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Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Dumb-Ass TV-History Moment of the Week #2

The Snow Dynasty (and ship)
And while we're on the subject of the social elite reproducing itself - all the while remembering that we live in a nation currently being lectured to on social mobility by Nick Clegg, a prize example of over-privileged, public-school-educated, gutless tumbril-fodder - we move on to Dan Snow, son of Newsnight's Peter.  More specifically to his new series, Filthy Cities (BBC 2, Tuesday 5 April, 9.00 pm), surely the first TV History series to come with its own scratch-and-sniff card (I kid you not). 

This programme was, I thought, on the whole quite nicely done and, if I have to put up with TV pretend-historians, the sting is dulled by watching them at least have to wallow in shit to earn their ill-gotten dollar.  Indeed this might be an avenue worth developing to the mutual benefit of all.  For who, among us, would not think that Niall Ferguson's TV appearances would be immeasurably improved if he dribbled out his reactionary tosh whilst up to his neck in a cess-pool (perhaps one of his own making, but we could be flexible on this point)?  Anyway, Filthy Cities: it might have had nothing very remarkable or remotely cutting-edge to say (at all), it might have been little more than a succession of scatalogical gimmicks, but I have to say that I rather enjoyed it and admit that it probably did its job.  In fact, while it was on, my deeply-felt rage about TV-history as a whole (on which more anon) was temporarily suspended.
Shit (or poo)

For those who missed it (though it can still be caught on BBC i-player for a week or so), the general idea was that modern London was built on shit (or poo as Snow endearingly called it).  We learnt that medieval London was - amazingly - a pretty unsanitary place which eventually became something of a des res for rats (much like now, some might say) and thus a prime target for plague - the Black Death, gruesomely illustrated.  Dealing with the aftermath of that produced, selon Snow (or his researchers*), the municipal organisation and government that led to London becoming the capital of the greatest empire in the world (hurrah!).  [Now you might want to pause here to consider the fact that London was hardly the only city - or indeed settlement of any order of size - to be hit by the plague in 1348 and ponder to what extent that might need to be taken into account in considering this triumphalist grand narrative, but there you are.  Suffice it to say that this fly (or perhaps flea) in the ointment didn't feature.]

So, after this lengthy preamble, we come to the Dumb-Ass TV History Moment.  Here we move to the section of the programme where Snow, with due awe and reverence, goes to the metropolitan archives to look at the roll recording civic disputes in fourteenth-century London: The Assize of Nuisance to be exact, which, as medieval sources go, is a pretty good title.  We had the ostentatious putting on the gloves to consult the text (no matter that they then disappeared for other scenes, presumably in order to display Snow's manly rower's hands**), the pretending to be reading from the document itself, all the usual TV history 'look at me; I'm a real historian doing real history' performance.  That's all OK; it's part of the genre (although at least Our Lord Michael Wood, when he invented the genre, actually could read the documents and did admit to collating xeroxed extracts from printed versions).***  No, what got me was the reference to this being 'one of very few documents from the period', as well as being 'little-known'.  Why?  For heaven's sake, just ... why?  There are thousands upon thousands of 14th-century documents from the highly bureaucratic late medieval kingdom of England (also spared, unlike, say, France or Germany, repeated archive-burning revolutions, sieges and bombardments).  But I suppose that, because this was the (sorry, Ye Olde) 'Middle Ages', the poor benighted viewer has to be fed some crap about there being few documents.  Otherwise, I suppose, their whole idea of the world would implode.

Not only that, but the whole programme was peppered with references to court records, letters, wills, other documents which any intelligent viewer would surely have noted.  So not only was this misleading, it was quite unnecessary (although I suppose it might, just possibly, have been felt necessary to uphold the master narrative that it was only after the plague that civic government really got organised).  Indeed Snow seemed to be going out of his way to show that Ye Olde Medievalle Londonne was (and you might want to be sitting down for this bit) not some anarchic Darke Age free for all.  Unnecessary, incorrect, incoherent, poorly thought through: all the hallmarks of top-quality TV-history dumb-assery.

The 'little known' reference adds icing to the cake.  I am reliably informed that this rare document is in fact available on-line and has been in a printed edition for years.  Ahem.  For shame...

So (drum-roll) for all these reasons, I award you, BBC 2's Filthy Cities Part 1, this second of our irregular H.o.t.E. Dumb-Ass TV-History Moment of the Week Awards.  Congratulations.

And it was also a damn sight better than 'Campus' (Channel 4, Tuesday 5 April, 10.00 pm), which really was - well - shit.  Funnier too, probably.

* But not, I assume, Professor Caroline Barron, credited as consultant and who surely did all the actual history behind the programmme, for which I hope she was duly and appropriately remunerated.

** OK, here I admit I am jealous, as I have very small un-manly hands.

*** And here's another thing.  TV-History's self-defence is usually the democratising of the subject.  If so, why, then, do they always go in for this staged, unnecessary, misleading mystifying of the whole research process?