Eye-witnesses of history

27th October 1995 at 00:00
Asa Briggs considers how television has become the archivist for a century's history.

As the 20th century inexorably moves away and with it a millennium efforts are being made to capture its essences in words and images. One of the most ambitious is the BBC's 26-part television series, People's Century.

In no previous century would such a huge project have been possible, for television is, of course, one of the most remarkable and controversial products of this century. It is also global in its impact, and the massive project carries the viewer across space as well as across time. For example, the programme "1929 Breadline" takes a global perspective, focusing not only on unemployment in Jarrow, but on abandoned nitrate towns in the Chilean desert.

The title of the series and of the lavish book that accompanies it explains and identifies the approach. The history of the century centres on "the common man", as HG Wells expected it would do before the century even began. Change is explored from the angle of the men and women who have lived through it.

They speak for themselves, like Stanislava Kraskovkaya in the first programme, "Age of Hope". Born in the Caucasus in 1897, she declared herself "very pleased with my century"; "we've had electricity, trams, cars, right up to astronauts". That has always been one way of reckoning "progress".

Many of the characters in the series, as they recall their own past, dwell on great expectations, and this is certainly one of the themes of this century - along with "Killing Fields", the title of the second programme, and concentration camps which will figure later in the series, as "Total War". People have lived longer too, which is a bonus for the oral historian.

One difficulty inherent in determining the value of oral history has obviously been a source of stimulation for the producers and the researchers of People's Century. While the words that the characters utter draw on the memories of their own lives with family history and public history inextricably entangled the pictorial evidence is inevitably different in range, in character and in purpose from the oral history. Much of it is rarely seen archive film, some of it designed as propaganda, much of it bearing on great events which were shaped by very different people from those who are heard reminiscing on the screen.

Discovering and selecting the archive film and much of it is a revelation for the historian as well as for "the ordinary viewer" preceded the discovery and choice of people to be interviewed, although not the identification of the themes that would provide programme titles. The production team has searched the world for survivors of the drama unfolded in the pictorial material.

It must have been an exciting search with a drama of its own. For example, Dorah Ramothibe, born in the Orange Free State in South Africa in 1881 she is the oldest person to be interviewed remembered the formation of the African National Congress in 1912. She was in at the start. And again she dwelt in her own contribution on great expectation as much as on cruel exploitation. "We wanted a better life. We could see that it would come if we joined the Congress." Dorah has seen the story through at least so far, for history does not stop.

The highly experienced and accomplished producer of the series, Peter Pagnamenta, has wisely allowed the characters to speak for themselves with few intermediaries, but with some well designed music to go with the words and images. Born during the Second World War, one year after Dunkirk, Pagnamenta joined the BBC in 1965 at the dawn of the television age, and before he tackled a century he tackled Tonight, 24 Hours and the Apollo space flights, which appear in the episode "The Endangered Planet". One of his earlier series was the 11-part All Our Working Lives, social history at its best.

It is far more difficult to deal with the intricately interwoven strands of world history than it is with the world of work. Nor can the result be definitive. What history can? Yet this impressive new project, which includes much social history, like the fifth programme, "Sporting Fever", deserves praise.

It is entertaining and exciting as well as informative and worthwhile. Moreover it is attracting huge audiences for history, and may well stimulate the right kind of controversy about how history is made and how different it looks from different vantage points. At a different level it should also stimulate thought about the nature of historical evidence, oral and visual. Appropriately the last programme will be called "Picture Power".

The long-term value of the series will lie in the fact that it will preserve for the record just how this century looked to us towards its close after so many surprises had been packed into its last decades. For this reason I hope that most of the material collected in the production of the series, oral and visual, will be kept for the future even when it was not used. It should not be destroyed after being edited out.

There may be unused comments which will seem more pertinent in the future than some which were used, and there will certainly be images in the visual material which will foster "revisionism", an "ism" that is dear to many contemporary historians.

For me, history, old or revised, is about human experience, how it is felt and perceived and how in different periods of history changes take place. For this reason I have found BBC Radio's 2020: A View of the Century, to be another BBC project, far cheaper but equally ambitious, that will also pass into history.

The two projects seem to have developed independently inside the BBC with little intercommunication, and their simultaneous appearance has been described as coincidental. They are in fact complementary.

Both focus on the reactions of "ordinary people", not the whole of the story, but while Pagnamenta sticks to chronology, those responsible for the radio history series, Suzanne Levy, Chris Stone and John Tusa, present a mosaic of related experiences expressed in words.

This is oral history by itself, and the words used include those both of "great men" and of professional historians. When the series was first commissioned in 1992, Brian Redhead, not John Tusa, was to be presenter, and no one in this century was more associated in this country in his own as well as in the public mind with words without pictures.

John Tusa, an excellent presenter and former managing director of the BBC World Service, began his first programme, however, with an image, Apollo 8 circling the moon. The programme was called "Dreaming", which is a motif in many of the programmes in the television series, and it ended with Desmond Tutu who was as optimistic as Dorah Ramothibe. Another programme will be called "Working", a link with Pagnamenta, and the last programme "Hoping". Is this the motif with which we are all approaching the millennium?

One point which neither series clearly addresses and it is thought provoking is what is the significance of a century, or for that matter of a millennium. People, great and small, did not think within a century context until the end of the 18th century, so that time itself takes on new shapes.

Whatever we say now, at this century's end there may well be more relief than expectation. How does this compare with how our ancestors felt and thought 100 years ago? What will they be thinking or feeling 100 years on?

The People's Century, BBC1, Wednesdays, 10.00pm. This week's episode is "1929 Breadline", looking at the Depression.

2020: A View of the Century was broadcast earlier this autumn on Radio 4.

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