Wednesday, 18 November 2009

The British public: a public ill served?

The number of literary festivals in Britain, many with a substantial historical input, continues to grow. The London History Festival, which finished last week, saw large numbers attending Kensington Central Library to listen to historians of the calibre of Simon Sebag Montefiore, John Adamson, Saul David and Alison Weir. Such events are now staples of middle-class British life, taking place in all regions, urban and rural.

What is the reason for their success? Could it be that television no longer caters to the ‘interested’ middle class, as Richard North calls them? That’s not to say that good television isn’t still made; it is. Witness Diarmuid MacCulloch’s History of Christianity, currently being broadcast on BBC 4. But primetime, real time terrestrial TV is by and large a motley, often degrading circus of celebrity and clamour, whose prime purpose seems to be the annulment of all thought.

So, the educated prefer to head somewhere local to listen to a Starkey, a Sebag or an Antonia Fraser. The same phenomena expresses itself in the increased audience for BBC Radios 3 and 4 (where Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time performs a similar function for listeners interested in history) and in the rise in sales of box sets of challenging US dramas such as The Wire (a Greek tragedy made modern) and Mad Men. There are plenty of discerning, curious people around. But they are very ill served by Britain’s television programme makers.

On the subject of a public ill served, Simon Heffer, writing on today’s Queen’s Speech, claims that the current Parliament is the most despised since Cromwell threw out the Rump in 1653. Can that really be the case, and what are the other contenders?

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