Monday, 2 May 2011

Appreciating The Work Of Richard Holmes

These days, with 17% of the population scheduled to live until they are 100, when you hear of a person dying in their 60s you tend to think that they have died 'young', especially if they are celebrities.  In the past fortnight, there have been two such deaths, both as a result of cancer.  The first was actress Elisabeth Sladen, who was only 63 and looked at least a decade younger.  The second was (Professor Brigadier Edward) Richard Holmes who died at the age of 65.  Perhaps he is not as well known to the general public as Sladen, but, I imagine to readers of this blog, interested in the kind of things I am interested, he was a well-known and respected name.  He was a military historian, who rose from the rank of private to brigadier in the Territorial Army; he became the first Director Reserve Forces and Cadets (1997-2000) in the British Army not drawn from the ranks of regular soldiers, and was 1999-2007 Colonel-Of-The-Regiment of the Princess of Wales Royal Regiment.  He was an academic as well as a soldier, producing 22 books 1971-2008 and lecturing at the University of Cranfield, 1989-2009.  He was awarded the CBE in 1998 and the Danish Order of Dannebrog.

It is through his television programmes, that I imagine he will be best known most widely.  This is one reason why I think his work needs to be remembered.  In many ways he appeared the archetypal British officer, with a full moustache and and real vigour even when in his 50s and 60s, he was shown on television riding around on horseback and firing rifles more actively than many younger presenters.  In some ways, these days, there might be something off-putting about someone so much like an army officer of old.  However, there was an element in him that made his delivery and his sheer enthusiasm come to you through the television.  His voice was clear but with soft tones which made you feel that he was talking to a small group of fellow enthusiasts.  I imagine this comes from him having participated in numerous guided tours of battlefields; he was patron of the Guild of Battlefield Guides.  He managed to pitch the level perfectly, informing without coming across as patronising.  He was not one of these presenters who made you feel you were ignorant, more that in sharing his knowledge you could come to know what he knew.  Conversely, he was not as laid back as Michael Wood, another long serving history presenter who at times seems to be more on an adventure scrambling around places.  I imagine that Holmes's delivery was a product of teaching soldiers and ordinary university students who have many other distractions.  Commentators also note that whilst he covered big events he was also alert to the fate of the ordinary soldier and how they felt when wrapped up in battles.  This always allows the audience to connect more easily with the narrative.  That balance of the strategic and the tactical, down from the level of whole armies to the situation of individuals was well done and, I believe another trait that made Holmes so engaging.

It is many years since A.J.P. Taylor could engage people with basically simply lecturing on television.  However, though far more active, it was that kind of engaging delivery, personal enthusiasm, an ability to conjure up time and place, plus clear communication of facts that made Holmes's programmes stand out.  Newcomers such as Dan Snow, could learn a great deal from watching Holmes's programmes once again.  I have travelled around many of the regions and some of the sites featured in 'War Walks' (1997) and can confirm that he gave you such a good appreciation of what happened in landscapes that look very differen 60, 90 or many hundreds of years later.  Similarly, with his series on the American War of Independence, 'Redocats and Rebels' (2003) explaining a conflict which is always difficult for a British audience not least due to the complex geography of the fronts and battlefields; the same with 'Wellington: The Iron Duke' (2002) especially covering Wellington's career in India.

I think the greatest example of his skill was when flicking through channels I stumbled across an episode of his series 'The Western Front' (2002).  I had seen the whole series before, but in moments found myself engaged in it so much that I watched it right to the end once again.  We need people like this in all kinds of factual programmes.  They have a talent which is not taught, but evolves in people due to their life experiences and Holmes had had the right combination of experiences to provide the ideal presenter, serious and knowledgeable but so engaging that he pulled you right into his narrative.  It is a pity that he was killed by an invidious illness which has robbed us of watching more of his thoroughly engaging documentaries in the coming years.

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