At the start of December, I took part in a podcast recorded to back up a BBC Timewatch programme about Omaha Beach on D-Day. The programme goes out this evening on the BBC, and the podcast is now up. I wasn’t asked to be involved because of any great subject expertise, I think, but rather because I’d worked before with the BBC and the Open University (who collaborate on the podcast and website), because they knew I’d probably do it, and, as it turned out, because I could discuss the mythology of the Second World War as well. Although I don’t think this was an influential factor, I also knew the historian who’d been principally involved, Dr Simon Trew, from my time teaching at Sandhurst.
I was, to begin with, rather apprehensive. I got some negative reactions the last time I stuck my head over the parapet of publicity to talk about victory in 1918, and a lot of people know a lot more about Omaha than I do. Timewatch has been the subject of some controversy recently, with accusations of it dumbing down – and even suggestions that it would be axed. And then the transcript and preview DVD arrived, and I learned that the script seemed to bounce from one topic to the next and that the programme would be presented by that well known historian of war, Richard Hammond. What, exactly, was I going to say about that, if I wasn’t going to ruin my chances of ever working with the BBC again? As it turned out, it wasn’t quite as I expected.
Lessons that I should already have known No. 1: transcripts don’t tell you what a programme is actually like, because they can’t convey the multiplicative effect of visuals plus words. Watching the preview DVD, I realised that this was in fact a much more effective bit of programming than I had expected, and I was increasingly able to take it on its own terms. Visually, it did an excellent job of getting across the tactical problem of Omaha – the steepness of the bluffs and the long, gradual curvature of the beach – whilst fitting in some truly moving images of the survivors and the dead. And whilst it didn’t tell the whole story of Omaha – how could you in an hour? – it worked intellectually at two levels. First it allowed a number of different interpretations of what had ‘gone wrong’ on Omaha, and gave some insight into the debates that are crucial to the practice of history. Second, at a deeper level, it encouraged the audience to question whether ‘going wrong’ was really the right approach to take to looking at the beach. The planners had, after all, accepted that there would be heavy casualties, even if the very rapid pace at which they were suffered was a surprise. And, in the section of Omaha that the programme focused on, it was something ‘going wrong’ that had actually, it seemed, prevented disaster: the arrival of Rangers diverted from attacking the Pointe du Hoc cracking open the German defensive position. Perhaps above all, despite Richard Hammond’s presence, it didn’t get bogged down in a discussion of technology. I was very glad not to see the poor man having to disappear beneath the waves in a Duplex-Drive tank. He’s probably been through enough.
Lessons that I should already have known No. 2: whatever the various pressures exerted upon it, Timewatch is made by people who have a real passion for history, a feeling of obligation to the past and the audience and a sense of mission. So the first questions that series producer John Farren wanted to ask me in the podcast was what I thought of the choice of Hammond and whether I thought the programme had ‘worked’. Whilst I felt disposed to give positive answers, I was under no pressure to do so, and we recorded the podcast pretty much in one take. The podcast gave me a chance to ask Simon about some of the aspects of the film that I’d been uncertain about when I watched it, and for him to explain what he was trying to do. It also gave us all an opportunity to discuss why we thought the Second World War was still such a draw, but how much work still remains to be done upon it.
Thing that I might be beginning to suspect in my more positive moments: the combination of technological change and supposed ‘dumbing down’ might be our friend, not our enemy. Every historian I have ever known who has worked with television, no matter what their eminence and how highbrow the programme, has come away disappointed to some degree. Television by itself does not easily allow for the nuance, the complexity, the variety and the scope of historical explanation. There are seldom the precise pictures to show what we want, and never the words to allow us to introduce an element of doubt, even if producers wanted us to. The most we can hope to do – and it is a high and a worthy aspiration is to make viewers think, either about things that they don’t know, or things that they assume. That, for me, is the social purpose of history – to encourage good citizenship through critical thought and the questioning of assumptions. For all that the new series of Timewatch might involve celebrity presenters and modern reconstructions, it may come closer to achieving that aim than other programmes by the depth of material associated with it.
At the moment, the electronic resources that go alongside this Timewatch episode allow the interested viewer not just to find out more about Omaha; but also to hear the historian and producer involved talking about why they made specific choices, what they regret and what they feel went well; and also to read about the process of making history for TV. It seems to me that this gives a greater likelihood of encouraging audience members to think about what they’re seeing than just telling the story or setting up opposing historical talking heads. And if they do that, they might want to talk about their thoughts in the OU’s online forum.
So an encouraging experience therefore. And a useful learning one as well: getting good quality audio seems to be very easy now, and I know I’m behind the curve in thinking about what that might mean for teaching and learning.