Wednesday, 4 November 2009

The Grierson Awards

At the Grierson Awards last night, the annual jamboree for documentary film-makers, the History Today Award for Best Historical Documentary went to John Dower for Thriller in Manila, a look at the world heavyweight title fight between Muhammad Ali and ‘Smokin’’ Joe Frazier. It was original in the fact that it is told from the point of view of Frazier, a bull of a man still plainly hurt by the caustic verbal assault Ali unleashed upon him in the build up to the fight, calling him, among many other things, ‘gorilla’ and ‘Uncle Tom’.

I was part of the judging process, which included historians such as Diarmaid MacCulloch (author of an interesting recent article on the Papal appeal to disgruntled Anglicans) and Anna Whitelock, as well as a host of documentary filmmakers. For me, the process raised a number of points.

Almost certainly for reasons of archive, the 20th century dominates history documentaries. It was really quite striking how few documentaries are made about the Middle Ages, the early modern period and the Classical world, eras which are hugely popular among those who consume their history in print. Only a few major historians, most notably David Starkey, get to present serious television histories set in the distant past, and even then it’s the Tudors. Is television unable to convey the realities of life previous to the 20th century, or are film-makers simply unwilling to tackle serious history?

By the way, the host of last night’s awards, Andrew Marr, a former winner himself, is currently in the midst of an entertaining spat with the Daily Telegraph’s Charles Moore over the ‘left-wing’ bias of his new BBC history of (stifle the yawn) 20th-century Britain. Oh for a big-budget history series on the Civil Wars, the Glorious Revolution or the Anglo-Saxons.

Peter Furtado introduces the remarkable work of award-winning historical documentary film-maker Norma Percy, in Can TV Make History?

1 comment:

Peter Furtado said...

It's absolutely true that most history documentaries tend to be about the 20th century, for the reasons you say (but some are brilliant, like the recent Twenties in Colour, about Albert Kahn's archive). But isn't your fellow judge Diarmaid MacCullough not just embarking on his own epic journey over 2,000 years and across the globe in his History of Christianity? Historical documentary-making may be somewhat in the doldrums at the moment, but evidently the age of the mega-budget is not quite over.

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