Monthly Archives: December 2013

On The Muppet Christmas Carol, and history for children

It is almost Christmas (three days to be precise) which means that it is time to don a suitably cheesy jumper, gorge on mince pies, and watch a selection of festive films; and just like almost every year, one of the films I will be watching is The Muppets Christmas Carol. Besides being a good movie in its own right, for me this film has several valuable lessons to teach historians regarding how we try and communicate history to children, an issue which is of the utmost importance.


Before I begin, let me wax lyrical on why I love The Muppet Christmas Carol. Firstly, it has got the Muppets in it, and only those people who have a block of cold, hard steel where their hearts should be do not love the Muppets. Besides their inherent charm, all of the Muppets are cast perfectly; and furthermore Michael Caine plays the role of Scrooge to near perfection, shifting between pantomime villain, genuine monster, and miserable wreck effortlessly. The film’s tone is pitch perfect, blending comedy and tragedy together seamlessly; and it would be remiss of me not to mention the soundtrack, which contains not only some of the best songs in Christmas films, but the best songs of any film period.


Overall, The Muppet Christmas Carol is a pretty darn good movie. However, what I like most about the film is that it never talks down to its audience. Obviously it is targeted children and families, but even when watching it as a teenager or in my twenties I have never felt that it is ‘dumbing down’ the story; or telling it in that pernicious, ‘kid friendly’ way, with certain plot elements omitted or entirely inappropriate ones added in. What The Muppet Christmas Carol does is tell the story of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol in a manner that stays true to the dark, but eventually optimistic, spirit of the original book, albeit with a cast of puppet frogs, pigs and aliens.


As such, The Muppet Christmas Carol has a very important lesson for public historians, as I am willing to bet that this film has introduced a generation of children to the story and morals of A Christmas Carol who would have never even contemplated reading any of Dickens’ books. For the purposes of this blog, it is particularly significant as children are a demographic which are often treated rather condescendingly (if not outright ignored) by historical programming. There are some exceptions, notably the Horrible History television series which, from what I have seen of it, teaches children about several important historical subjects in a way which is engaging and humorous; but which nonetheless respects them as an audience and does not treat them like idiots, and as such is a show which can be watched and enjoyed by anyone, regardless of age.


The problem is particularly evident when considering documentaries which are targeted at adults, as I cannot help but feel that historical documentarians barely consider the idea that young children might watch their programmes as well as their parents. Certainly, I must admit that the subject matter of these shows is often factually and morally complicated, and as such hard to communicate to a younger demographic; and furthermore, factors such as a programme’s timeslot or the channel on which it is broadcast will affect the overall style and tone of the show in a way that makes it hard for it to have universal appeal.


However, some of my favourite programmes as a young child were Sir David Attenborough’s Life series, documentaries which regularly covered themes and topics which could definitely be considered ‘adult’, but which did so in a manner which could captivate young and old alike. Obviously, Sir David had some advantages over historians, as watching a cheetah chase a gazelle across the Serengeti will almost always be more interesting to a child than watching someone read through the Domesday Book, but to throw our hands up and surrender without even trying is inexcusable. I would argue that Tony Robinson’s programmes provide an example of how it can be done, as whilst they are not perfect, and often confuse light-heartedness with outright silliness, for the most part his programmes are crafted in a way which appeal to a broad audience whilst retaining their academic rigour, both in terms of their subject matter and in their presentation.


Obviously I am not saying that is possible to make all history programming interesting for all ages, as there are some topics which even the most skilled documentarian would struggle to make universally accessible. All I am saying is that we should at least consider the idea that children might be interested in watching documentaries about topics which are traditionally seen as ‘adult’, and that as such our programming should attempt to be more inclusive. After all, there is so much history which has universal appeal, or at least it does if you think about it in the right way.


On In Our Time, and The Infinite Monkey Cage

My name is Tom Whitehead, and I have a confession. I download the In Our Time podcast. I have two reasons for doing so, the first of which is that, as we will all be middle aged eventually, I would prefer to slide into it gradually, rather like one would do a warm bath. However, the second (and serious) reason why I listen to it is because, as a public historian, it is always useful to see how other people and institutions are trying to communicate history to a wider audience; and I thought I would use this week’s post to break down what I see as the strengths and weaknesses of In Our Time.


Firstly, I must say that I really enjoy the programme. It manages to cover some incredibly intricate and often problematic topics in a pretty short length of time; and does so in a way that rarely talks down to the listener. One of In Our Time’s main strengths is that it has a topic for everyone. The full In Our Time back catalogue is available on ITunes, and I would encourage people to look through it: it is simply staggering in both its breadth and its depth. It doesn’t matter whether you’re interested in philosophy, science, maths, history, whatever. I guarantee you will find at least one episode which you will want to listen to. Furthermore, it covers issues which I would normally not even contemplate reading about in a way that is not only informative but makes you want to find out more, the sign of any good programme.


Melvyn Bragg is also an excellent host, as not only does he come across as a man who knows about the subject at hand, you instantly know that he cares about the subject as well, which is outstanding considering the wide array of topics the show covers. He is also more than willing to put his guests in their place if he feels they are making impertinent points, or are simply talking too much. This is probably due to the fact the show goes out live and so time is limited; but it is also a mark of his professionalism, as it would be far simpler to defer to the experts, and let them ramble ad infinitum.


However, the main reason why he is (for me) one of the best hosts not just on radio but on T.V. as well is that he does not make the programme about himself. When you listen to the show, you know that he recognises people tune in for the discussion and to learn about the topic, not listen to Melvyn Bragg. Indeed, you rarely hear his opinion on the topic being discussed, and whilst the point of In Our Time is to hear the expert’s opinion, he could have easily injected far more of his own voice into the programme, which I feel would have made for a worse product.


But like everything except chips and gravy, In Our Time is not perfect. Whilst it never speaks down to the listener, at times you definitely feel like an outsider looking in. Mainly this is when the guests tell jokes. I have written at great length about the troubled relationship between academic history and popular humour, and nowhere is this more painfully apparent than In Our Time, which is insider humour at its absolute worst.


Another problem is that at least two of the three guests are usually Oxbridge academics. Now, this is not going to be an embittered rant about how Oxbridge is elitist and all that hot garbage: Britain and the world in general would be immeasurably worse without Oxbridge. But it is hardly controversial to suggest that having two or three academics from traditionally conservative universities and who are used to talking to an audience who already know about the subject being discussed is going to produce a discussion which is somewhat out of touch with the non-Oxbridge educated public, especially when the topics being discussed are themselves esoteric.


I do not know the remedy for this, but I think The Infinite Monkey Cage provides some good pointers. It too is a show dedicated to discussing matters which are typically cast as ‘academic’, but it does so in a very different way to In Our Time. Firstly, the panel are not just academics, which prevents the insider-outsider culture from developing; and similarly those academics that are on the panel are not all professors or lecturers, so as such they are used to engaging with an audience who may not know much about the topic going into the programme.


It also helps that the presenters (Brian Cox and Robert Ince) are given the role of an everyman’s guide. Admittedly, Cox is an informed everyman, but whilst he participates in the debate he always does so in a manner that you would imagine the average member of the public (whoever that phrase actually refers to) would.


Furthermore, there is a portion at the end dedicated to reading out tweets made by the audience during the programme, most of which are actually funny. Admittedly this feature is somewhat out of kilter with the nature of In Our Time, but I still think it would be interesting to see if it could work, as I feel reading out listener’s reflections on the show could provoke new lines of discussion and inquiry.


There are other differences, such as the fact it is filmed in front of a live audience and that it is pre-recorded, but I do not feel these are particularly relevant to In Our Time. Overall, I enjoy In Our Time, I really do, but it is those things we love the most that we must be most critical of, as our criticism is the only thing stopping their inevitable slide into stagnation, and eventually decay.

On national myths, and how to revise them

For the past few weeks, our seminars have focused on what happens when previously uncontested historical narratives suddenly become contested, and more importantly why developments in academic thought often take a long time, or even outright fail, to translate into a change in the wider public consciousness. The main trigger for this post was our seminar last week, in which we discussed why popular discourse always frames Britain’s experience in World War One according to the ‘lions led by donkeys’ framework, despite the fact this view of events is no longer viewed as particular accurate by many military historians. Since then I have begun to think more about why these inaccurate narratives continue to be repeated without any real debate or analysis; and more importantly what we can do as historians to address this problem, for it is one we must overcome if we want to foster a genuine appreciation for our nation’s history.


In Britain, we are surrounded by historical opinions which we accept almost at face value. Just off the top of my head, these include the belief that the Roman and Norman invasions were brought nothing but good; that Henry 8th’s break from Rome was a patriotic stand versus a tyrannical Catholic Church; that Winston Churchill was the best Prime Minister ever; and the aforementioned attitudes towards World War One. These views are repeated ad nauseam by almost every facet of the press, media, and by politicians from almost every political party; and over time they become a sort of litmus test of your patriotism, to the point where questioning them becomes a form of cultural treachery.


But how do these narratives continue to propagate in such a manner? It is a tricky question, but I think that is primarily because, as people in general, we all have a belief deep down that we need some elements of shared history in order to preserve our national culture. History is one of the main means through which we make sense of our lives, and as such the idea that everyone sees history differently, and that there are no stories which everyone agrees upon, is one which seems to leave history without any meaning at all. To take the example in the introduction, if World War One was not just a misguided and futile loss of life, does this mean that Remembrance Sunday loses its meaning? Similarly, if the Versailles Treaty was not the iniquitous and unreasonable document that we all believe it to be, how do we explain the rise of the Nazi party?


The problem with this attitude is that it is ripe for manipulation by those who really do want to destroy our national heritage. I already talked about this issue in my first post about how history is taught in Vietnam, so I will not repeat it here. Rather, I am going to give my thoughts on what we can do as historians moving forwards in order to show the wider public that history does not necessarily lose its meaning if people disagree on certain issue.


The first, and most important thing, we can do is stop being so patronising. We are all guilty of it at times, but it is painful to watch academic historians in the newspaper, or on the radio or T.V. basically tell the wider public that they are right, we are wrong, and that furthermore we were all idiots for ever having thought the way we did. It is genuinely troubling, even more so considering the fact that the subjects they are proselytizing about are often incredibly sensitive, and it is therefore not hard to understand why many people see these modern day iconoclasts not as brave bearers of the truth, but as rude, inconsiderate berks who are completely out of touch with public sentiment.


However, the main solution lies in how we teach history at its most basic level, and without wanting to sound like the very person I described literally a sentence ago, we need to teach people that history is more than just a list of things that happened, and that there is no one ‘correct’ narrative. Rather, from a young age we need to teach people that history is all about analysing how various events relate to one another; interpreting the impact they had at the time and on modern society; and understanding why these same events will have completely different meanings to different people and communities.


It should not be too difficult either. After all, our society is more or less built on differences of opinion, and accepting those differences as something which we can tolerate and even embrace. Does everyone you know play the same sports and support the same team? When was the last time everyone you knew agreed that a book, song, or T.V. show was the best thing ever (with the obvious exception of Breaking Bad)? Never, and unless you live in a universe populated by the Stepford Wives, it is incredibly unlikely that such a society will ever exist.


There is even less reason why history should conform to this idea. Every action, whether it is the Government’s decision to privatise state assets or the parish council’s decision to hold a village fete, will affect different groups and communities in different ways; and if we accept this, we can begin to write a history which is not only more inclusive, but is more accurate because of it. Furthermore accepting history as a series of contested meanings and interpretations does not mean that we can no longer draw shared meaning from certain events, as even if people believe that those who died during World War One did so not in vain but for what they saw as a just and righteous cause; the death toll and the inhumanity of the conditions in which they fought are reason enough for the phrase “we shall remember them” to retain its emotional and historical resonance.