Sunday, January 04, 2009

A history of Scotland

A new year, a new blog post (maybe I'll keep it up this year), and a new documentary series on the BBC.

A couple of years ago, the last broadcast took place on the BBC of an Open University course programme. A few people nostalgically bewailed the loss of those late-night programmes, but the truth is they had long since ceased to meet the needs of students. The spread of video and DVD machines made it more appropriate to supply materials to students directly, which could be tailored to the appropriate length for the material concerned, rather than expecting students to watch the television broadcasts. Most courses had been delivering their material that way for years.

Some people felt that the end of broadcasts meant the loss of tasters for the OU that would pull people into doing their courses. But in fact, this event did not represent the end of the OU's relationship with the BBC - instead the OU has developed this partnership, and is now more visible on prime-time television than ever before. The OU had recognized, and quite rightly, that a better way of pulling in the punters is popular documentary shows that won't just be seen by insomniacs.

The OU has gone into partnership with the BBC on recognized brands such as Timewatch and The Money Programme, and developed new series. Coast is a product of this.

And now, Coast's lead presenter, Neil Oliver, brings us A History of Scotland.* Its title aligns it with common academic practice. It's a history of Scotland - other histories can be told. There are a lot of good signs - Oliver proclaims from the start that he intends to demythologize Scotland's history, and so he does with Calgacus and Saint Columba, both figures we are told about by writers who had their own agendas, and are not necessarily to be relied upon. The recognition of academic debate, such as when he acknowledges (though rejects) a recent trend to re-evaluate the Vikings, is also good.

But I worry when he states categorically that Calgacus survived the battle of Mons Graupius (actually, we just aren't told one way or the other, and I've seen it just as confidently asserted that he died), suggests that the Caledonians/Picts "helped drive the Romans out of Britain" as mythologized an interpretation of the end of Roman Britain as anything he rejects, or whitewashes the Antonine Wall out of the story of Roman Scotland altogether. And on the periods I don't really know, he asserts that the battle of Brunanburh took place on the Wirral - yet this is only one possibility for a vaguely located battle, and other suggestions, such as Bamburgh in Northumberland, have been made, and may be more plausible (other suggestions, such as Axminster in Devon, seem less plausible).

So sometimes this programme does oversimplify, as all historical programmes do, and perhaps must, to a degree. Still, overall this looks like a good thing, and I will watch future episodes, if not necessarily believing all the hype.

* It's not entirely clear who wrote the programme. Oliver is listed as presenter, and there are then various consultants in the credits.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You may be interested in this rather hostile post that I wrote about the medieval content of the same programme, especially as the comments partly answer your question about the writing process.

Having been sent here by the recent edition of Carnivalesque, by the way, I'm struck by the lucidity of your writing and will certainly add you to my blogroll. Nice work.