Does TV history make us complacent about the present?

Alex Graham the producer of the BBC series Who Do You Think You Are? was on Start the Week on Radio 4 this morning. I find the philosophy of the programme very interesting. It was created to tell an ‘alternative history of Britain’ and clearly has a levelling message: focusing on the lived experience of ordinary people; highlighting the prevalence of migration and racial mixing in Britain’s past; and showing that even today’s celebrities have humble roots. However, it is this final point that causes me (and seemingly many others) something of a problem.

Graham mentioned that the most frequent criticism he encounters is the programme’s exclusive focus on the ancestors of celebrities rather than those of ‘ordinary people’. On one level, his response to this criticism is valid: most celebrities are first-generation and so – for the purposes of a genealogy programme – are themselves ‘ordinary people’, with ‘ordinary’ family trees. This is clearly true. There is nothing special about these people’s ancestors. They are descended from same mixture of fame, infamy and obscurity as the rest of us. However, what he didn’t acknowledge was the effect the focus on celebrity has on our perceptions of history and the relationship between past and present.

Earlier in the programme Graham had highlighted that problem of seeing history as a straightforward story of linear progress; we can regress as well as progress. Yet, focusing  only on people who have transcended their backgrounds seems – probably unintentionally – to reinforce exactly that idea of progress. As Deborah Cohen, one of the other guests on Start the Week, commented, modern celebrity represents the ‘most distilled form of social mobility’. On an individual level, this means that Who Do You Think You Are? is not trading in stories of privileged pasts. Yet, on a cumulative level, I worry that it gives an overriding impression of social progression. The programme is predicated on the gap between past and present. The tears, the realisation, the sympathy all spring from the discovery of how tough things were ‘back then’ and the contrast with the celebrity’s current situation. Poverty, discrimination, shame are therefore seen to be resolutely ‘of the past’.

This problem is not exclusive to Who Do You Think You Are? If we think of historical reality TV shows – 1900 House,* 1940 House,* Victorian Farm, Coal House, for example – the drama comes from the supposedly privileged and pampered citizens of modern Britain undergoing the hardships of the past. While these programmes may be asking us (and the participants) to identify personal and emotional continuities across time, the economic and social situation they face is conceived as entirely other. This means that although we may feel outraged about poverty, discrimination or inequality in the past, this does not translate into outrage about similar situations in the present.

Current discussions about food banks are a good example of the way these attitudes towards the past can inform opinions in the present. On the one hand such poverty is described as ‘Dickensian’, with the idea that any return to it is deeply shocking. On the other hand, we see a persistent belief that food poverty simply can’t exist in modern Britain, that it belongs to the past, and that therefore anyone using food banks must be somehow feckless, lazy and irresponsible (see for instance the comments thread under this article).

Ironically, of course, this echoes the condemnation of the ‘undeserving poor’ in the nineteenth century. Few people today would agree that the Victorian poor were undeserving – we see them as victims of time and history as much as of economics. Yet it is precisely because we pride ourselves on having left such ‘Dickensian’ conditions and attitudes behind that we continue to judge their modern counterparts as the architects of their own misfortune. They don’t live in the past; therefore they have no excuse.

This is clearly not the message that Alex Graham wants to send out. He is clearly committed to recovering and honouring lives that would otherwise be forgotten and to unsettling many of our perceptions about Britain and its past. This is all for the good. Yet, it is worth remembering that obscurity, poverty, discrimination and inequality persist. For some people this is the reality of who they are now; not just how their ancestors were then.

*1900 House and 1940 House were also created by Alex Graham and his company Wall to Wall. As was Edwardian Country House, which examined historical inequality from the opposite angle, asking a modern family to experience life at the top of the Edwardian social hierarchy.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Does TV history make us complacent about the present?

  1. Cobden Bastiat says:

    Can you really be suggesting that the poorest Briton today is anywhere near as poor in real terms as the poorest person of 1913, 1813, 1713 … 1513? Are you seriously suggesting this? If you want to know what it was like to live in the UK 500 years ago, then there are plenty of countries in the world you can go and live in to experience that level of development – though I doubt very much that there is a single person living in this country who would willingly make that swap.

    As for food poverty: a loaf of wholemeal bread and four tins of baked beans contains 3216 kcals and costs around £2.25. I’m not for a minute suggesting that this is an ideal diet, but it is indicative of the price of food in this country. Can you please show us evidence of a group of Britons existing today that cannot afford to spend £1.75 a day each on food – merely saying that people are using food banks is not sufficient.

    The ‘Dickensian’ poor were still very much better off food-wise than their agrarian predecessors of only a few generations before. A million people died of the potato famine in agrarian Ireland in which a sort of feudal system was still in force (by the British). Who had the harsher existence, the Irish or the London’s urban poor?

    • Thanks for your comment, but that really isn’t what I’m saying at all. 

      On the specific point about food banks, it’s exactly this habit of comparing today’s poor to those of the past and finding them undeserving by comparison that I’m trying to challenge. There clearly is real poverty in Britain today – see any recent reports by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, Shelter, Oxfam or Save the Children in the UK. Even your bread-and-beans diet would cost a family of four £30 a week. And that’s before we even start to think about the homeless or people living extremely precarious, unrecorded lives. Comparing them to the nineteenth century poor, or the victims of the Irish potato famine, allows us to minimise and ignore that.

      More broadly – of course the basic standards of living and social tolerance are vastly preferable in Britain today to the periods you mention. However, to separate the present from ‘the past’ and feel that progress has not only been achieved but that it is our birthright as citizens of modern Britain is worrying for several reasons. First it closes our eyes (and certainly our sympathies) to those who are still suffering, whether from poverty, discrimination or social exclusion. At the extreme end of the scale, there are still many who haven’t benefited from historical progress at all – one example might be the cockle pickers who died in Morecambe Bay in 2004. Second, it allows us to be complacent about the gains that have been made, when the example of so many countries shows us that economic, social and political/constitutional progress is by no means inevitable and can certainly be reversed. 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s