Wednesday, 10 September 2008

Why TV Historical Settlement Re-enactments Fail

This is one of these issues which has been sitting around in my head for years. As you know I have an interest in all kinds of history and so over the years have often been attracted to watching re-enactment television programmes. I was told that the first one was in Scandinavia in the 1970s and put a group of people into an Iron Age village for a period of weeks and got them to live like inhabitants of the time, though they allowed them glasses and matches, presumably to stop them stumbling around and spending hours on camera trying to start a fire. The BBC ran its own series 'Living in the Past' in 1978 in which six couples and three children lived in an iron age village for 13 months. They had a follow-up programme on BBC4 in May 2008.

However, the problem was that the people in the experiment did not see the world in the way that Iron Age people did and whilst they went through the religious rituals, I remember even raising a burning wicker man, they did not believe in them. In subsequent decades I always thought that rather than the people they get who tend to be teachers or accountants with very 20th-21st century views they should get people into New Age beliefs who fit in much better with the views of the Iron Age. This approach was revived by Channel 4 in 2001, partly on the back of 'reality' television programmes like 'Big Brother' and this series, 'Surviving the Iron Age' included three people who were children of people who had appeared in 'Living in the Past'. There were numerous other ones in that era of reality television

One key issue is that people cannot shake off their contemporary attitudes. We live in a very selfish society especially in the UK, and yet one in which democracy is taken as the norm. These dynamics simply do not work in a more primitive society. In 'Surviving the Iron Age', they elected their leader, a woman, and yet then would not comply with the instructions for chores that she gave out. One woman in particular, like many people who feel disempowered in the UK, felt that having children gave her special privileges. Ironically she would not be the leader of the village and yet wanted to control her own day-to-day life. This is typical of modern British society people want power without responsibility and to be able to criticise those in power and seek to subvert the laws they set. Unsurprisingly this village broke down. Iron Age life needed day in-day out drudgery. It was also ruled by power. In a village where people disagreed with the leader they would either leave and set up their own village somewhere else or they would fight possibly to the death to assert their position. This cannot happen on modern British television. Once in power they would rule, they would simply use their position to whine about everyone else's ineffectualness. Another man with all this arguing going on effectively martyred himself by working madly and silently until he was sick and had to be removed. What we saw played out were modern neuroses and nothing historical. It did show why community action fails so often in contemporary Britain as everyone is so self-centred and will not accept the authority of others.

The dreariness of the past I think is often overlooked by people going on these things. I found it interesting in 'Frontier House' (2002) a US series set in 1883 Montana that the teenage girls smuggled in make-up and even the mother complained of loathing seeing herself without make-up. To British audiences this seemed actually comical. In 'The Edwardian Country House' (2002) in the UK the main problem was with the women acting as the young female servants who kept on leaving. It was clear they could not stomach the long hours and hard work and being taken out of the social network of mobile phone usage and their boyfriends. Again, those who felt powerless used a sexual aspect as an assertion of their right to better treatment. As with the mother in 'Surviving the Iron Age', these teenagers argued that having a boyfriend somehow should bring them special rights. All of us are a lot weaker physically than our ancestors, few of us do heavy labour in a domestic or an industrial or agricultural setting. Above all we are used to have few regulations on our lives about who we contact when. We work far shorter hours and even at work are free to phone or email family and friends. Above all we expect constant entertainment not day after day of no free time and nothing to do. In some ways these problems showed up the sharp differences between then and now but you do wonder how blinkered the people who went on the programmes were.

Part of the problem are that you cannot exempt the people from our modern rules. In 1978 the iron age livers could slaughter their own animals, in 2001 that was no longer legal and had to be handled by a proper slaughterman. In 'Frontier House' one family clearly went on the show assuming that they would be able to gun down wildlife freely and blamed their failure on the fact that on conservation grounds they were not able to do that and instead had to get pre-slaughtered meat from the local native American population. That was as much about the American right to bear arms as anything else and any man who had spent as much time hunting as the man in the programme wanted to do would have neglected his other jobs and also decimated the local stock of animals very quickly. Also I would have liked to see him hit things with a flintlock rifle rather than the high-powered firearms he seemed eager to use.

The other interesting problem is participants taking everything too seriously. This was noticeable on 'The Regency House Party' (2004). Sensibly no participant was made to be a servant, there were people employed to be the servants but we did not see their lives and presumably they did not have to live in the conditions or to the timetables of servants of the time. The idea was that as in the Regency period (1811-20) a group of young men and young women (with elderly female chaperones) were brought together in a large house for the Summer to engage in entertainments appropriate to the time and to find a marriage partner. Thus, the tone of this programme was much lighter and interesting covering pastimes of the era. However, one chaperone in particular behaved as if it was all real and went around trying to set up her lady with the eligible bachelors. It was as if she had been brought from 1811 to the modern day. It was clear that she was selected because her whole manner was imperious. She fitted in too well. Something similar happened with 'The Edwardian Country House' (2002). The younger son (I think he was around 10 years old) in particular was a terrible bully of the servants including his tutor (the boy misunderstood the role of tutor and pupil in that time) and it was clear he would have been the perfect brat for that period but was incredibly rude in a way his parents did not control. The family are the Oliff-Coopers and I think the name gives away the kind of pretensions they have. Most people in the UK are descended from workers, and yet as a friend of mine once said about the millions of genealogists in this country, we all assume we are descended from royalty or at least nobility. In addition, in this self-centred society people are often more than happy to treat the people who are working with them like scum and see nothing wrong with it. Of course, if the boy had behaved in 1908 as he did in the programme he would have been caned by his father and the family would have struggled to get any servants. Interestingly one of the outcomes of 'Frontier House' was that one of the participants left his family after the series and was allowed to continue living in the house in all its simplicity, after the series finished. Now seeing how he lived would be interesting television.

The trend for such programmes was extensive at the start of the 2000s. I have not mentioned 'The 1900 House' (1999) which was like 'The Edwardian Country House' but on a smaller scale in suburbia. Again the children missed their friends and I think they should have allowed visits from friends suitably dressed, because of course real children in 1900 would have had a social network that these were denied. They also missed fast food, which like mobile phones (and make-up for Americans) is another modern addiction. This was followed by 'The 1940s House' (2001) in which the family did pretty well. Again it was missing the social network for friends, family and neighbours that would have been there in the real 1940s. The other problem with this one was the panel of experts kept mucking around with things far too much, partly I think because this one was on a smaller scale so there were fewer natural crises and no-one whining about being a servant. The interest in these programmes has not abated. BBC made 'Coal House' (2007) over two series. This was set in a miners' cottage in Wales in the first series in 1927 when the economy was depressed and the second series in 1944 when despite the war coal was in demand and things were marginally better.

As noted above, the Americans have followed the British trend. Not all of these series have made it on to British screens. The last one I saw was 'Pioneer House' (2004) (known as 'Colonial House' in the USA) set in 1628 and again the power dynamics of the village seemed to jar with what went on then and you could see the inevitable train crash as they whined at each other rather than got on and grew food. The Americans also did 'Texas Ranch House' set in Texas in 1867 with the difficulties of rounding up cattle and having horses stolen. A lot of personality clashes for people too. Again, the women find life very dull. This is a fact people, is that the life of all people, especially women, was incredibly hard and dull even up into the 1970s and for many women across the world, even today. People should remember this when they condemn feminism so vehemently. The Australians did 'Outback House' (2005) set in 1861 New South Wales. The Germans have done 'Black Forest House' (2002) set in 1902 a kind of rural version of the 1900 House, they did an 1855 emigration ship and a 1950s girls' school. Britain has also done ones set during military service of the 1950s and schooling of different eras too. So perhaps the fashion for these programmes has not died. They are painful to watch, but given that 'Big Brother' has reached its ninth series, many viewers actually love watching people being self-righteous and shouting at each other.

What these programmes show us, surprise, surprise that even the recent past was a lot harder for people living in western Europe and the USA than it is today. It also shows how quickly we have lost the skills of our ancestors, not just the abilities of iron age people, but the stubbornness, the resilience, the ability to tolerate tedium and to work hard and look undecorated, of even our grandparents' generation. Any of the people who featured in these programmes would have problems adjusting to moving from a bombed house or being a refugee in the way people just in the 1940s did. We have come to a situation where we feel comfort is our right. However, we also feel that we should have power, especially in terms of choice, without accepting any responsibility not least for our own actions. The reason why the communities set up on these programmes fail is because we have no experience of community of any kind in our day-to-day lives. We all live in very atomised existences and are far more likely to bellow at our neighbours about their noise or where they have parked their car than ever talk to them in a calm tone, let alone compromise with them. In our consumerist society 'compromise' in anything has become a dirty word. It is seen as failure, as neglect. If we compromise we have not done the best for our families and so are neglectful of them. There is no sense that hard work, loyalty, sober-headed discussion and actually doing a compromise, are things that benefit not just us but the people around. We are not divorced from them in the way too many of us think. No wonder children fall into violence, easy sex and drug-taking. They have no skills in negotiation, are shunned if they compromise. They also want, they crave constant entertainment or they whine. Is it no surprise that addiction to mobile phones or playstations so quickly turns into addicition to drugs?

I think a lot of lessons from these programmes are lost. The participants come away from the failures they have contributed to ever more self-righteous than before. They have done nothing wrong, it was always the fault of others, there is no compromise. Such attitudes in the past led to death and in fact, though a little less directly, they still do.


TableRappers - ndixon said...

I have felt similar reactions to these programmes. I remember the Iron Age one being shown in the UK and I wondered as to ho valuable an exercise it was with, as you say, modern ideals and mindsets simply being displaced into an alien environment. Even from a practical viewpoint, the way in which modern minds will solve practical problems with limited tools, etc., will be derived from existing, very much broader knowledge rather than pushing the boundaries and expanding on what they already has.

What has been much more interesting, in my opinion, have been the recent UK TV series where two people live, and most importantly eat, as if in a particular period. These are focused on the general day to day lifestyle of the chosen period and make no attempt to switch to that period's society.

Rooksmoor said...

Tablerappers - ndixon, yes, this is the trouble, people cannot 'unlearn' what they know. I do think they need to prepare people a bit better than they often do. Though as I also note, some people almost get into the past mindset too effectively, and whilst that is great for the dynamics of the programme, it also rather alarming that they can shed modern sensibilities so easily. Part of my problem, then is that I want my cake and to eat it.

Yes, I agree the historical diets programmes have worked far better. Maybe it is keeping the experiencing of past life to small, focused elements that explains, as you suggest, why these have been more successful.

Anonymous said...

The biggest mistake folks make when watching these shows is assuming that they are supposed to be "re-enactments." They are not, and don't claim to be. It's supposed to be a study of how modern day people deal with historical times.

Secondly, the mistake you have made is that you think you saw what really happened on these shows. It isn't. You saw a reality TV producers "story" that they created through provoking participants, setting up artificial scenerios, editing, narration, music, and ommission of facts. It always surprises me when folks who believe they know about history fall so easily for a contrived presentation of "reality." Hopefully you don't also automatically believe that your ancestors who wore fine clothes in their portraits were wealthy. They too were trying to create a "reality" for the viewer. Just some thoughts from a participant in one of these so-called "historical" TV shows.

Rooksmoor said...

I don't appreciate your patronising, ill-informed, judgemental tone but I will publish your comment anyway.

They do portray these programmes as re-enactments and go into immense detail about how they are going to get it accurate and expose the people to how things were in those times. To some degree this taps into the popularity of historical re-enactment as a hobby which you can witness most summer weekends across the UK. The tension comes because it is never clear how far they are going to move people into the past and what tends to happen is that they physically re-enact without mentally doing so.

None of us here are ignorant about what goes into the making of television programmes. I have attended and featured in a number of current affairs and of course you get hours of footage which is just cut down to fit a neat 30-minute programme, so I and I imagine other commentators are not as deluded as you might think. It is like watching sports coverage compared to sitting through a football match. Yes, they pick out the most 'juicy' bits, but my argument is that the fact that many of those things occur, with no need for the organisers to compel them is revealing about the kind of people who go into their programme. I also argue it tells us something more broadly about our society, aspects of which are exposed when transposed into this other setting.

As a historian I always penetrate behind what is shown superficially and I resent your accusation that I am simply fooled. Of course many of the wealthy in pictures, were incredibly wealthy, but everyone always appears in their 'Sunday best' no matter where they stood in society, it is no different today.

Of course modern tastes do censor the grim. There is no slaughter of an unpopular leader. Show me an 18th century drama where they are defecating behind a screen in the corner of ballroom or where the wealthy have rotten teeth. My problem with the 're-enactment' programmes and I will continue to call them that, because that is how the companies portray them, is that they emphasise their attention to detail and yet the participants complain when they are presented with the hard life our predecessors endured. My complaint is with the people who go on these things and how deluded they seem to be about what they are going to experience. You argue, as one of these people, that you are part of an act set up by the programme makers, then why do you all whine so much and stomp off in tantrums? Even pretending at living in the past is tough, ask any Saturday afternoon Viking or Roundhead. Clearly the allure of being on television even to simply whine for programme after programme is too much of an attraction for many people.

I know you might be bitter about our criticism of people like you, but that gives you no right to portray us as idiots!

Rooksmoor said...

Having reflected on the views of 'Anonymous' overnight I think the contribution vindicates some of my original complaints. It is clear that the people involved with these programmes are very arrogant and to a large extent self-centred. I accept Anonymous's point that programme makers do like to present us with a freak show of unacceptable behaviour. However, programmes with a supposedly historical/educational context (and I think the extent of the truth of this is where I and Anonymous most diverge) have a role to provide something different to 'Big Brother'.

DVDs are easily available of many of these programmes, some also have accompanying books, so they are intended to be used in at least a semi-educational way. Perhaps it is not surprising in our self-centred society that we seek to educate (young) people in how to be arrogant, a bully and selfish. The way Anonymous sought to shut down the debate in one blow indicates his/her perception of discussion. S/he knows the 'truth' and is going to rub our noses in our supposed ignorance. No wonder schools no longer have debates.

If Anonymous thinks we are all so deluded about television making (and I have been attending the making of television programmes since the age of 5) then s/he is free to start her/his own blog and condemn my delusion virulently. That is the wonderful democracy of blogging.