Return of the bugbear
September 13, 2008
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One of my favourite pastimes is shouting at the television when David Starkey's on. I don't hate him for his smug, overbearing attitude (though it doesn't help). I don't hate him for his deliberate cultivation of rudeness. I think he's a great historian. What I hate is his determination to make history 'relevant' to the plebs by making forced and unnecessary comparisons with modern life.
My rage has been sparked again by seeing a Broadcast story about a new series on Henry VIII (via MediumRob). Apparently the man who changed from Renaissance prince into tyrant will be portrayed as an "A-list celebrity". For fuck's sake! He was the King of England, in a time when that title still meant something! It doesn't need to be embellished into something 'hip' or 'automatically identifiable'! It's not an isolated incident – I'm sure I remember one series on the Tudors comparing Henry's court to the EU…(I definitely remember ranting at the TV at several points over the last eight years on similar themes.)
What is the point of popular history if it cannot provide a proper sense of context without resorting to facile parallels? It undermines the importance of events and reduces the ability of the watching audience to understand their signficance if they are equating Henry VIII with David Beckham, Katherine of Aragon with Victoria and Anne Boleyn with Rebecca Loos. A-list celebrity does not have quite the same 'oomph' as the majesty and power of the King. It's nowhere near being the same. What happened to explaining an event within its proper time, making the viewer understand the contemporary mindset and values? Otherwise we might as well compare James I and his, um, benevolence towards the Duke of Buckingham to Tom Cruise, and Anne of Denmark to Nicole Kidman or Katie Holmes. Cos, like, they're both rumoured to be the gays, innit?
It's cultural shorthand and it's lazy. It assumes the general public haven't the intelligence to grasp the deeper concepts that drove history and panders to the dumbing-down of the collective national consciousness. Give me Simon Schama any day.