History is so much more than blood and gore

14th November 2003 at 00:00
There is no escape from history's most despotic duo. The latest offerings have been Channel 4's Hitler: the rise of evil, in which Robert Carlyle has been strutting his pint-sized stuff as the megalomaniac monster, and ITV's all-star Henry VIII.

In a more innocent age, when horror was left to the weavers of fantasy, cinema viewers were happy to set their heartbeats racing by paying a visit to the Hammer House of Horror and enjoying a wicked evening of good, old-fashioned terror. But now fact has displaced the comfort of this far-fetched fantasy and we have swapped the spectres of the silver screen for butchers and bully boys closer to home.

Clearly, storytellers have traded on their audiences' desire to be frightened, but now it is the perpetrators of genocide and wife killing who are presented as suitable material for the Comic Cuts treatment.

If you ask a class of 11-year-olds to imagine they can travel back in time to an age of their choosing, they are more than likely to opt for the Tudor period or the Second World War. This should come as no surprise, given that the staple diet for their parents' history viewing on television is programmes about Hitler or Henry VIII - and given that the "Horrible Histories" series by Terry Deary invites us to wallow in the most gruesome aspects of our past.

In these books, which are designed to make history appealing to the younger reader, children are encouraged to delight in the excesses of the most wicked ages gone by. They can immerse themselves in The Woeful Second World War, The Vile Victorians, and even The Cut-throat Celts. The blurb on the back cover speaks for itself: "history with the nasty bits left in".

Parents share their offspring's fascination with these horrors. The obsession with the small screen's favourite tinpot tyrants is not driven simply by a disinterested desire to learn more about England during the Reformation, or Germany in the 1930s and 40s. Historians such as David Starkey know that programmes about people who had their opponents hung, drawn and quartered, or carted off their victims to concentration camps in droves, boost television ratings.

But why do we not take equal interest in the blood-letting in Bosnia or the atrocities in Rwanda? And why were we happy to join the conspiracy of silence that seemed to surround the final years of Idi Amin? If we must have endless documentaries and dramas about thugs who have left their ugly mark, why is the field of interest so narrow?

It is too easy to revel in the familiar wickedness of low life in high places. Instead, film-makers and writers of children's books should abandon stale tales of the same old tyrants and surprise us with ripping yarns about people who could truly be described as the great and the good.

Peter King teaches English at Wisbech grammar school, Cambridgeshire

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