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Potential to be sure - but it's a work in progress
Round about 9 years ago we were given the fantastic series "A History of Britain" presented by Simon Schama. With a brilliant blend of stunning scenery, inspired soundtracks and a very charismatic presenter - we were taken on an engaging and fascinating (albeit Anglo-centric) history of Britain. Schama's own style for history gave a sense of connection to those characters he was describing. His style of storytelling also allowed us to revisit known events - but to see them from new perspectives. At the time BBC Scotland wanting to get in on the act quickly commissioned its own version "In Search of Scotland" which instead came across as a lame Secondary School History programme. It was quickly forgotten about - and with good reason.
Fast forward to 2009 and BBC Scotland have decided to have another crack at the whip. How successful have they been? Lets get the plus points up first. Well there has been a serious attempt at telling parts of Scottish history that don't involve the usual cliché areas. These include the fascinating look at Alexander II and the reigns of the early Stuarts. The second plus point that springs to mind is the soundtrack that accompanies the series. Few will have noticed it - but it was atmospheric and cleverly used in places.
To the minus points now - and unfortunately there are plenty. Firstly to the presenter: Neil Oliver. Without a doubt he was chosen because of his fan base in the TV series Coast. However he lacks the story telling ability required for a history series. Instead of whipping up the audience, it feels like we are being read to from a National Trust guidebook.
Lets us turn to the history covered. While I was impressed by the attempt to cover a wider breadth of history - the series failed to keep up this standard. Quickly it lurched in to devoting almost two episodes to Wallace and Bruce. Then a few episodes later we were back into Mary Queen of Scots and James VI. Now there was a clear attempt to give a new angle on the story - but its hard to get interested in these topics that have been done to death on TV and probably in schools. It felt that they lacked any kind of passionate storytelling. Schama's series worked so well because he made it a very personalised version of history - what he saw as important. A History of Scotland clearly has had a number of committees discussing what should be in the series (and having read the newspaper reports on the series, it seems to be the case that it is the same people who are responsible for pumping out the usual dull Scottish history series like "In Search of Scotland". The cost is that the show feels like a Scottish history tour guide rather than an engaging personal journey by one man.
And the cardinal sin has been committed! You never ever let other professors and specialists on to the show to talk about dusty old documents. This happened far to often in the series. If you have to refer to the documents then the presenter should do that and only in small doses. No long dialogues or as Oliver did at one point - whip out a 2008 edition of "Dialogue on the Laws of Kingship" - looked like he hadn't learned his lines and so resorted to reading from the book. A school pupil could get aways with that - not a BBC History presenter.
A History of Scotland has many more episodes to go. But it needs to be more radical and get away from its over-reliance on professor type history. Oliver could work as a presenter - but he needs to inject his own personality into the show - not read something that has been prepared for him. History documentaries like this are about one person taking a journey, its this journey that the audience will latch on to, and return to watch time and time again.
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