History on British Television: Constructing Nation, Nationality and Collective Memory

Angela Piccini admires a comprehensive study of history on television

History on British Television
Author: Robert Dillon
Publisher: Manchester University Press
Reviewed by: Angela Piccini
Price (RRP): £60

Robert Dillon argues that “history has played a significant role in shaping the television landscape of Britain” in this engaging and informative book. From the first regular BBC broadcasts in 1946 to the present, history programming has been a pillar of public service broadcasting.

From quiz shows like Animal, Vegetable, Mineral through to documentary flagships like Chronicle, and presenter-led series such as Sir Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation and programmes in the recent BBC Normans season, history has always been everywhere on TV.

Television, says Dillon, has “become a historian in its own right” that “promotes a dynamic visual insight into Britain that history books cannot match”. Of course, this is one of those history books and a fascinating one at that.

Dillon begins with an overview of trends in history writing, linking academic concerns with the various forms of history on TV. He argues that television and academic history are more closely aligned than we might have thought.

However, the main focus is on TV history as cultural memory – memory that produces and reproduces our sense of nation and identity. Dillon charts the history of TV, beginning with its earliest experiments with sound and vision through to the contemporary landscape of set-top boxes and hard disc recorders.

From there we journey across a wide range of formal techniques for bringing the past alive, from camera angles and editing rhythms to the use of reality formats. Subsequent chapters consider dramatic reconstruction, the impact of individual characters on historical narratives, the role of war and conflict in shaping TV’s presentation of history and the rise and rise of personality-driven, presenter-led programmes.

I found this book to be an interesting addition to the growing field of TV histories, although Dillon’s lack of reference to similar scholarship was surprising. Nonetheless, it is an invaluable resource, notable for the reach of programmes discussed and the range of views compiled, particularly those of programme-makers.

Dillon’s history is not an academic gripe about TV history gone wrong. Instead, this serious study sets out the productive relationships between TV and history. As he writes: “Historians manufacture a specific view of the past that fits their own social, political, cultural and professional needs, as do programme-makers.”

History on British Television expresses the complex relationships among audiences, cultural movements and the economic logic of the television industry.

TV both reflects national mood and produces it. It is the dominant medium through which people experience history and therefore plays a vital role in both personal memory and collective experiences of nationhood.

Dillon presents a highly convincing account of why these TV histories should continue to matter to all of us. 

Angela Piccini is a senior lecturer in screen in the department of drama: theatre, film, television at the University of Bristol

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