At the start of the 21st century, we seem to be increasingly fascinated by times gone by. And as a multiplicity of media offers ever more opportunities for historical enquiry, David Newnham reports on our love of looking back
It may be a pointless exercise. Most of it will have gone in one eye and straight out the other. But give it a go all the same. Try to recall what you saw on television over the holidays. Henry James and Harry Enfield? Jane Horrocks and a little light Dickens? There's a fair chance you also caught one, two or even three of Channel 4's Time Team specials.
If you did, you were not alone. For the show that transforms archaeology into an intelligent spectator sport has itself turned into a phenomenon. Why else would the programmers give it so many peak-time slots at the busiest time of the year? Time Team has 3 million viewers. It lays claim to Channel 4's most visited website, and its fan club has 25,000 members.
Much of the programme's popularity - it has just begun its seventh series - may be down to the personality of its presenter, former Blackadder star Tony Robinson. But Robinson's likeability is only part of the story. The rest, as they say, is history.
At present, people can't get enough of the past. Last spring, BBC2 dedicated a 90-minute Saturday evening slot to history. Within weeks, The History Zone was attracting 3 million viewers. One programme, Secrets of the Ancients, topped the 4 million mark. And with increasing demand comes an ever-increasing supply.
This month sees the start of History 2000, a multimedia project that the BBC describes as "a major education initiative". Backed by pound;250,000 from the Department for Education and Employment and boasting the involvement of more than 1,000 museums, libraries and historical organisations across the UK, History 2000 will combine dozens of high-profile television and radio programmes with enough interactive online material to ensure that even the telecommunications industry profits from the nation's new-found sense of perspective.
Launching the project this week at the Museum of London, lifelong learning minister Malcolm Wicks said: "We see History 2000 as a way of getting all sorts of people actively involved in learning."
The museum is now home to a Roman "princess", whose ornate lead coffin was excavated in London's Spitalfields last year and was filmed for the BBC's archaeology series Meet the Ancestors. A new series begins this week with the facial reconstruction of the woman buried 1,600 years ago and revelations from presenter Julian Richards about her origins - isotopes in her bones suggest she grew up in a warmer climate, possibly Spain.
And in case all that's not enough, the corporation plans to launch a history magazine in April. "Probably never before have people been experiencing such an acute sense of time," says the publicity material.
Over at the History Channel, managing director Geoff Metzger is in full agreement. His company transmits 18 hours of history a day in digital form - eight hours in analogue - and about 3 million people watch it. "There's no doubt that we're seeing a resurgence of interest in the past," he says. "Why? The fin de si cle is bound to be a reflective period. I don't have any explanation beyond that - we're just happy that people are interested."
And interested they most certainly are. Among non-fiction books, history is now the top-selling category. Figures for 1998 showed sales of 12 million books, 25 per cent more than the previous year. Antony Beevor's Stalingrad has become a surprise bestseller and history books now win major prizes. Three of the four winning books in last week's Whitbread Awards are about historical figures, such as the 19th-century composer Berlioz. Membership of English Heritage and the National Trust stands at 450,000 and 2.6 million respectively, and both figures are rising. Throughout the countryside, old houses and ancient monuments are being forced to press every spare inch of grassland into service as overflow car parks, while museum turnstiles click like Geiger counters.
Search a surname on the Internet and you'll like as not get caught up with the family history crowd as they rush around cyberspace tracing their forebears. And if you can drag yourself away from a screen long enough to visit any real-life historic site, you run the risk of entering a different kind of virtual reality as some re-enactment society puts the past through its paces.
"The re-enactment groups are all booked up for the year ahead," says Peter Furtado, editor of History Today. In such a climate, it's hardly surprising that subscriptions to his magazine are at a record level - more than 22,000. "History," he says, "is flavour of the month."
It's obvious why, isn't it? As society scuttled nervously into this new millennium, wasn't it bound to glance over its shoulder?
Not necessarily so, says Mr Furtado. He sees a general awareness of change as a more likely explanation. "The millennium is just an excuse," he says. "We're suddenly being cast adrift from all sorts of cultural bearings, and people are saying, 'Hang on a minute, let's stop and look'.
"There's an increasing awareness that deep-seated constitutional changes are going on, and at the same time the Internet is giving many people a sense of rootlessness. Future shock is really beginning to hit people today.
"One response is to go back and dig around - to start looking at your roots. And the relationship between the Internet and the rise of genealogy is fascinating."
But Mr Furtado is concerned that all this digging around in the past fails to translate into enthusiasm in the classroom. "There seems to be a lot of interest in history in the wider world, but there is a real danger of its becoming a minority subject at A-level." (the number of candidates taking history A-level has declined steadily from 47,000 in 1992 to 38,500 in 1999.) The reason for the discrepancy is, he believes, a mismatch between the sort of history that's attracting record TV audiences - much of it involving remote or exotic subjects - and the sort of history taught in the classroom.
"There's a wide interest in archaeology, evidenced by the success of Time Team, and kids have an interest in things Egyptian and Roman-British, which is why they watch programmes like The Secrets of the Ancients. And yet schools have tended to offer standard courses on Hitler, Stalin, Elizabeth I and Henry VIII." Fortunately, he says, the gap is being filled by museums, which are reinterpreting their brief and encouraging visitors to ask questions and look at the past in fresh ways.
Not that everybody is convinced the bumper crop is anything more than an illusion brought about by the multiplicity of media - TV channels, books, the Internet - through which people may now pursue the subject.
"There's certainly a huge interest in history at the moment," says Becky Sullivan of the Historical Association. "But I'm not sure if that's new. People like to know how we used to live - they're fascinated by the whole 'meet your ancestors' thing. But they always have been."
History, she believes, is something people come to as they get older. "Genealogy is more popular among the 50-plus group, who have the leisure time. And that interest has always been there. I remember my father tracing his family back to the same village for ever and a day."
The History Channel's Geoff Metzger agrees. "We have a pretty constant viewership of history-interested people. But we are definitely an older channel. The past becomes particularly interesting at a certain point in life - when you've got a past to pass on."
The success of one particular History Channel project certainly suggests that an awareness of personal history and an appreciation of one's place in it are powerful stimulants. "We knew we had to have a millennium project," he says. "But when we looked around, we saw that people - and the Government - were having huge problems giving meaning to the millennium. So we came up with Photos For The Future, a simple idea that would help people to recognise themselves in history and the forces of history in their own lives.
"It was a series of photographic exhibitions. But instead of using photos from professional archives, we asked people to go into their personal photo albums and send us a photograph with a caption explaining why this was history. Lots of shared experience came out - a first holiday abroad, a trip to Blackpool in a charabanc, a father or son called to arms." Seven thousand people sent in photographs.
In all this, Tony Robinson sees not so much an awakening as a re-awakening. "From an early age," he says, getting his breath back after helping to recreate a timber henge on the edge of a Norfolk orchard, "I never understood people who weren't interested in history. How can I know who I am unless I know where I've come from? It's a narcissistic thing. But for me to get some hint of why people would build something like this is in some way to understand more about myself."
When he was a child, his parents would talk "an awful lot" about the war and their own recollections of childhood. "I remember asking my dad to talk about as far back as he could remember. That was just what we did then.
"But somehow in that flurry of media activity in the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties, the now became the thing that was celebrated. Great storytellers like Jonathan Miller and Patrick Moore told us about medicine and the stars. And when television did talk about history, it was always in big terms - about civilisations.
"But this kind of history . . ." he waves a muddy hand at where a gang of grunting men have been planting a great oak tree crown-down in a hole which they dug earlier, using brute force and axes made of bronze, "this is different.
"The gardening programmes, as well as Changing Rooms and Time Team, all celebrate ordinary work - the kind of life I remember as a kid. It's like when your dad's mates used to come round to help put up the greenhouse.
"I get more feedback from Time Team than anything since Blackadder. And it's an active feedback. People feel they can have a say and are not entirely disempowered. I think we've just rediscovered that history is about us."
Time Team is broadcast on Channel 4 on Sundays at 5.30pmPhotos For The Future, a selection of images sent to the History Channel and published by Sutton, is available at bookshops (pound;9.99)
* CAN YOU DIG IT?
The first series of Time Team began in 1993, in the back garden of a house in Shropshire. The team had set out to investigate the remains of a medieval hall. From there they moved on to a Saxon ring; the northern frontier of the Roman empire in Lancashire; and a lakeside settlement from the Dark Ages in Powys.
A year later, they were off to Wiltshire in search of a Roman temple. They visited a castle in Islay and another on a council estate in Sunderland, before finding out how Londoners first crossed the Thames.
Series three found them criss-crossing the UK on the trail of prehistoric underground structures, early Christian remains, a Templar palace, a possible Armada wreck, a hoard of Roman pottery and several large chunks of mammoth.
In the fourth series, the team ventured abroad, in the footsteps of early English settlers in Maryland. Back home, they investigated bodies, villas, palaces and more castles, before locating the first steam-powered mint, deep in the suburbs of Birmingham.
In series five, they took on eight projects, including a Viking ship burial in Orkney, a deserted medieval village on Teesside and a Bronze Age trackway lost in a Somerset marsh. The now obligatory foreign trip took them to Majorca, in search of Europe's first metalworkers.
Travel became even more of a feature for the last series when the team turned up in the Caribbean. But for many viewers, the highlight of this block of programmes was the search for a B17 bomber at Reedham Marsh in Norfolk.
A major 16-part History of Britain by Simon Schama from the Roman invasion to the present day will be a highlight of History 2000, a season of linked BBC TV and radio programmes that has been two years in the planning.
A pilot phase, Step into History, which ran last year stirred the public imagination and turned passive viewers into active learners. Fred Dibnah's Industrial Age series, fronted by the charismatic steeplejack, attracted an audience of 2.7 million, 200,000 of whom called an information helpline or used a website. Almost half the audience said they were inspired to visit a museum as a result of watching the series.
Under the banner of History 2000, Independent on Sunday editor Janet Street-Porter will take viewers on a tour of British cathedrals, Fred Dibnah will shin up the nation's major monuments and Newsnight presenter Martha Kearney will reveal some of the stories people uncover when they start to investigate their family histories.
But it is the online support and the tying in of more than 1,000 organisations across the UK that sets this initiative apart from the corporation's previous attempts to package the past.
The BBC Online website - www.bbc.co.ukhistory - will offer audio dramas (topics include the Black Death and the witchfinder general) as well as audio clips from the BBC archive, historic news broadcasts and interactive games. And the site will link up with activities and events taking place across the UK.
"We want to take viewers through a complete learning journey," says director of BBC Education Michael Stevenson, "from watching or listening to our broadcasts through to visiting an event at their local museum."
To this end, museums, libraries and historical organisations are to run special events, seminars and workshops linked to BBC programmes. Mr Stevenson describes History 2000 as "a comprehensive campaign which will meet the increasing interest in local and social history".
From tomorrow, an information line will give details of History 2000 events. Tel: 08700 10 60 60