This session report is provided by Mike Nugent.
I walked away convinced of the power of historical drama and its place in public history.
The second panel of the Presenting the Past symposium was television history. Sitting on the panel were:
Lucy McClaren, Producer at Renegade Films.
Alice Ford, producer/writer at WTFN Entertainement.
Alan Erson, head of factual at Essential Media and Entertainment
Alex West, executive producer at Serendipity West Productions.
Chairperson: Dr Michelle Arrow, Associate Professor in the Department of Modern History, Policis and International Relations at Macquarie University.
“Despite the frustrations and challenges of turning historical research into meaningful programs, when we get it right I believe there’s nothing like television to bring a piece of television truly alive.” – Alice Ford
History on television is not something that just happens. As Lucy McClaren jokingly said to the historians in the audience, “We can’t write history, and you can’t make films.” Historical television is the result of collaborations between historians and television producers. What the four panelists all showed through their talks was that presenting history on television is a challenging, fragile, but rewarding process.
“Australians like history stories, and we as much as possible try to tell Australian and international history stories in a way that reaches audiences.” – Alan Erson
This shows the fundamental question of using television as a tool for public history; Australians like history, but then how does one reach and then engage with that audience? In an age where an audience member has possibly hundreds of television channels, how can history find its place?
Most intriguingly, McClaren stated at one point that there is no difference between documentary and drama. As the other three panelists had all stated, the historical programs with which they had been involved all utilised various dramatic techniques in order to tell their stories. This included creating likeable characters for the audience to befriend, but also to create a sense of heroism and villainy. These dramatic devices would therefore make it possible for an audience to engage with and absorb new material.
However, there are also certain challenges with presenting history on television. As Alex West outlined, one of the biggest problems is that of audience expectation. While an academic audience would expect a new or novel approach to an existing story, television is built on the idea of the familiar and thus anything too different runs a high risk of losing viewers. Furthermore, the use of talking heads and black & white archives create similar barriers to wide appeal.
I realised that a great example of that has been the recent historical drama Howzat: Kerry Packer’s War. A critical and ratings success, the story of media mogul Kerry Packer and his attempts to revolutionise televised cricket definitively found an audience, relying heavily on the screen presence of the well known personality of Packer, and an Australian love of cricket to draw audiences in and keep them engaged. Its usage of archive footage was limited to establishing shots of 1970s vistas. This showed that not only can these shows work, but they can work in a Sunday night time slot, one of the most important on Australian television.
This leads to one key question; As historians, how do we then regard and use television as a means of relating history? It represents an ability to reach an unparalleled amount of people in their homes, but it also requires historical content to be seen through its specific lens. No matter how academic one tries to makes a documentary, some information will always have to be left out due to the practical concerns.
After this panel I walked away convinced of the power of historical drama and its place in public history. A well made historical drama can successfully tell a story better than a documentary, and to a wider audience. While a common concern is that the historical material will need to be “dumbed down” for a wider audience, a skilled television producer should be able to adapt material in such a way that it does not lose its intellectual content. There will be a constant struggle between the historical material and the practicalities of television as a medium, but ultimately the promises outweigh the pitfalls.
I would like to finish this post by thanking the organisers of the symposium, those panelists who imparted their knowledge, and everyone else who helped in making it such an enlightening two days.