The Past Is Another Channel by Paul Lay

Paul Lay

The Past Is Another Channel


Here is a tale of two series, both of which sought to tell a history of our world. The first, made for BBC Radio 4, was broadcast in a hundred short episodes, each one elegantly written and enunciated in clerical tones by a man widely considered to be the finest curator of his generation. The series (and the book that accompanied it) was met with near-unanimous praise and a large audience which, thanks to the reach of new technology, was genuinely global. It has come to be seen as the modern embodiment of the Reithian ideal – ‘to inform, to educate, to entertain’ – and the crowning glory of the admired reign of Radio 4 controller Mark Damazer, now ensconced in St Peter’s College, Oxford. The second, a co-production broadcast recently on BBC One in eight one-hour parts, was presented by a gifted political reporter and incisive interviewer, whose increasingly public private life has chipped away at his gravitas. In addition to an inappropriately breezy script, it featured the kind of historical recreations that would have shamed a 1970s episode of Doctor Who. It failed to gain a substantial audience, which is not surprising as it was scheduled against Downton Abbey, ITV’s spectacularly successful historical soap. (Downton too is unconvincing as history, but at least it has a nice line in irony and Dame Maggie Smith.)

For some time now, history documentaries on the BBC have followed divergent paths. On Radio 4, and occasionally Radio 3, we have programmes, such as Neil MacGregor’s A History of the World in 100 Objects, for ‘people like us’. On BBC One we have celebrity-led programmes, such as Andrew Marr’s

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