Real life or reel life?
It has been my constant complaint about TV schools history programmes that they rarely get above the level of narrative, and use the screen images merely as illustrations for the story. Here is a series which does more.
Sheena McDonald, the narrator, explains the series' philosophy at the start of the first programme: it aims to show "how film-makers have reported and interpreted some of the major events of the 20th century", by comparing film evidence of the same event. For every piece of film, viewers are told when it was made, who made it and why, and what it really tells us about the event, origin, motive and context - at last, a series which treats film sources as evidence.
The guide book accompanying the programmes explains further: the series is as much about "film as evidence" as it is about the events portrayed. The programmes offer alternative and sometimes conflicting evidence for students to evaluate.
Film-makers, where historians want to know what really happened, have usually tried to disguise the truth, by selecting the lighting and angles, editing the clips and choosing the music. This "does violence" to the facts of history. The series wants to teach pupils, in study and in discussion with their teachers, to approach film material critically, and to distinguish between propaganda, interpretation and fact.
How well do the programmes achieve these aims? I previewed programmes 1-4 ("Revolution in Russia 1917", "Great Depression 1929-1936", "Spirit of Dunkirk 1940" and "City Bombing 1940-1945"). They were excellent and I, at least, sat riveted to the screen.
"Revolution in Russia" compares the few snatches of film from the time with the government-sponsored films produced for the 10th anniversary of the revolution in 1927. Of these, the dramatic anti-war film, The End of St Petersburg, is seen to be an (emotive and biased) interpretation of the revolution. By contrast, Eisenstein's October was "a re-creation rather than a reality": thousands of Communist volunteers (with guns and uniforms provided by the government, and accompanied by spectacular lighting and explosive effects) created an account which bore no relation to the reality revealed in the footage from 1917. Yet these scenes have shaped our view of the Russian Revolution.
If "Revolution in Russia" demonstrates the difference between reality and official footage, "Great Depression" studies the difference between official and unofficial films. Official British and American treatments of the period from 1929-36 were usually hopeful or reassuring - showing a society wedding immediately after footage of a May Day demonstration epitomises the newsreels' approach to social affairs. These are contrasted with the unofficial films made by labour groups, including the Marxist film Misere au Borinage (a shocking documentary about a Belgian miners' strike: its scenes will galvanise your pupils).
"Spirit of Dunkirk" was the best of the four. A single wide-screen film is the only British footage available from the time. Yet within a week, this had become the famous "spirit of deliverance" Pathe Gazette newsreel: "We shall go on to the end. . .We shall fight as we fought in blazing Dunkirk".
The programme shows how those few well-known scenes were used again and again in subsequent newsreels, and even cut into propaganda film dramas. It contrasts these with German newsreel footage showing the other, grim side of the story, and suggests that superior British propaganda played a part in Britain's ultimate victory. The guide book reminds us that: "To see dead British soldiers is still unusual for a British viewer".
I found the fourth programme, "City Bombing", less impressive, perhaps because it tried to do too much, perhaps because its objectives seemed less focused than in the other programmes. It looks at the German, British and American newsreels which reported and justified the bombing of civilians (showing, to a degree, the same events and footage), and compares film that did not make it into the newsreels.
Barry Jones' accompanying guide book provides historical and media background information, and gives good ideas for further viewing.
Programme-based questions and discussion points are suggested, but - if these four broadcasts represent the quality of the rest of the series - few teachers will have difficulty thinking how they are going to use these materials in the classroom.
*History in Action: Film Century
Ten programmes for key stage 3, GCSE or SlS2 and Standard Grade Channel 4, Thursdays
ll.00-11.20am January 9 - March 20 Block transmission: 1-5 Tuesday March 18 4.00-5.40am
6-l0: Wednesday March 19 4.00-5.40am
By Barry Jones Pounds 4.95
John D Clare is head of history at Greenfield Comprehensive School in County Durham