History programmes are getting better. Where once historical documentaries used to be the bastion of bookish old men with ubiquitous tweed jackets and leather elbow patches, modern production techniques are allowing programme makers to create vibrant, immersive documentaries that really engage the viewer instead of leaving them snoring on their sofa.
We’ve watched quite a few historical shows lately – not just on the History Channel (which I’ll talk about in a minute) – and it’s amazing what good production values can do. The inclusion of some slick digital effects, high-quality period costumes and dramatisations and a dramatic soundtrack can all conspire to elevate formerly dreary history lessons into fascinating near-cinematic experiences.
Take, for instance, the twelve-part documentary about the history of the USA that’s airing on History on Monday nights. America: The Story Of The US takes the history of the highly controversial continent from the first settlers, right up to their present day status as world superpower.
The series takes each major era in the development of America and devotes an entire programme to it, with revealing narratives and faithful dramatisations of living conditions and conflicts. There are also insights and commentaries from Colin Powell to Meryl Streep, Michael Douglas to Donald Trump.
As a UK viewer, the series strips away all the flag-waving and waffling about the glory of the founding of the US and presents a different picture – one of a country established with great difficulty and hardship. In the episode that will air tonight, Revolution, we are given a detailed account of the War of Independence, the reasons for fighting the British, the sacrifices involved and the strategies that helped the early Americans win the war.
You’ll find yourself learning some interesting things along the way – how George Washington may have pioneered smallpox inoculation during the war in order to save the lives of the troops. The programme reveals that before Washington’s experiments, 4 in 10 soldiers were dying of the disease, and after inoculation became commonplace, deaths were reduced to 1 in 50.
The show also reveals – without much sensationalism, I might add – that a homosexual Prussian General named Baron Von Steuben was responsible for turning Washington’s raggedy militia into a serious fighting force. A touch more investigation into the subject reveals exactly why this is pertinent to modern day Americans:
Nonetheless, most Americans have never heard of him. You see, Baron von Steuben was gay. Von Steuben’s homosexuality was not incidental, since it explains why he fled Europe and ended up at Valley Forge.
Further fascinating facts reveal that a spy network was established to help the Americans in their intelligence gathering. This included one lady – whose name I missed – who relayed messages for the network through the way in which she hung out her laundry!
America: The History Of The US is a fascinating series that lifts the lid on US history in what seems to be an honest manner, not overly clouded by patriotism and sentiment. It’s funny, but where it succeeds best is in giving you the imagination to view that world. The title sequence features a shot of the Statue of Liberty in her original gleaming bronze rather than the weathered turquoise she wears today. Imagine standing there for the construction of that iconic New York landmark!
The next episode airs tonight (6th September 2010) on History at 8pm.