History lessons in byte-sized bullets
It is a curious quirk of human nature that, having hated history at school, most people grow up to be fascinated with the past. Which explains why history programmes on TV draw large audiences, and an entire satellite channel - the History Channel - is now devoted to the subject.
The History Hour is a series of 15 programmes produced for BBC Education. Yet even though its lunchtime slot follows children's TV, it is not designed as a children's educational programme; this series is aimed at their parents.
The most immediately noticeable feature is the format. This is no dry documentary - an attempt has been made to raise the tempo and to give the subject a more general, less academic appeal. It's not quite Live and Kicking, but it does move along at a pleasing rate and has a Tomorrow's World feel about it. Presenter Adam Hart-Davis conducts his tours in an enthusiastic manner and Jayne Constantinis, his co-presenter, is relaxed and professional.
Each programme starts with a short "shopping list" of features to be shown, followed by a five minute "Quick Guide" on some aspect of local history - for example, how to get started on researching, or how to use old newspapers.
Next, the programme shows what it calls a "classic documentary" on British or European history, with topics ranging from the Enfield Bullet motorbike to the maps used on D-Day. Even here, there is an attempt to maintain viewers' interest - every five minutes a screen bullet appears, advertising a feature to come.
After the documentary, Hart-Davis shows viewers round an historical site. This part of the programme is genuinely interesting. We are told, for example, why Jacobites toasted "the gentleman in the black velvet waistcoat" and how "maids of honour" cakes originated. In an interview, Jimmy Savile explains how he invented the twin turntable and the idea of dancing to records. Within this narrative section, Constantinis introduces studies on issues such as heraldry and archaeology. Throughout this second half of the programme, the emphasis is on the historian's role as detective: tracking down, for example, when a fish restaurant was built, or the last hours of a relative in the First World War.
In this sense, The History Hour is clearly educational, its purpose not so much to tell you what happened as to inspire you to discover it yourself. The accompanying Action Pack and Web site are advertised regularly, and viewers exhorted to consult Ceefax (page 636) for details of further courses. The History Hour has its problems. The studio work is bare and awkward, and the unchanging five-minute byte becomes predictable. But it is a welcome first step in making history accessible, and will perhaps inspire a magazine-format successor which will be more interesting still.
John D Clare