Thought it might be time to wade into the Starkey debate (has anyone named it Starkeygate yet?) Anyway, I want to ignore what he said for the purposes of this little blog. I think enough has been written about how out of touch and insulting it was, and plus I must follow that famous quote misattributed to Voltaire (I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.)
What I wanted to question was the train of thought of whoever selects the guests of Newsnight. I can see the sense of getting an historian on. A bit of historical perspective is always good. I am not convinced they needed a ‘marquee’ name to bring in audiences, but I can see why they might have decided to plump for a well known name. I would have thought, however, that the expertise of the guest might have been more of a pressing issue. Ideally, an historian of twentieth century rioting. Or perhaps of social uprisings or disorder in general. I have read good articles on the historical precedents for urban riots from both. So to select a specialist in early modern England seems odd. The fact that his specialism is a King, and not even those further down the social ladder makes him about as unqualified as you can get within history. Furthermore, this country is blessed with fantastic historians, who would have been far more suitable, many of them internationally renowned. The only excuse I can think of is that, due to deadlines, decisions were rushed, or perhaps those more suitable were unavailable at short notice.
The more I think about this, though, the more I saw an emerging pattern. It seems since I last lauded the efforts of the powers that be in television for expanding the ‘educational’ output on our screens, some worrying trends have emerged. Firstly if the rumours surrounding BBC4 are true, it would be ten steps backwards. Following on from the ‘miscasting’ of Starkey, however, there have in recent months been some very interesting choice of presenters. First case in point was Richard Hammond and his Journey to the Centre of the Planet. I can see the logic, Top Gear is very popular, and Hammond has made some pretty good shows on engineering, where he is in his element. But he was clearly out of his depth in this series, and it would have been much better served by an expert. Another example of this was the recent history of Britain (I regret to say I cannot remember its title) with none other than Alan Titchmarsh. The less said about that the better I would imagine.
That is not to say that all educational programmes without academics are worthless. Despite many criticisms about his TV connections, Dan Snow is doing an admirable job promoting history, and is well qualified (double first in history from Oxford) and is genuinely interested in the subjects he covers, which therefore creates fulfilling television. A further example is a show that really didn’t think I would enjoy, with another history graduate, this time from Cambridge, Michael Portillo. Great British Railway Journeys, which has been shown around dinner time, works well because Portillo is so enthusiastic about railways and the towns he visits. Key, however, is the use of talking heads. By interviewing local historians in each locale, Portillo never looks out of his depth, yet the programme remains detailed and interesting.
So, in conclusion, it is possible to make good television without making it only suitable for academics. But there needs to be more thought in the choice of presenter and ‘expert’, and not just plumping for the one who gets the most coverage, or who is currently en vogue.