Question of the week: are modern documentaries worse because they’re shorter or because they’re stupider?

In Search of the Trojan War

So I’ve been despairing of the current state of TV documentaries for a while. Whether it’s the inherent fluffiness of Horizon now or the terrible state of pretty much any BBC1 documentary that doesn’t involve David Attenborough (e.g. Atlantis or Egypt’s Lost Cities) – imagine the horror of last week’s Horizon about the transit of Venus, hosted by Egypt’s Lost Cities‘ Liz Bonnin. Shudder. Even Bettany Hughes is going off the boil now she’s on the BBC, fronting opinion pieces masquerading as documentaries, such as Divine Women and her equally selective Timewatch show about Atlantis; Fry’s Planet Word was similarly disappointing.

You might think that BBC4 might be different, and in some cases you’d be right. But even some of these (e.g. Delphi – The Bellybutton of the World and Ancient Worlds) have been flawed, a little light on detail and occasionally wrong.

Okay, so we haven’t reached the nadir of the Discovery Channel et al (“Did aliens assassinate JFK?”) yet, but the days when you could actually learn a decent amount from a BBC documentary that isn’t about wildlife are disappearing fast, it would seem. As Victoria Coren put it on last week’s Have I Got News For You, QI is about the only programme on TV that doesn’t treat you like an idiot.

Now, the obvious counter argument to this is that I’m nearly 40 so maybe I’ve actually learnt a few things by now, so of course the documentaries I watch are going to seem less informative than the ones I watched when I was a kid – I’m older so it would seem my failing eyesight needs rose-tinted glasses to help it.

A test of that would be to watch older documentaries to see if I can learn something from them. Well, the trial run of that was when I watched Bronowski’s marvellous The Ascent of Man a little while ago. And while, naturally enough, there was a lot I already knew, as predicted, there was also a lot I didn’t.

Last week’s test was to try a documentary on another subject where I do have a big chunk of knowledge and/or specialist interest – in this case, late Bronze Age Greek history. Thanks to the marvels of Amazon, I got hold of a DVD of Michael Wood’s In Search of The Trojan War, a six-part 1985 series looking at the evidence for the Trojan War, Bronze Age history both in Greece and in the Middle East, and the history of the archaeology of the site believed to be Troy. And yes, I actually learned quite a bit, because it was bloody marvellous.

An interesting contrast with more modern documentaries is that Wood obviously knows his subject and he doesn’t try to hide it: he doesn’t have to pretend to be the naïf who needs everything explained to him, which is the usual trend (even the lovely Bettany does it) – an effort to make the documentary less didactic. Instead, Wood interviews people to find out things he doesn’t know, but where he does know information, he argues with his subjects and you get to see actual academic discussions of how to interpret, say, whether excavated walls were destroyed by earthquakes or by soldiers collapsing them.

And for Wood, the series is a definite search: by the end, he’s changed his mind about whether the Trojan War happened or not, and then he stinks his neck out to come to a conclusion – which is clearly labelled as his opinion, rather than the collective belief of academia as some documentaries suggest. True, some of the obviously staged scenes wouldn’t pass a BBC ethics committee/Daily Mail witch hunt these days, but this is definitely a series that will genuinely inform. If you have six hours to spare, I’d recommend getting it from Amazon (it’s only a fiver) or if you must, watch it on YouTube after the jump.

But there is an obvious counter-counter argument to the point: Michael Wood had six episodes to do his search in, whereas Bettany Hughes, for example, only had an hour and half to cover the whole of the Minoan civilisation when she was on More4. Of course, BBC4 shows such as Ancient Worlds and The History of Maths have had five or six episodes each, but Wood essentially had six episodes to explore one war and a very narrow period of history of time, so everything was a lot more spaced out in comparison; Bronowski, of course, had 13 episodes to deal with the history of science. Brian Cox’s Wonders of the Universe was four episodes, and his Wonders of the Solar System was five episodes – Carl Sagan’s fantastic Cosmos was 13 episodes.

There may be many reasons for this, ranging from budgets and modern trends in scheduling to a belief that viewers simply won’t stick around for a series that’s too long or a suspicion that people are actually stupider now so won’t stick around for anything too complicated. But whatever the reason, are modern documentaries catering to your intellectual needs?

So to cut a long question short:

Is the problem with modern documentary series that they aren’t long enough or is it that they genuinely aren’t as informative as they used to be? Or am I completely mistaken and they’re still as good if not better than they used to be and I’m just looking at the good ones, rather than the really dull, uninvolving ones of yesteryear? If they are worse than they used to be, what do you reckon the problem is? And would you watch a 13-part documentary if it was on TV these days anyway?

Of course, my theory on series length doesn’t explain why watching Horizon these days feels like being trepanned, but it does at least give other documentaries an excuse. Watch Michael Wood first, though, before you make your decision, particularly if you think Bettany Hughes has been ‘sexing things up’ – Wood goes topless at one point in the first two episodes and there’s a topless woman in the title sequence for no well-explored reason.


  • Rob Buckley

    I’m Rob Buckley, a journalist who writes for UK media magazines that most people have never heard of although you might have heard me on the podcast Lockdown Land or Radio 5 Live’s Saturday Edition or Afternoon Edition. I’ve edited Dreamwatch, Sprocket and Cambridge Film Festival Daily; been technical editor for TV producers magazine Televisual; reviewed films for the short-lived newspaper Cambridge Insider; written features for the even shorter-lived newspaper Soho Independent; and was regularly sarcastic about television on the blink-and-you-missed-it “web site for urban hedonists” The Tribe. Since going freelance, I've contributed to the likes of Broadcast, Total Content + Media, Action TV, Off The Telly, Action Network, TV Scoop and The Custard TV.

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