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The Beauty of Historical Documentaries

Some of you in Britain who know me may have noticed that for the past few weeks I’ve appeared on the BBC4 series “The Beauty of Books” as a talking-head historical expert. If you haven’t caught it so far, if you’re in Britain the episodes are still available on the BBC iPlayer here (though will be taken down eventually):
Episode 1 (Ancient Bibles)

Episode 2 (Medieval Masterpieces)

It’s a great series, I’m quite pleased with it so far. It has very high production values and some lavish views of some books which may not be familiar to the public (or even many academics). I’m also quite proud of my contribution to it, however small.  Having done it, I have a few thoughts about the process of being interviewed for a documentary which might be helpful for academics who are asked to participate in a historical documentary.

For a bit of background, I was contacted by the production company making this documentary several months ago due to this society through its website. They said they were making a program on historical books and wanted an enthusiastic young medievalist who could speak generally about medieval culture to contextualise these books. Naturally, I volunteered since I felt I fit the qualifications and  since I have been interested in historical documentary film making for some time, both personally and as part of my research. Ideally, one day I would like to help make them because I think, when done well, they are one of the best ways that history reaches a mass audience today.

One thing that became apparent to me quickly was that the producers had a slightly different idea what constitutes general knowledge than I do. The questions that they asked and topics they wanted to discuss were not only very specific, but very complex. As a result, I am extremely grateful to them that they sent me the questions beforehand to allow me to do some preliminary research. I was later told that they don’t usually do this, but without those questions the responses I gave for the camera would have been far more difficult to conjure to mind and I would not have been nearly as well prepared.

One thing important to note is that a PhD, in my experience, does not mean that you are an expert on everything (or dare I say it, anything), but instead  gives you the tools, experience, and background knowledge to do the research necessary to find something out and discuss it confidently with speed. So, though I am by no means an expert on medieval books, I was able to come up to speed since I had the questions beforehand.

I can understand why they might have been reluctant to give the questions beforehand; the idea is that, on camera, you want the responses to look and feel natural, spontaneous, and conversational rather than a canned prepared response. But had I not had them beforehand, I would have ultimately not been able to give answers which I felt were well-considered, and I surely would have looked very awkward as I searched for answers on the spot in a pressurized situation.

Additionally, one thing I could not help but notice was that how difficult it is to give expert interviews of this type. I understand that it gets easier with practice, like all things, but since I spent a number of years as an actor and now as an academic teaching classes of many shapes and sizes, I felt that I would be just fine in front of the camera. It was harder than I had anticipated.

The main difficulty I found was that I felt I couldn’t use any of the normal verbal tics that we all use on a daily basis while our brains are buffering: “like, um, well, err, maybe, or sorta”. I was not allowed to misspeak, to mispronounce anything and I felt as though I had to speak in continuous fluid and jaw-droppingly brilliant prose the entire time.

In retrospect, it is probable that they could have easily edited out any of these little foibles, but at the time, this was a major source of nerves. I also felt physically awkward because the chair in which I was sitting was a high-armed ‘director’s’ style chair which limited my ability to gesticulate with my hands. This may have been intentional, as the last thing they want is someone who looks like they’re needlessly flailing all over the screen. But like many people I find it difficult to speak without the use of my hands and so this contributed as well to my feeling awkward. This is possibly my fault– I could, or should have asked whether the chair could be altered, the arms removed, etc. But given my inexperience, I didn’t.

So in the end, I only appear on-screen for a very limited time. I imagine this is probably usual, since they had a number of experts (most of whom are specialists on these particular books) and the historical contexts play a fairly limited role. That said, I can’t help but wonder whether my feelings of discomfort at the time translated to the screen and thus left me mostly on the cutting-room floor.

One other possibility, and the one which may be of more interest generally, is that in looking at the finished product it seems there are a number of times where I disagree with the other experts, or I have a very different interpretation than the voice-over gives– that’s definitely not to say they’re wrong and I’m right (or vice versa). But, for example, in the second episode there is a long discussion of Chaucer, who they describe as the “Father of English Poetry” and similar, and discuss his use of English as revolutionary and unique. My interpretation instead is that Chaucer, while important, is better understood as part of a movement towards using English in literature, a movement which included in the 14th-Century Gower, Langland and the Pearl Poet, as well as probably dozens of other authors whose works are lost to us. While the end product touches on this idea briefly, they are very dedicated to a kind of Chaucerian exceptionalism. So, my discussion of this seems to have been cut. Alternately, it may have been simply that the lighting was wrong in that part, that I scratched my nose in the middle or that they didn’t feel there was enough time.

And that last one is the understandable difficulty of making a documentary, or any sort of public history. Especially in an extremely limited-time-format of TV, there is always simply too much material to put in. Furthermore, what goes in must follow a more-or-less cohesive narrative structure. As a result, there is an inevitable amount of simplification of complex issues that must happen. As historians we can sometimes feel somewhat less confined by space and the need for narrative (though I find the best historians are able to retain brevity, complexity and narrative structure). Rendering history comprehensible at all, let alone for a non-specialist audience, requires some simplification and condensation. The difficult question is how to do this– how to retain the complex ideas and negotiations of our interpretations while keeping a firm grasp on the wonderfully evocative parts of history, the sturm und drang of the past?  Where do we compromise, or must we?

In summary, would I do it again? Certainly, in a heartbeat. I would highly recommend, however, to anyone chosen to do one of these, or looking to do one, to go on your University’s media training course (since many University training departments have one), or at the very least, practice. Don’t rehearse your answers (since the last thing you want is to seem un-spontaneous or dull), but practice answering questions in front of the unblinking eye of the camera, because teaching an audience of 10, 30 or 90 is different than teaching an audience of 3 million.



1 Comment

  1. David Lascelles says:

    Yep, a PhD does not give you an all encompassing knowledge. It makes you an expert on one single, very limited area and, as you say, gives you the tools to become an expert in other areas. I would be a worse teacher without my research degree experience because with it I can talk about the whole process of how research works.

    I suspect your PoV on Chaucer was considered too complex for the audience rather than facial tics or censorship. They wanted a series of simple sound bites, you were giving them controversy which is more suited to an academic conference. Besides, you don’t know how much the others were edited either – they could have said ‘[soundbite the editors wanted], however there are also other opinions which disagree with this…’

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