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.

  • Stuart Ian Burns

    I've been quite cautious about condemning the modern documentary.

    If you read David Attenborough's biography or look at work which has been done on documentaries across the years, there's always been a spread of different types of shows assuming various levels of knowledge from the viewer – that's even true of strands like Horizon which certainly on a weekly basis didn't expect a university level knowledge of the topic.

    The problem, I suppose, is that the “reading level” of a documentary isn't signposted much ahead of schedule, obviously so as not to scare off people who might think it's not for them. �Shows made in conjunction with the Open University send to be of a more detailed specialist nature whereas other things are often for a more generalised audience.

    I actually very much enjoyed the Horizon about the Transit of Venus. Clearly it wasn't as detailed a piece as say the 90s episode about Buckmaster Fuller or Longitude but being rudimentary in my understanding of science and astronomy I learnt all kinds of things and I think all three presenters did the job they were supposed to do in an interesting, entertaining and accessible way.

    I also think that there's a danger that if you already have some idea of the topic, you're likely to find a documentary of less use, perhaps even basic in comparison to someone with little idea. �I've read enough about Shakespeare now to find little new in some docs and found Shakespeare in Italy pretty rubbish. �But I know others who really enjoyed it for what it was.

  • Adam Bowie

    �I tend to agree with you, but not wholly.

    On the one hand, it's true that we don't get series like The Ascent of Man or Civilsation anymore. But then we never did get an awful of lot of them. That's why those series, and Cosmos, are still available on DVD today. I would also throw into the mix James Burke's series Connections and The Day The Universe Changed.

    On the other, I can't conceive of such a documentary being made again today come what may. Those series were big joint ventures with Time-Life (at least in the case of the first two), and were very expensive to make. These days, I suppose the equivalent would be the “Planet” natural history series. They are things of beauty, made over multi-year periods, and as such, they have to appeal to a mass audience on BBC1.

    Actually, I seem to remember The Day The Universe Changed getting criticised in the same way that Brian Cox's series are, with Burke hopping across the world seemingly at will.

    I think the closest we get to the intellectual rigour of those older documentaries is on BBC Four, where some smarter documentaries do show up. The Beautiful Minds series is wonderful in that respect. And even something like the current Harlots, Housewives and Heroines, spends three hours over women in the 17th century when it might only get one hour on BBC2, if that.

    I've not seen the Michael Wood documentary on The Trojan War that you mention (but I've added it to my Amazon wishlist), but I suspect that if it was made today, it would be all about CGI recreations of what might have happened on the battlefieled.

    Horizon is an interesting case, because it's just about the only science programme left on television, and so to a certain extent it has to be all things to all people. I should give an honourable mention to Bang Goes the Theory which has really hit its stride now with themed programmes, and it's excellent that something like it is on BBC1. People talk wistfully about Tomorrow's World, but for popular science, there was also QED. I think the problem with Horizon today is that it has to cover subjects that QED might once have covered.

    And isn't it a shame that Channel 4 no longer makes Equinox or something similar? Part of a malaise that means I watch nearly as little Channel 4 as Channel 5 these days – C4 News excepted.

    I think the main malaise with science and history documentaries in particular, is the need to put them under a banner. So all history documentaries are called things like “The Real [Insert-Something-The-Audience-Is-Already-Familiar-With-Here]”, or it must become a Time Team Special. I love Time Team, but adding a Tony Robinson voiceover isn't enough, or necessary all the time.

    Over Christmas, BBC2 broadcast a Brian Cox lecture – A Night with the Stars. Oddly it did everything right and wrong at the same time. I believe the programme was commissioned after Cox said that he could present with just an over-head projector and without the need to draw pictures in the sand in the Namibian Desert. The content of his lecture was actually really interesting, but that wasn't enough to get an hour on BBC2 on a Sunday night. So it became the bastard child of the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures. Except that in place of eager school kids, we got stars who hadn't all quite realised that this wasn't going to be an LWT recording of “An Audience with…” In fact the stars who came along – including Jonathan Ross, who knows Cox reasonably well – just mucked around and diluted the impact of what Cox was talking about. They made it harder to understand, not easier.

    And the worst sin of all? The title. A nice pun if Cox had been talking about the stars in particular. But he wasn't. The lecture was all about quantum theory (certainly related to stars, but this was certainly not aboout stars).

  • Mark Carroll

    I've mentioned that I find the US' current “NOVA” on PBS to be what “Horizon” used to be when it was good (indeed it was inspired by same).

    “Horizon” sometimes irritates me by trying rather hard to make some exciting human drama out of the science. They intentionally hold back “reveals” until nearer the end and have lots of fraught journeys in the interim. It's not at all an efficient dissemination of information; they spend more time boring me by trying to interest me in the material than they do actually conveying the material to me. Mind you, I liked Open University lectures until they took those away; so much for the mission to educate (or is that still in there?).

    It's not all bad, though. I've enjoyed recent miniseries like “Churches — How to Read Them” and “Inside the Mediaeval Mind” and they certainly didn't feel too long or time-wastey. There have been a few four- and six-parters like that that I found worthwhile.

    I think it's just that some documentaries don't use the time well, in trying to be too relevant or exciting or something, as if the material itself weren't felt to be intrinsically a sufficient draw. If they omitted the silly fluff and the interested ignorant, and just had experts showing us the things of interest, that would suffice quite adequately.

    There are all sorts of odd things though. Like, that show with long-haired Scottish guy telling us about ancient Britain; it was quite good but could have done with less of him enthusing about things and feeling privileged to see this and that and walking thoughtfully by the mobile telephone shop. At times it seemed like that he had the film crew tag along while he was running errands in the town centre. The people's history thing lately bored me silly too; I'm interested in the history, but not in how excited people were to find various trinkets in their back yards.

  • Stuart Ian Burns

    “I've mentioned that I find the US' current “NOVA” on PBS to be what “Horizon” used to be when it was good (indeed it was inspired by same).”

    In times past NOVA documentaries would be re-edited (with new narration) and broadcast as Horizon in the UK and vis-versa — I believe some of them were co-productions.

  • Broadcast reports today that C4's new doc directors strand First Cut is to change from 20 x 30 minutes to 10 x 60 and move from 7.30pm to 10pm. It's sad that half as many film-makers will get the chance to have their programmes on air and also ignores the fact that 30 minutes is a good length not only because they're less experienced programme makers but because it often results in lean, focused documentaries on quirky subjects – rather than padded-out journeys of discovery. Shame too that it's Nick Mirsky who's made this decision, given that he presided over BBC2's interesting Wonderland strand.

  • Rullsenberg

    the OU does still fund quite a few good documentaries – sometimes it seems like they are the ONLY documentary funders! Lucy Worsley has been lovely in the last couple of years – and you're right about that probably wouldn't get more than an hour on BBC2 (rather than the 3 hours – which still felt rushed – on BBC4).

    [also I hate the regular recap thing that takes up an unnecessary 5 mins or more each ep – way too long]

    Anyway: I've been watching The Secret history of our streets which has been great. I too miss the OU 'lectures' but understand why they disappeared.

    i have fond memories of The Trojan War documentary series with Michael Wood having watched it on DVD a few years back. I grew up on james burke and Michael Wood.

    So – to the question:
    I'd prefer documentaries to be longer, but think we've got hindsight-itis about how good every documentary was in the past JUST because it was long

    i think they're (potentially) just as informative, but heck – we KNOW more stuff now so of course we're less able to learn more stuff now. We've read a lot about Shakespeare, about cosmology, about ancient history, about nature, about women… and guess what there's less stuff we can find out now. it may be more pertinent to ask those much younger than ourselves if THEY are getting a lot out of documentaries. if you're new to something it WILL astound you more.

    I'd happily watch a 13-part documentary if it was on a cracking subject (please not the nazi's again) and could offer anything new….

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