January 03, 2013

Don't believe what you watch

Years ago, I visited a friend doing his PhD at Oxford. I mentioned Linda Colley's book 'Britons'- a book that when I went up to University was the staple of every aspiring undergraduate's library. He looked at me with scorn, 'That,' he said 'is a typical undergraduate's book'. Aside from demonstrating the famed art of the Oxbridge put down, my friend's comment had a serious point. Colley's book, he thought was clever and exciting but didn't do much new evidential research. I'm not qualified to comment about that volume- indeed I still rather like it- but I do think the point is well made. I've always been a bit wary myself of being the historian with the best ideas, and the least archival research. If each of us has his personal Charybdis, that is mine. Its an analogy that came to mind yesterday evening when I watched on 4oD a documentary by a chap called Francis Pryor.

Pryor produced three documentaries in 2004. They argued for a continuing British culture that underlay the Roman conquest, survived the dark ages and furthermore that this culture was not wiped out by a Saxon invasion- because the latter never happened. Now I must declare an interest: although I have never studied the Saxons properly myself, my ex-girlfriend was a student of Old English and so were many of my best friends as an undergraduate: I'm not sure their reaction would have been anything short of vitriolic to Mr Pryor's argument. Suffice it to say, I began watching sceptically and I have to say that I was not convinced by his arguments. There are many reasons why I think there probably was a massive disruption in the Dark Ages in Britain- there wasn't elsewhere in Europe and Peter Brown amongst others has changed historical minds on that. In Byzantium or Italy or even parts of France, the real crisis occured later- with the wars of Justinian or of the Persians or the Muslim Conquest.

But that's not what I want to argue with. You see the real fault of my friend's adversary- the undergraduate book- is not so much that its wrong but that it might be right, in the wrong way. Documentaries are striving to be news events: Mr Pryor in this documentary claims that his documentary breaks new ground and changes the world with its new insights. The problem is that no documentary could support such a stance. In this case for example, Mr Pryor's claims are not set against  the claims of historians who might disagree: Bryan Ward Perkins has written of the cataclysm that the fall of Rome represented for Britain (and the rest of the Western Empire) but he isn't invited as a contributor. Even when a contributor is invited to make an opposing case- as one is in the last documentary- their points are dismissed as facile and they appear to lose a rigged argument. The control of the narrator means that documentaries do not represent a place in which argument can be represented fairly. And a fair representation of the opposing argument together with the evidence for it is essential to actually understanding whether a novel argument about the past works.

So what am I saying? I am not capable of assessing Mr Pryor's evidence and deciding whether there isn't other evidence out there that he has neglected: however I am suspicious. The argument as with so many historical documentaries which seek to present 'new' evidence sounds too good to be true. Counter balancing evidence cannot be fairly represented because of the nature of the medium- nor can counterbalancing views. The fact that Mr Pryor is taking on a historical consensus does not mean he is right anymore than it means he is wrong: but for the non-expert it means that his views must be taken with a degree of caution. Ultimately to come back to my friend's point it is not the interesting idea but the idea that is tied to evidence that matters: and that must be tested in argument, either honest argument developed at length or argument within the literature. It can't be tested in an hour's television. Documentaries making bold claims should come with a disclaimer, let the watcher beware!


James Higham said...

I've always been a bit wary myself of being the historian with the best ideas, and the least archival research.

Very much so and the revisionists on dating of the gospels are those I've been grappling with of late. Mishandling or extreme selectivity are further issues.