Does TV history have ‘news values’?

There was a long Twitter discussion the other day on the incessant demand for novelty in TV history. This tweet rather sums it up:

It struck me that this isn’t so dissimilar from some things you find in TV news. And ‘news values’ have been a subject of scholarly inquiry going back to a 1965 study by Johan Galtung and Mari Ruge which I remember reading as an undergrad.

This work and the subsequent debate is synthesised in plenty of textbooks (Brighton & Foy’s News Values, from which I paraphrase some of the below, is a decent starting point). Galtung and Ruge focused on newspapers. Their work predates rolling TV news and the internet, but nonetheless the idea that there are ‘news values’ remains compelling.

G&R came up with ten key values: relevance, timeliness, simplification (i.e., can it be described in straightforward terms), predictability (could it have been foreseen), unexpectedness, continuity (i.e., it continues an existing story), composition (works for the particular outlet), elite people (celebs), elite nations, negativity (bad news is good news). Later studies (focused on TV) noted the importance of pictures to that medium.

The list has been much debated, but I don’t think it’s hard to see how one might use it as a starting point to explore a set of ‘TV history values’ (or indeed a wider set of popular history values). There is certainly an elite of historical personalities whose lives are disproportionately covered, likewise nations. The ‘composition’ value works too: programmes need to fit the outlet’s style. Timeliness produces the demand for novelty: this is all-new research that we need to cover now!

Photo by David at Flickr.


Tudormania: a challenge for university history teachers

Last week, lots of my Twitter followers were busy posting links to a Guardian ‘Long Read’. Charlotte Higgins’ Tudormania: Why can’t we get over it? is a thought-provoking essay about society’s fascination with the Tudors. About to embark on a pile of Tudor-themed marking, I decided some displacement activity was in order, and read it. But it’s thanks to a combination of Tudormania and the increasingly commercial world of the university that I had that marking to do in the first place. Students are far from immune from the influence of popular history, and its relationship with their studies is something we should talk about more.

Academics spend a lot of time (though perhaps still not enough) thinking about how to help students make the transition from school to university. The Tudors obviously come in there. Until very recently, the dynasty featured prominently on the primary school history curriculum, and even now they’re optional plenty of teachers are deciding to stick with their tried-and-tested resources. They’re on the GCSE syllabus, an option at A-Level: there’s a longstanding complaint that children leave school knowing Henry, Hitler and not much in between. Although there are many other choices on the curriculum, in an exam-focused system it’s tempting to play safe. It’s tempting to play safe at university too. Anxious about exam results and the job market, students often veer back to the familiar as the end of their studies approaches. Here influences from both school and popular history kick in, hence the popularity of Tudor specialist modules and dissertations.

While most university History students in England and Wales arrive with a History A-Level, many have also learnt about the past outside school: from TV documentary and drama, in popular history books, at museums and heritage sites. Some of the history they see in those places draws on academic research: often it diverges. Tudor history is particularly difficult in this regard. As Hilary Mantel points out in the Long Read, it’s about ‘sex and violence’. It’s about personalities, passion, intrigue, adventure. But it’s frequently about all those things in a timeless sort of way, outside their historical context.

Historians are as prone as anyone else to a fascination with the salacious, so of course there are thoughtful histories of sex (and violence) in early modern Europe that try to avoid anachronism (though we all, inevitably, write in our own time). If any enterprising students are still casting around for a dissertation topic for next year, they could do worse than write a study of Tudor emotion, or of the economics of Tudor adventure. Yet for many the switch from Tudormania narrative into historical analysis isn’t easy to achieve. Hardly surprising, when so much of the popular history insistently writes our present back into their past – Elizabeth as career girl, Catherine of Aragon not as dynastic bride but as universal wronged wife. The popular histories assure us we can tell how the leading players at the Tudor court felt – but in fact,  in the absence of diaries, and when letters were often drafted by others, certainty is hard to come by. Not to mention the distance that a royal education gives from a typical emotional experience.

One of the answers is to step back and invite students to study the film and TV portrayals in their own right. There’s much to enjoy: a splendidly queer Elizabeth I, played by Quentin Crisp in Sally Potter’s take on Virginia Woolf’s Orlando (1992). The infamous ‘slash’ Tudors fan-fic (discussed in Tudorism – see below). The postmodern Elizabeth as text, in Shekhar Kapur’s Elizabeth (1998), a film made in the aftermath of the Balkan Wars (to give just a European context) where sectarian religious tension is very present; a film also made in the aftermath of Blair, and full of Tudor spin-doctoring. These tell stories both of the Tudor court and of their own time. They also prompt the question: how many more serious history books do that in more subtle ways? (It’s no accident, for example, that the Tudor secret service came to historical prominence during the Cold War.) If we acknowledge that that history can be as much about its writers as about its subjects, it just might make us think more about our own society – as well as about the past. And it might help students think about how we use history in the present, and why.

P. S. Just briefly, on Martin Davidson’s complaint that ‘the seventeenth century is too complex’ for TV. Yes, it’s complex, but I’m sure there are ways in. I remember one date from my secondary school education. I didn’t learn it in History (which I dropped early and came back to as an adult). No, this date was graffiti on the school toilet wall: 1690. This was Scotland in the 1980s and we had anti-Catholic historical graffiti. How’s about that for a way into seventeenth-century history? And the leading figures of the seventeenth century have no sex lives? You might try the trial of the Earl of Castlehaven. That’s a gripping, horrific courtroom drama, and it happened in 1631.

Want to read more on Tudormania? Try:

Photo: Gunnar Grimnes on Flickr. Used under a CC-BY-2.0 licence.

Why a historian of Florence says #SaveHannibal

Well, I didn’t expect to be launching a new blog with a plea to save a favourite TV show, but there you go. I’d been writing something else about the history behind NBC’s Hannibal and its characters’ trip to Florence – and then NBC announced they were cancelling the show. I was not impressed.

It’s not often, as a historian, that I find a show on TV that does something really fun and creative with the history of its setting. This one’s an exception. To date Bryan Fuller’s TV spin on the characters from Thomas Harris’ books has given viewers a visually-stunning back-story to the first novel in the series, Red Dragon. As Season Three opens, popular culture’s favourite cannibal Dr Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen) is on the run to Italy with his former psychiatrist Dr Bedelia DuMaurier (Gillian Anderson). His cover has been blown with the bloody finale to Season Two.

But Florence is not only a glamorous setting for a killer on the run. Hannibal is all about the co-existence of civilisation and evil. The series plays with the city’s historic reputation as a place of both beauty and bloodshed, where aesthetics outweigh ethics.

It’s an image of Renaissance Italy that was famously summed up by Orson Welles, improvising on the set of The Third Man:

Like the fella says, in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love – they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.

In Hannibal, talk quickly turns to Dante Alighieri (c. 1265-1321), one of the most important Italian poets of his age. Dante is most famous for his Divine Comedy, an account of his journey through Hell, Purgatory and Paradise. Inferno, the first part of this work, is the source of more than one conceit in the series.

In what is known as the contrapasso, the punishment for sinners in Dante’s Hell often fits the crime. Schismatics, for example, find their bodies split open. Mason Verger, who in the second season schemed to feed people to his pigs, found himself feeding his own face to Will Graham’s dogs. He endured a Dantesque penalty.

In the Season Three opener, Dr Lecter puts down a critic by quoting the first sonnet from Dante’s Vita Nuova, with its striking image of a woman eating her lover’s heart. He goes on to lecture on the seventh circle of Dante’s Hell, home to suicides, and makes a throwaway reference to “chewing” elsewhere in the poem.

This is a nod to the punishment for traitors. In the final circle of Hell Satan has got his teeth into Brutus and Cassius (the assassins of Julius Caesar) and, of course, Judas. The same image appears in the spectacular mosaic ceiling of Florence’s Baptistery. “You really are the Devil,” says Abel Gideon (Eddie Izzard) to Hannibal, as the latter dishes up Gideon’s leg. He has a point.

Before Dante gets to that final circle, he hears the long and gruesome tale of Count Ugolino della Gherardesca, betrayer of Pisa to its enemies, who has been condemned to eat the back of his co-conspirator’s head ‘like a dog’. The Count was imprisoned with his own children, who pleaded with their father to save himself by eating them. Whether he did so or not, Dante leaves to the reader’s imagination.

Another Florentine historical reference to watch out for is the Pazzi conspiracy. Featured in Season Three of Hannibal is Italian police inspector Rinaldo Pazzi, whose name is no accident. The historical Pazzi were rivals of the Medici, Florence’s leading family. In 1478 they led a conspiracy to murder Lorenzo ‘the Magnificent’ and Giuliano de’ Medici at Mass in the city’s cathedral. The former escaped; the latter did not.

The conspirators were strung up from the Palazzo Vecchio. According to a famous account by scholar and poet Poliziano, as they struggled at the end of their ropes, one of them, Archbishop Francesco Salviati, sunk his teeth into the body of another, Francesco de’ Pazzi. The Pazzi reference sets up a parallel between Lorenzo, the celebrated Renaissance man, famed for his patronage of art and letters, and our anti-hero with his equally exquisite taste. (There’s another in-joke here: Lorenzo’s wife was called Clarice.)

You might have spotted by now that the most famous line of the Hannibal canon, memorably performed by Anthony Hopkins in the film Silence of the Lambs, alludes to two Florentine specialties: fava beans and Chianti.

The history of Florence – and the city as metaphor – has plenty still to offer today’s writers and film-makers. I really hope someone decides to #SaveHannibal and gives us a chance to see more.