Rant of the week: Do we need professional TV documentary presenters?

Professor Andrew Wallace-Hadrill

TV presenting, particularly for documentaries, is not an easy job. Not everyone can do it. Even if you go on one of the training courses that’ll teach you all the ins and outs, you’re still effectively acting: learning lines to be recited to camera for a show that millions and millions of people will watch, if you’re lucky, can be nerve-wracking and difficult. Even if you pull that bit off, there’s the intangible question of whether the camera will ‘love’ you or not, and whether you’re attractive enough as far as commissioners at least are concerned.

So a set of skills that aren’t entirely negligible. No wonder we end up with so few faces on the TV: Kirstie Allsop, Professor Brian Cox, Liz Bonin, Bettany Hughes, Sir David Attenborough, Bear Gylls et al – you’ll be familiar with practically all of them.

To a certain extent, particularly with documentaries, there’s also the ‘area expertise’ required to be authoritative: there’s a qualitative difference between documentaries that have Danny Wallace as their front man than Professor Brian Cox, because Wallace is hired to be an everyman while Cox is An Expert. Cox, however, is a scientist, so you don’t get him to present an episode of Timewatch, say, unless there’s some scientific component to it. There’s also the built-in marketing associated with a known face: it’s a lot easier to get money and an audience for something featuring Sir David Attenborough than some complete unknown naturalist.

But despite all that I’ve just said, I am worried that this concern with known faces and professionalism in broadcasting is impoverishing our broadcasting.

Now I love Bettany Hughes: I think she’s a fabulous broadcaster and she’s extremely knowledgeable about her subject area. The key point there is ‘about her subject area’. She specialises in Ancient Greek culture and history, and it’s noticeable that her best documentaries have been about these areas. Where she’s strayed out into other areas, with shows such as Divine Women, Alexandria or Seven Wonders of the Buddhist World, they have been noticeably poorer, less detailed and in some cases factually incorrect.

Ditto Brian Cox. He’s a very personable presenter and a particle physicist – he certainly knows his stuff in that area. So why on Earth was he host of The Wonders of Life, attempting to explain biophysics at a GCSE level, when that’s clearly not his area of expertise? Hell, I’d have taken Liz Bonnin over Cox for that, since she could arguably have added greater detail to the show, being a trained biologist. Which doesn’t explain why she was involved in the archaeology show Egypt’s Lost Cities, which largely consisted of shots of her and her co-presenter going “Golly!” at remote sensing data.

Unless you’re a genuine polymath like Jacob Bronowski, this cross-discipline hosting is something that should be avoided at all costs, otherwise, you might as well just get Vernon Kay in and be done with the whole ‘expert’ thing.

Meanwhile, surprisingly over on BBC2 rather than BBC4, which until now has been the last hold-out of truly intelligent documentaries at the BBC, they’ve been running the rather good The Other Pompeii: Life and Death in Herculaneum. Timed, I suspect, to coincide with the British Museum’s new exhibition on the subject, it’s hosted by Professor Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, one of the archaeologists who has been excavating Herculaneum. He’s not exactly a novice broadcaster, having been in several documentaries over the years, but he’s not one of the usual suspects. Despite essentially being a tour of the remains and a look at how the population of Herculaneum lived, from the lives of slaves through to what the poor ate (discovered by analysing their coprolites), the programme was utterly engaging, Nicholson pottering around markets, talking Italian to professors involved in the project and a variety of untelegenic fellow experts adding to the wealth of information imparted. Nicholson knew what to talk about, knew what he was talking about and knew how to talk about it.

By contrast, BBC1 went for the ‘TV face’ route, getting Margaret Mountford from The Apprentice to present Pompeii: The Mystery of the People Frozen in Time. Now, being BBC1, this was always going to be a dumber documentary anyway. And Mountford does have archaeological expertise, famously retiring from The Apprentice to finish her doctorate in papyrology, particularly as it pertains to Roman fragments from the Oxyrhynchus collection. But this was far the inferior show, leaving Mountford to stare at wax figures without adding much herself. Because knowing Latin and being able to analyse papyrus does not make you an expert on the archaeology of Pompeii.

So my pleading isn’t so much for fewer famous experts on TV as for more experts, and for those experts to be able to talk about things in which they are experts and interested. If someone like Wallace-Hadrill can make good TV, then there must be many others out there capable of hosting documentaries that will add to our knowledge rather than insult our collective intelligences.

But what do you think? Do we need professional TV documentary presenters who can host shows even on subjects that aren’t in their area of expertise? Or do we need more experts on shows, even if they’re not as good at hosting TV programmes as their more experienced colleagues?

PS I am aware, of course, that documentary hosts don’t necessarily write shows they host, even for subjects that they are experts in. There are researchers and consultants, obviously. Yet I still feel there is an empirical qualitative difference in terms of what goes into these documentaries if the host actually knows about the subject.


  • 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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