Tuesday, 3 August 2010

BBC Factual Programs, Social History and Celebrity

Montagu’s Daughter recently had the opportunity to watch Who do You Think You Are? on BBC 1 with Irish actor Dervla Kirwan (it was a slow night).

Dervla is from Dublin and already knew she was the great grand-niece of Irish revolutionary leader Michael Collins. A particularly interesting subject for the show, you might think, and we do see her learning of her grandfather’s role in the Irish war of independence and subsequent support for partition. In fact the show glosses over this period, save for a few awkward references to the Irish Republican Army not being the same as the modern IRA, and a particularly poor description of the Black and Tans’ role in repressing the nationalist movement. The show steers clear of anything controversial. Perhaps the complexities of British imperial history and the Irish freedom movement are beyond the format?

More effective was the exploration of the life of Dervla’s maternal grandfather, a Polish Jew who escaped persecution to Ireland and married her Catholic grandmother. Both would have had to give up a lot for the sake of their relationship and were ostracised from their communities. Harry Kahn was later sentenced to one year’s hard labour by Sir Frederick Faulkner in a particularly nasty anti-Semitic miscarriage of justice. The case was taken all the way to the House of Commons and was probably the source for a passage in James Joyce’s Ulysses. A story of love among hardship, then.

Who Do You Think You Are? is a success story of British television. Now in its eighth series it regularly attracts audiences of six million, has its own BBC magazine, interactive section on family history of the BBC website, a 2010 BAFTA nomination for Best Factual Series and the format has exported to the US, Canada, Australia, Ireland, Poland, Sweden and South Africa.

It is also a good example of the way social history is packaged in contemporary British broadcasting. An edu-tainment hybrid, the show mixes a fascination with celebrity with popular genealogy and the traditional documentary-history format. Each show's narrative is constructed through a dramatisation of the research process with the subject visiting archives and meeting experts, adding a gloss of celebrity sparkle to the ordinarily dusty activity of sitting in libraries and searching micro fiche. The human reactions of otherwise unreachable stars – crying at the fate of their forebears/revelling at struggle in the face of adversity – provides the pay-off. And along the way we learn about social conditions for the working-classes in mid-Victorian Britain, say. It counts towards the BBC’s statutory commitment of factual programming (1295 hours in 2009/10) as part of its Public Service Remit, yet also connects with broad, mainstream audiences. Win-win?

For the celebrities there are obvious benefits. They get screen time and the opportunity to build upon their brand identity, ubiquity and marketability. The program makers get to tap in to this brand in their marketing – a good example of synergy. But this also reveals its limitations as a factual programme. How far are the didactic potentials of the show limited by the format? In organising the historical information around the narrative of one particularly successful individual – a successful narrative resolution, if you like – every episode tends to celebrate social mobility. Times were tough for my family, but through hard work and the unbridled opportunities provided by post-war capitalism, we got there in the end, shiny, happy and rich. When confronted with more genuinely challenging and less well understood historical events and issues, in this example at least, the program breaks under the pressure, unable to cope.

How to explain this? One answer is that people aren’t interested in complex representations of history and don’t want to learn ‘stuff’, preferring to be dazzled by simple stories with happy endings and shiny people (although I don’t know if Bruce Forsyth or Chris Moyles would fit into that category). So if program-makers can create a format which gives them that while sneaking in a bit of history, all the better.

Another answer, however, can explain modern factual broadcasting in terms of structural pressures towards commercialisation, of which cross-platform celebrity branding is a major part. While shows like this help the BBC fulfil its commitment to factual programming – a key thing that would be lost if the BBC went commercial – they must also be understood as a component of the commercial media landscape and the way that public service broadcasting is increasingly put under pressure to fulfil objectives in the interests of private business – in this case subsidising the development of celebrity-actor brands – at the expense of more complex but informative and useful understandings of history.

Which is it, A or B?

No comments:

Post a Comment