Breathing life into history

As regular readers of this blog will know, one of my hobbies is history (and archeology to some extent). I’ve often wondered whether I should have read history at university instead of botany. And, when I retired almost eight years ago, I did ponder taking a history degree course at the Open University. However, having decided that retirement meant I no longer had to meet deadlines any more, the allure of studying again soon faded.

Nevertheless, much of my reading focuses on history, and I’ve built up a sizeable library (mostly paperbacks) covering all periods and disciplines (social, economic, cultural, etc.). When we lived overseas in the Philippines I would take back half a suitcase of books after each annual home-leave in the UK. Near where my elder daughter lives in St Paul, Minnesota there is an excellent book store where I’ve been able to pick up a whole range of texts, many about the American Civil War, that I’ve never seen on sale over this side of the Atlantic. There are several university colleges near Half Price Books on Ford Parkway, where students divest themselves of course books each year—to my great advantage.

Here in the UK we are also fortunate that BBC2, BBC4 and Channel 4 regularly broadcast history programs of high quality, and others on archaeology, that provide interesting perspectives on how cultures and societies evolved. Steph and I have been enjoying many of these since we returned to the UK in 2010.

I guess my own fascination with history and archaeology on TV began with Sir Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation, a thirteen part documentary series, first broadcast on BBC2 in 1969 about the history of Western art, architecture and philosophy since the Dark Ages. It was apparently the first series commissioned specifically for colour television in the UK (by Sir David Attenborough, then Controller of BBC2). I didn’t actually see the series then; I was too busy being an undergraduate. We acquired the DVD in 2005.

Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man, broadcast in 1973 (and which we also viewed years later on DVD), was a highly-acclaimed personal view about the development of human society through its understanding of science.

Simon Schama’s A History of Britain (broadcast from September 2000, over 15 hour-long programs in three series until June 2002) was his personal view of different periods of British (actually, mainly English) history and its events. Once again, we caught up on DVD.

And during this period of working overseas, we enjoyed (on DVD) an impressive list of programs by Michael Wood, in a broadcasting career that began in 1979. He has had several series since we returned to the UK.

David Starkey is a hardy perennial who focuses on the Tudors. Despite several controversies that have surrounded him, he still appears quite regularly.

There is quite a long list of presenters (see below) whose programs we have enjoyed since 2010, covering a wide range of topics and periods. Just this past few weeks we’ve enjoyed a three-part series by Helen Castor about England’s first queen, Jane (great granddaughter of Henry VII), whose reign lasted just nine days in July 1553.

Art historian Andrew Graham-Dixon is the ‘flavor of the month’ right now. A two part series, Rome Unpacked, co-presented with chef Giorgio Locatelli about the cultural history of Rome and its cuisine concluded last week. For some reason we didn’t watch the three series of Italy Unpacked broadcast between 2013 and 2015. He’s just started a four part series about the Royal Collection on BBC4, and next week he has a one-off program on BBC2 about the theft of two paintings by Van Gogh from a museum in Amsterdam in 2002. He’s certainly one of the most engaging presenters currently on TV.

But there are two presenters who are new to me with series showing right now on BBC2 and BBC4, respectively.

David Olusoga is a British Nigerian historian, writer and broadcaster who I’d never heard of until his four part series A House Through Time began three weeks ago. It tells the social history of Liverpool through the lives of families who occupied a single house, from when it was built about 200 years ago until the present day.

62 Falkner Street (at one time, number 58) is a four storey terraced house in what was once a fashionable neighborhood, in the Georgian Quarter east of the city center, but within easy striking distance of the docks that were the basis of the city’s prosperity for so many decades.

It has been painstakingly researched. There must be a large team of researchers behind the scenes digging into the census records and other documents published in Liverpool that have provided insights into the business and economic history of the city. It’s a very engaging way to tell the social history of this important port city in England’s northwest, that climbed to the pinnacle of economic prosperity in the 19th century, and fell to the depths of economic decline in the late 20th.

Combining the history of art and fashion, A Stitch in Time (a six part series on BBC4) is presented by TV newcomer Amber Butchart, who has published several books and appears regularly apparently on BBC radio.

Amber is certainly a breath of fresh air, with her flamboyant fashion style, bright red hair, and piercingly blue eyes. Her range of clothes certainly needs a personality like Amber’s to carry off successfully. Elegant!

Working with historical costumier Ninya Mikhaila and her team, Amber fuses biography, art, and the history of fashion, and explores the lives of historical figures through the clothes they wore.

In the first program, she looked at the fashion of Charles II’s restoration, and in the second the green gown worn by the lady in the 1434 Arnolfini portrait, painted by Jan van Eyck. The third program was unusual in that the portrait was of a working man, a hedge-cutter, wearing a hand-me-down leather coat.

In each program Amber talks about the social status and lives of the subjects that we can deduce from each painting, while Ninya and her team recreate a costume just from their view of the painting and their detailed understanding of how clothes were made in the past. The Arnolfini recreation was outstanding.

From the outset I wouldn’t have imagined that a series along these lines would grab my attention. I guess we watched the first episode because there was nothing else worth watching across the channels. But then we were hooked, and I hope that the BBC will commission Amber to undertake other projects in the future.

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  • Dan Snow: a Modern History graduate from Oxford University, Snow has an impressive list of programs under his belt.
  • Mary Beard: Professor of Classics at Cambridge University, Beard has presented programs on Rome and Pompeii, among others. Very entertaining.
  • Niall Ferguson: Scottish-born Ferguson has affiliations with many academic institutions on both sides of the Atlantic and specializes in economic and financial history.
  • Simon Sebag-Montefiore: he has presented some excellent city histories, on Jerusalem, Rome, Byzantium, and Vienna.
  • Lucy Worsley: she is Joint Chief Curator of Historic Royal Palaces, and has been presenting since 2009, and has written a number of books. Renowned for her penchant for dressing up in her programs, I guess she is not everyone’s cup of tea. But we find her engaging.
  • Suzannah Lipscombe: is Reader in Early Modern History at the University of Roehampton, and has an impressive list of TV programs to her name.
  • Bettany Hughes: specializes in classical history, and has been broadcasting since the late 1990s.
  • Clare Jackson: is a senior tutor at Cambridge University and has a particular interest in 17th century English history.
  • Dan Jones: a writer and historian, his book on the Plantagenets was adapted for television in 2014 on Channel 5.
  • Sam Willis: is a military historian affiliated with the University of Plymouth.
  • Saul David: is Professor of Military History at the University of Buckingham.
  • Ruth Goodman: is a British freelance historian of the early modern period, specializing in offering advice to museums and heritage attractions.
  • Janina Ramirez: is an art and cultural historian, who works at Oxford University’s Department of Continuing Education.
  • Jago Cooper: archaeologist and the Curator of the Americas at the British Museum, and specializes in the history and pre-Columbian archaeology of South America. He has presented programs on the Incas and lost kingdoms of Central America (areas particularly close to my heart, having lived in Peru and Costa Rica for over eight years in the 1970s).
  • Neil Oliver: is a Scottish archaeologist who has presented programs on the Vikings and is a resident presenter on Coast.
  • Alice Roberts: is Professor of Public Engagement in Science at The University of Birmingham. A medical doctor and anatomist by training, Roberts front many programs bringing together expertise in archaeology and history, and appears frequently on the BBC.
  • Waldemar Januszczak: is an art critic and TV presenter and documentary producer, with many films to his credit since 1997.

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