Saturday, 9 April 2011

TV Settlement Re-enactment Programmes: The Next Generation?

Back in 2008, I wrote about television programmes which took ordinary people and had them live for a time as people in a particular time period:   Since the 1970s this has been a increasingly popular genre, one that in turn fascinated and horrified me.  My key problem with the programmes was that the people who had been selected to participate often could not cope at all and either constantly whined about being separated from their boyfriends or sneaked in anachronistic make-up, or conversely, in a high status role, used their position to lord it over others.  There was a constant demand for modern day attitudes and the respect of the 'me first' behaviour so prevalent in today's society which led to the break down of scenarios in which people had to buckle under, and, vitally work incredibly hard, far harder than the vast majority of people (at least in Western society) work today.  To some degree it led me to wonder if what was effectively turning into a 'Big Brother' television style of historical programming was going to grind to a halt.

Even while I was writing this, creeping up, hidden away on channels like BBC3 which at the time I could not even receive, was a new approach which I believe has clearly addressed the sort of concerns I raised back in 2008 and has thus allowed fascinating and highly informative re-enactment programmes to be produced.  This trend has saved the genre, and, importantly, has provided accessible historical programmes, something we always need.  The last of what I see as the old format of re-enactment series, which began with 'Coal House' (2007), 'Coal House at War' (2008) and now 'Snowdonia 1890' in northern rather than southern Wales.  I guess given that these are made by Welsh television and people, certainly in the first two series are living where some people who really experienced the events of 1927 and 1944 which featured in the series, there is a bit more gravitas, though not having seen much of the series I can comment for sure.

Of course, some programmes, have gone down the more 'game show' approach, shifting from one popular approach, the 'Big Brother' one to a more directly competitive one.  The extreme example is 'Ben Fogle's Escape In Time' which ran initially in July 2010 in which two families were based on the Acton Scott farm, which was featured in the documentary series, 'Victorian Farm' (2009) and have to make the best job of whatever task they are set that day, such as ploughing or mucking out.  Their efforts are judged by experts who as in some of the more documentary style series make judgements on how well they have done.  As seen in 'The 1940s House' (2001) experts can be capricious and sometimes pretty anachronistic in their judgements.  I guess this highlights that it is not only the participants that can find it hard to separate modern day assumptions from the experiences, especially the work, of the past. 

A similar though less extremely competitive was 'Turn Back Time - The High Street' (2011).  In this series shopkeepers from today took over empty shops in Shepton Mallett and each week ran them as if they were in a certain era going from the late Victorian period to the 1970s in stages.  One advantage over many re-enactment programmes was that these people actually knew the trade they were going into.  However, the three judging experts (including chef Gregg Wallace and social historian Juliet Gardiner), who unlike the participants and expert visitors, never bothered to dress up in the clothing of the time, made capricious decisions; the dressmaker suddenly had to run a hairdresser's; the couple who were bakers in real life were compelled to switch their baking and retail roles when in the scenario.  The profits of each were measured in a competitive way, but that was an unnecessary element for what was otherwise an interesting series.  Giving them more time in each era would have helped.  The dressmaker took a week to make a dress that was then obsolete by the following week, so constantly found it near impossible to make much income.  They were better on things such as the adulteration of food in the 19th century and the issues of wartime rationing and the black market; these things gave drama enough.

I seem to have come at this issue from the wrong end, featuring more of the same in terms of quality, and in some ways, a deterioration in re-enactment programmes towards yet another series of 'reality' game shows, which primarily seem to delight in setting one group of people against another in order to derive the greatest bitterness from them.  This, however, neglects, what I see as a much healthier trend developing in re-enactment programmes.  Perhaps it can be traced back to 'Living with the Tudors' (2007), not really a re-enactment in itself, but a documentary based on participatory social science research about re-enactors at Kentwell Hall in Suffolk, Europe's oldest and largest re-enactment centre.  The programme took four years to make and the directors, Kate Guthrie and Nina Pope, were also participants, learning from the people working at the centre.  Importantly, a key flaw of many of the re-enactment programmes I have discussed, i.e. whingeing volunteers trying to impose contemporary assumptions on what they are doing, was avoided.

Though started after 'Living with the Tudors', but broadcast in 2005, was 'Tales from the Green Valley'.  This really signalled a new era in re-enactment programmes and introduced us to 'stars' of this genre.  This programme involved four experts working on a Welsh farm as if the year was 1620, so the early Stuart period.  The work was incredibly hard but though they did not know everything about the era before they started, the five presenters, Chloe Spencer, John Letts, Ruth Goodman, Peter Ginn and Alexander Langlands, were historians and archaeologists with at least a passing knowledge of historical behaviour.  In addition, vitally, they were willing to buckle down and work incredibly hard even while eating period food.  Each week guest experts to talk about particular farming methods, entertainment, construction, etc., came in, appearing in period costume; sometimes relatives of the presenters would come along to help too.  The programme was both incredibly informative but also engaging in a way so many re-enactment series have failed to be.  For Goodman, Ginn and Langlands, it was the start of a new career.  These three have gone on to appear in very similar series, 'Victorian Farm' (2009) at Acton Scott farm in Shropshire and 'Edwardian Farm' (2010) in at Morwellham Quay in Devon.  Not only did they try out genuine farming methods, construction, handicrafts and cooking from the relevant periods, but they also worked, especially in the Edwardian era, on industrial projects.  Burning lime or mining ore or cleaning a great house shows the resilience of the presenters.  I suppose they have a love for the participation. 

If you visit Goodman's and Ginn's websites, you can see they make a living lecturing on social history, but also in projects, reconstructing aspects of a particular period.  Goodman also appeared in 'Victorian Pharmacy' (2010) along with historians Nick Barber and Tom Quick.  The pharmacy was located at Blists Hill, a re-enactment Victorian town, not far from the Acton Scott farm.  This was a less demanding series for the participants, but was fascinating all the same.  Again the programme is useful in actually testing out what we know about how things worked at the time, but provides gentle entertainment. I have seen Goodman so often in period costume, that when I saw her in contemporary dress on 'The One Show' in September 2010 she somehow looked wrong.  Comically one of the regular presenters Christine Bleakley immediately apologised for Goodman's language (the programme being live) because she referred to the 'shitty jobs' that children from Victorian workhouses went into.  That incident was funny given how much credibility Goodman has compared to presenters like Bleakley who seem to thrive on making a fuss about trivia rather than getting to grips with what many of our ancestors really experienced. I imagine there were tensions between the presenters at times on recent re-enactment programmes, but whilst we are not spared seeing the hardships of working hard in bad weather, we do not get people whining to camera about how hard it is and that somehow they deserve privileged treatment. 

Re-enactment is big business in the UK as locations such as Blists Hill, Morwellham Quay and Kentwell Hall demonstrate.  I suppose to some extent there will always be a simplification for visitors, that goes for any museum.  However, I believe in the latest crop of documentary-style re-enactment programmes, that the right balance has been found in how they are presented, something which has been missing for thirty years from such programmes shown on British television, whether made in the UK or USA.  I trust now that a template has been set that will allow us to avoid yet more whining participants, who were really only there to get on television, not to be part of a project, and seemingly with no understanding beforehand of just how incredibly hard this kind of work is.  The bulk of us do not have the energy and tenacity to do such hard work and should stay well away from it.  I accept that more populist versions of re-enactment programmes are a stepping stone for people to engage with social history.  'Turn Back Time - The High Street', probably was just off the right balance, better, more involved 'judges' not making capricious decisions and not expecting miracles in a week would have made it an excellent series.  I am glad that we have moved in this country, to a better approach to re-enactment television.  It is a fascinating, educating genre with gentle entertainment, and when it is handled well, it provides excellent television, when handled, as it has too often in the past, it is just an encouragement to switch off.

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