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Old October 22nd, 2016, 09:39 AM   #1

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Best and Worst TV Historians?


We all love a good historical documentary. I personally love nothing better whilst nursing a weekend hangover, than scouring "Youtube" or "BBC iplayer" armed with nothing but a lamb patia with garlic naan, in the hope of finding a good history doc that informs, inspires, entertains and hopefully takes my mind of my pounding head. However regardless of subject matter, the doc can often be made or ruined by the historian presenting. In the world of natural history the unmistakable voice of Sir David Attenborough like a latter day "Orpheus" is guaranteed to make even the life of a dung beetle interesting. Yet with regards to historical documentaries the historian presenting may either captivate, antigonise, fascinate or have you shouting and profaning at the screen. My question is which of these tv historians do the stuff for you? And which ones have you choking on your chicken korma? I should point out that what I mean by "TV Historian" is a historian who has written and presented the documentary and not narrators who merely do the voice over. So "Mr Spock" the late great Leonard Nimoy does not count.

I have to say that perhaps my favourite TV historian is Michael Woods. I have yet to find a documentary that he has written and presented in any way dull. Woods seems to have the ability to entrance and bring you right back with him more often than not following in the very footsteps of the subject. Woods is extremely knowledgeable and conveys an ethusaism for the subject matter which is contagious rather than over powering or in your face. I remember as a kid watching his "In Search of the Trojan War" far from being bored as a 10 year old I was quickly pulled into the murky, violent yet gloriously fascinating world of the Bronze Age Aegean.

Perhaps Woods' greatest triumph's have been his "In the footsteps" series, which he has done on and off since the early 80's. All of these make for fascinating viewing such as "In the footsteps of the Conquistadores" and "Shakespeare". Though for me the cream of the crop was "In the footsteps of Alexander the Great". In this Woods attempted and suceeded in literally personally plotting almost the exact trail of Alexander all the way from Macedon in modern Greece to Pakistan via Turkey, Syria, Egypt and Iran. Whilst at the same time keeping the viewer engrossed with the history, legends and myths of the subject and describing the culture, topography and history both modern and ancient of the countries in which he travelled. This entwined with the breathtaking scenery inspired to make the viewer wish to undertake a similar adventure. Alas with all the turmoil in the regions over the last 20 years this may not be possible? Instead I have purchased several of his books which make for as entertaining informative reading as the tv docs were for viewing. So for myself personally Michael Woods is the top TV history jock out there.

In sharp contrast to Michael Woods we have another British historian, the emminent "David Starkey". A legend in his own mind ! Now I am not saying that Professor Starkey lacks for intelligence far from it. However a more pompous, conceited, arrogant, pretentious historian you will be hard pushed to find? Prof Starkey has interests and valid qualifications in many era's of history. His speciality though is the "Tudors" and dont we know it! Many a time I have found myself wondering why I was still listening to him? Watching him fawn over Henry VIII and Elizabeth I really gives me the boke. If he was alive then at Henry's court he would be the proverbial "Toady" trying to squirm his way into Henry's good books. Yet I think it was his documentary on the "Venerable Bede" that really grinds my gears. Apparently "Bede" according to "Starkey" Was the first ever to use the venacular ! Completely dissing the Irish monks who had done this centuries before. However I could not help myself from laughing when "Brian Cox" (The actor) blew him away on the "BBC's Question Time".

So that is for me the best and the worst of TV Historians it would be interesting to find out who floats your Viking longship or who is the Titanic of TV historians.
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Old October 22nd, 2016, 02:28 PM   #2
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This is kind of difficult, because doing good scholarship/writing is a solitary painstaking task and interesting presentation is a social task that benefits from good pacing. Most documentaries have the writer-producer standing awkwardly in front of a castle or in a public venue trying to rouse enthusiasm. Some of my favorite shows had a writer presenter that didn't do many others. I loved Robert Bartlett's medieval series (Inside the Medieval Mind, The Normans, The Plantagenets), but not because of his exciting presentation. That said --

David Starkey's OK. He's an unabashed royalist. Aren't all royalists pompous toadies? But he seems fair. He's enthusiastic about the early Henry VIII, but presents Henry after about 1536 as a brutal tyrant, a horrible ruler and person. And Starkey's topics are interesting. I like the Music and Monarchy series.

I like social history a lot, so I'm fond of Lucy Worsley. The picture of her in my mind is her climbing into a Tudor bed to sleep like a middle class woman of the 16th century.

I don't know that I have any "worst" presenters, probably because I stop watching if I'm really annoyed.
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Old October 22nd, 2016, 07:56 PM   #3
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Starkey is very opinionated which can really turn some people off, also that he seems convinced that he is right and everyone else is wrong. His 10 minutes in the TV show The trial of Richard iii' is well worth watching ( its on YouTube) and is quite funny.

Tbh I like any historian who is good at presenting - i too enjoyed Woods' Alexander programme - but a lot of the time it is as much about the people behind the camera as it is about the person in front of it. There are some documentaries about things that interest me that are presented in such a dull way that I struggle to watch them to the end, and the reverse is also true.
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Old October 23rd, 2016, 12:35 AM   #4
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Corbulo View Post
We all love a good historical documentary. I personally love nothing better whilst nursing a weekend hangover, than scouring "Youtube" or "BBC iplayer" armed with nothing but a lamb patia with garlic naan, in the hope of finding a good history doc that informs, inspires, entertains and hopefully takes my mind of my pounding head. However regardless of subject matter, the doc can often be made or ruined by the historian presenting. In the world of natural history the unmistakable voice of Sir David Attenborough like a latter day "Orpheus" is guaranteed to make even the life of a dung beetle interesting. Yet with regards to historical documentaries the historian presenting may either captivate, antigonise, fascinate or have you shouting and profaning at the screen. My question is which of these tv historians do the stuff for you? And which ones have you choking on your chicken korma? I should point out that what I mean by "TV Historian" is a historian who has written and presented the documentary and not narrators who merely do the voice over. So "Mr Spock" the late great Leonard Nimoy does not count.

I have to say that perhaps my favourite TV historian is Michael Woods. I have yet to find a documentary that he has written and presented in any way dull. Woods seems to have the ability to entrance and bring you right back with him more often than not following in the very footsteps of the subject. Woods is extremely knowledgeable and conveys an ethusaism for the subject matter which is contagious rather than over powering or in your face. I remember as a kid watching his "In Search of the Trojan War" far from being bored as a 10 year old I was quickly pulled into the murky, violent yet gloriously fascinating world of the Bronze Age Aegean.

Perhaps Woods' greatest triumph's have been his "In the footsteps" series, which he has done on and off since the early 80's. All of these make for fascinating viewing such as "In the footsteps of the Conquistadores" and "Shakespeare". Though for me the cream of the crop was "In the footsteps of Alexander the Great". In this Woods attempted and suceeded in literally personally plotting almost the exact trail of Alexander all the way from Macedon in modern Greece to Pakistan via Turkey, Syria, Egypt and Iran. Whilst at the same time keeping the viewer engrossed with the history, legends and myths of the subject and describing the culture, topography and history both modern and ancient of the countries in which he travelled. This entwined with the breathtaking scenery inspired to make the viewer wish to undertake a similar adventure. Alas with all the turmoil in the regions over the last 20 years this may not be possible? Instead I have purchased several of his books which make for as entertaining informative reading as the tv docs were for viewing. So for myself personally Michael Woods is the top TV history jock out there.

In sharp contrast to Michael Woods we have another British historian, the emminent "David Starkey". A legend in his own mind ! Now I am not saying that Professor Starkey lacks for intelligence far from it. However a more pompous, conceited, arrogant, pretentious historian you will be hard pushed to find? Prof Starkey has interests and valid qualifications in many era's of history. His speciality though is the "Tudors" and dont we know it! Many a time I have found myself wondering why I was still listening to him? Watching him fawn over Henry VIII and Elizabeth I really gives me the boke. If he was alive then at Henry's court he would be the proverbial "Toady" trying to squirm his way into Henry's good books. Yet I think it was his documentary on the "Venerable Bede" that really grinds my gears. Apparently "Bede" according to "Starkey" Was the first ever to use the venacular ! Completely dissing the Irish monks who had done this centuries before. However I could not help myself from laughing when "Brian Cox" (The actor) blew him away on the "BBC's Question Time".

So that is for me the best and the worst of TV Historians it would be interesting to find out who floats your Viking longship or who is the Titanic of TV historians.
Im not an expert on Michael Woods. I have only saw a couple of his shows. I do think some of his conjectures about Shakespeare were dubious; conjecture which gradually morphed into conclusions. I don't believe him to be any more accurate than other historians you criticise such as Starkey. Wood's is a bit more smooth around the edges, but he is no more trustworthy imo.

Last edited by jackydee; October 23rd, 2016 at 12:39 AM.
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Old October 30th, 2016, 02:26 PM   #5
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Neil Oliver doesn't work for me. Reminds me of those lecturers at university back in the day desperately trying to hang on to fading trendy youth. Get a haircut, Neil.

I like Ruth Goodman's sleeves rolled up, down and dirty style.
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Old November 12th, 2016, 01:53 AM   #6
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Neil Oliver doesn't work for me. Reminds me of those lecturers at university back in the day desperately trying to hang on to fading trendy youth. Get a haircut, Neil.
.
I can't stand Neil Oliver, a cheap peddler of half-truths and overstatements
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Old November 12th, 2016, 04:19 PM   #7

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Ruth Goodman is usually interesting

Dan Snow has done some good programes like the ones on the railways but is a bit hit and miss

Lucy Worsley is always fun

Bettany Hughes used to be watchable, i'm not sure if its her choice in subjects or me thats changed though

Michael Wood was never that watchable and nowhere close to how great pop culture thought he was

Janina Ramirez seems to be attempting to be the new Bettany Hughes and missing the target

Simon Schaffer is usually watchable because he picks subjects not many people go near
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Old November 13th, 2016, 12:54 AM   #8

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I can't stand Neil Oliver, a cheap peddler of half-truths and overstatements
I found his doc on Cleopatra cringe-worthy. It completely ignored the fact that the Ptolemaic dynasty was Greek and it tried to portray Arsinoe has an "innocent victim, rather than just another schemer and plotter, who was no better than Cleopatra herself.
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Old November 13th, 2016, 10:35 AM   #9

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Quote:
Originally Posted by Nemowork View Post
Dan Snow has done some good programes like the ones on the railways but is a bit hit and miss
Thankfully, his books (at least the ones I've read) are excellent.

Quote:
Lucy Worsley is always fun
Agreed, and chooses topics a little out of the mainstream as well.

Quote:
Janina Ramirez seems to be attempting to be the new Bettany Hughes and missing the target
I'm an unapologetic fan though.

And I will add Simon Schama to the list of watchables.
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Old November 13th, 2016, 04:34 PM   #10
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On Simon Schama -- I've found his art series fun and informative, but he did a few Shakespeare shows that I thought did the impossible -- made Shakespeare boring.

Another art history presenter who works hard at interesting presentation with some rather strange results is Waldemar Januzczak. I particularly liked Impressionists: Painting and Revolution, since I had never even thought about how improved technology made impressionism possible (pre-mixed paint in little tubes so you could go outside and paint instead of being tied in a studio grinding your paint. I excite easily).

I like Mary Beard on the Romans.
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