One of the pleasures of living in the UK, where I’m two-thirds of the way through a year here, is the stellar quality of some of the television programming, and particularly of the many science and cultural series produced by the BBC. A wonderful post by scientist and blogger Stephen Curry last week, Artful History, looked at the origins of those works in the 1970s “Civilisation” hosted by Kenneth Clark and first conceived by David Attenborough, who is more famous — and justifiably knighted and pretty much worshipped — for his magnificent work on the “LIfe” series on natural history he has produced and narrated over the last two decades of so. I generally hate television programming, and find almost nothing of value in the U.S. (though I admit my sampling rate is low of late, as I’ve not subscribed to cable for about 15 years). But the TV here has been a great boon and, at its best, an enormous intellectual and emotional pleasure. Some of the shows have brought me near tears.
This excellence rises partly from the Brits’ wonderful passion for history, to say nothing of their flair for smart but understated narrative. A related delight, rising from the same impulses minus the understatement, is the Horrible Histories series, aimed at kids, which also has book tie-ins and games and such. A delicious highlight is the clips, which are little entertainments stuffed with history. My children, 6 and 9, love these segments, and replay their favorites weekly or so on YouTube. My own favorites include the one at the top of this post, about Vikings, as well as one below, about the four King Georges.
Why do I so love these videos? First, they deliver some history and help spark and fan an interest in the subject among school-age kids (as my own children’s enthusiasm attests)*. And at the meta-level — I find this wonderfully amusing — these actor/comedian/historians have the music-performance and music-video genres down. See, for instance, the heavy-metal posturing in the Viking vid and the crooner mannerisms in the King Georges. That mike held off to the side so you can see the Fat George’s face? These lads do their homework.
*I should note this goes hand-in-hand with a strong educational program about history in my kids’ public school. My son’s Year 4 class (roughly equivalent to 4th grade in the U.S.) studied the Tudors in the fall, and he was thrilled to play Henry VIII in their class play that semester. By Christmas, after only four months here, my two youngest knew more about British history than most of their classmates back home know about U.S. history. But let’s not get me started, on this peaceful night, on U.S. education.
See also: Artful History, by Stephen Curry