I always thought a day would come when the mysterious and terrifying Gardener would return suddenly and splatter the lot of them with his spade - the beginnings of my metaphysical agonisings, I suppose. I should have stuck with Spotty Dog.

B&B, with LW, in a more relaxed moment.


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PostSubject: Re: Wither the TV history documentary   Wed 10 Jun 2015, 09:38

A perfect example of what drives me bonkers, last night on BBC 4 - Your Inner Fish - the first episode of a series on evolution. There was maybe 15 minutes of serious and interesting information about the search for transitional fossils, the sonic hedgehog gene and the development of the variety of limb structures padded out to fill 55 minutes with pretty pictures, CGI, remarks about the personalities of the main researchers and a primary school guide to evolution with such challenging statements of the 'Would you believe we're descended from fish? sort'

Neil Shubin who writes and presents it is the academic real deal and quite an engaging, attractive and twinkly personality but I very nearly chucked it in despair after the first 15 minutes. I'll stick with it next week and hope it drops some of the extraneous bumf and gets on with the science.

It will really wind up the young earth crowd though and that's all good!

http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b05yxzxc/your-inner-fish-an-evolution-story-1-your-inner-fish
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PostSubject: Re: Wither the TV history documentary   Wed 10 Jun 2015, 10:03

Sorry, can't resist. The very first episode of Bill and Ben from 1953.




Clangers is better. The mice exhibit superior language skills.


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PostSubject: Re: Wither the TV history documentary   Wed 10 Jun 2015, 21:43

@Meles meles wrote:
What's happened? Is the interest and attention span of the average public really so small nowadays? Or is it that the TV executives and producers are seriously under-estimating, and selling short, their viewing public?

In order to answer this question we need to try and pinpoint when it was that the standard of television history documentaries began to wane and also when it waxed. There don't seem to be any documentaries from the 1950s, for example, which are noteworthy. This was mainly down to the 'live' nature of television at that time. The first great series was probably the BBC's Great War from 1964 while the last seems to have been Ken Burns' Civil War from 1990. Does this mean that there was a 'golden age' of documentary?
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PostSubject: Re: Wither the TV history documentary   Thu 11 Jun 2015, 11:58

The programme LiR was talking about with Brian Horrocks*, I'm sure was a weekly programme called All Our Yesterdays presented by Brian Inglis. It looked at events exactly 25 years in the past from the week in question so from 1964 to 1970 was all about World War Two.

I can distinctly remember another documentary programme from around this time presented by John Greirson. Greirson was an early exponent of documentary film making and had made Drifters about North Sea fishermen back in the 1920s


* could have been the ITV programme World at War as Horrocks appeared on it as well.
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PostSubject: Re: Wither the TV history documentary   Thu 11 Jun 2015, 13:05

Anyone watch the first of Napoleon documentaries? was everyone else in the land so badly educated  in the belief that Napoleon was an evil tyrant? Where was this presenter schooled? I've never met anyone who had other than a balanced view of him - with much to praise in the manner by which he consolidated the mess France was in before the coup. A lightly tilted bias is always engaging but this man's boat is dangerously keeling over. I feel a multi choice paper coming on but had better take my tablets first.
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PostSubject: Re: Wither the TV history documentary   Thu 11 Jun 2015, 18:10

I saw the start of the Napoleon one P, but then had to go out and perform taxi duties. I should try to catch the rest since I'm horribly ignorant about that area too. In fact, the more I read here, the more I cringe at the depth of my ignorance. However, I do recall reading 'Desiree' way back in the late 50s.

The other programme you referred to previously was, I presume, 'The Savage Peace'. Utterly harrowing and haunting in its horror.

Trike, the Grierson doc that I most remember was 'Seawards the Great Ships' although he made many more.

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PostSubject: Re: Wither the TV history documentary   Fri 12 Jun 2015, 11:10

Oh dear, the Napoleon documentary. A little bias tilts interest but unadulterated  glossing over flaw and dubious action  makes for dangerous heeling  into the syrupy seas of adulation. Where  was this presenter educated? I know of no one who was brought up on a diet of how evil Napoleon was as he says we all were. There has always been a  respect for the several worthy things  Napoleon achieved in consolidating his country after years of turmoil and using the intellects of his time to do so.  Not recommended viewing for any historian with high blood pressure but gives quite good jolt of ire for people of my age who might be getting sluggish in thought.
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PostSubject: Re: Wither the TV history documentary   Fri 12 Jun 2015, 13:55

Thanks for posting the Clyde documentary, Ferval. It was fascinating.
I'd forgotten just how many men wore "bunnets" back in the early 60s

PS, Looked up the ship that was launched to see her history;
http://clydesite.co.uk/clydebuilt/viewship.asp?id=18448
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PostSubject: Re: Wither the TV history documentary   Fri 12 Jun 2015, 21:30

Did the "Radio Ballads" coincide with "golden age" of TV documentaries? How about later radio documentaries (The Long March of Everyman etc) indicate that audio is the last refuge of such intellectual rigour?
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