Saturday, March 30, 2013


One of the first things you learn in adult education is not to patronise your students. You may be popularising but you are not dumbing down. Watching a documentary on Pompeii the other night it struck me that one of Nick Cohen's favourite moans about the quality of BBC TV drama could easily be applied to their historical documentaries.

There seems to be a standard formula. First, take a ten minute script and turn it into a one hour programme. Then take a presenter and send them somewhere pretty and warm to be filmed. Add a thirty second clip of actors in costume running around screaming, then repeat it several times. Include a computer generated recreation of an event or building and repeat that several times. Actually, repeat everything several times on the assumption that the attention and retention spans of the audience are roughly equivalent to those of goldfish. Finally, do a facial reconstruction of an ancient dead human and mouth platitudes like, 'wow, this is a real living person.'  (No it isn't. It's a waxwork. And anyway most of the audience will have died of boredom by then and will have started channel-hopping for repeats of Father Ted).

The documentary had one thing to say, which was that the people of Pompeii and Herculaneum were killed by a heat blast and not smothered by ash. Interesting, but that was it. A bit of explanation why helped us along for a few more minutes. But even that explanation was simplified (and repeated several times) on the grounds that the audience will be a bit too stupid to understand much else.  And they are all like that; deeply, deeply patronising.

Remember this:

That's what documentaries used to be like.  And you tell that to young people today ...

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