We are living through a little golden age of history in the media. But who is reaping most pleasure from the proliferation of history programmes on our TVs? Middle aged men is the glib answer. It is a TV truth universally acknowledged that the audience for history documentaries is more male than female. Yet why should TV history ‘skew male’?
History has held its popularity in schools with both sexes as a subject choice at GCSE (male 50.4 per cent, female 49.6 per cent in 2010) and A-level (49.3 per cent, 50.7 per cent). More women than men take history degrees and buy books. Costume drama is a feminine crowd-pleaser. Last year’s beauty contest between Downton Abbey (11.6 million viewers – male 35 per cent, female 65 per cent) and Upstairs Downstairs (7 million – 37 per cent, 63 per cent) was decided by petticoat government.
So is there a gender gap in historical programming: bonnets for the women and battles for the blokes? Have ladies boycotted documentaries – allergic, like Jane Austen’s Catherine Morland, to “real solemn history”, bored by “the quarrels of popes and kings, with wars or pestilences in every page; the men all so good for nothing and hardly any women at all”.
On closer examination, viewers’ choices are more complicated. Unsurprisingly, military history delights significantly more men than women, though it is not a male preserve. Among last year’s broadcasts, The Battle of Britain – the Real Story drew an audience of 63 per cent men and 37 per cent women, while 59 per cent of the viewers of The First World War from Above were male. But once you move off tactics to the lived experience of war then women reclaim the territory. More women than men (55 per cent) watched the Kindertransport Story.
At the other end of the spectrum, Revealing Anne Lister, Sue Perkins’ exploration of the 19th-century world of a Halifax lesbian, drew a majority female audience (60 per cent). But again it’s worth noting that the remaining 40 per cent didn’t switch off in a huff.
Between these extremes, most authoritative history documentaries engaged both sexes pretty equally, like Ancient Worlds (50/50) The Normans (49 per cent men, 51 per cent women), and Andrew Marr’s Making of Modern Britain (51/49 per cent). The further you get from military high command, the more even the gender balance.
Just to complicate matters, the TV audience as a whole is more feminine (BBC One 55 per cent female, BBC Two 52 per cent, ITV 62 per cent), especially earlier in the evening. So a history documentary with a majority female audience could still be defined as ‘skewing male’ because a larger proportion of men than the channel average were watching. Overall then, men are more likely to switch on for history, while women tend to prefer programmes on lifestyle or celebrities instead.
There is, however, one strand of BBC history output crafted to a broad female audience who might not watch a traditional documentary. ‘Living History’ uses real people to experience past conditions. Personally I dislike this format, yet programmes like Victorian Farm and Turn Back Time are ratings winners which hold their own at 8pm, when families have many distractions and lighter entertainment dominates.
Martin Davidson, who commissions history for BBC One, Two and Four, dismisses eye-rolling condescension of popular formats. Citing Who Do You Think You Are?, the genealogy juggernaut now in its ninth series, he says: “It has made history palatable for a vast new audience of six million plus. The personal journey of a celebrity has opened up themes like the industrial revolution, slavery and the holocaust.” Archival historians should be grateful as the genealogy boom keeps our record offices in business.
To find a big audience, a programme has to engage millions of women, as well as men, so commissioners have to ponder the eternal question: what do women want? But the BBC still recognises a responsibility to serve those male licence payers who relish Spitfire Ace, or Operation Mincemeat. Ratings are not everything.
I am heartened by a closer look at the stats. TV accentuates the divergent interests of men (Empire of the Seas) and women (Victorian Farm Christmas), but for mainstream history documentaries the gender gap is narrow. There are many mansions in the house of TV history, but there’s also a cosy living room where both sexes settle down together to enjoy epochs very different to our own.