There is a bit of a rant by John Dugdale over at The Guardian complaining about an increasing trend for semi-serious TV shows being fronted by a (diminishing) pool of respected and serious news journalists. Situations such as Jeremy Paxman presenting a recent documentary series on Victorian Art, David Dimbleby on the British Art and Andrew Marr on, well – almost anything.

Some of the complaints have merit, as sometimes the presenter and the programme topic make me wonder if the producers just “rented a head” to get in the ratings. I do however find this more prevalent in the more tabloid end of the documentary market. The sort of shows that can be found lingering at the upper end of the Sky TV menu with titles that invariably include “mega” in the topic title.

The issue I have with the more serious documentaries that The Guardian is complaining about is that – in general – they are presented very well, by very good presenters and if that is what is needed to pull in the viewers, then shouldn’t the complaint be aimed at the viewers for their lack of curiosity?

Jeremy Paxman was genuinely brilliant when presenting the series on Victorian art and engineering last year. Andrew Marr does spread himself a bit thin, but his two series on Modern History has been a real eye opener at times, and even his attempts to ape Rory Bremner in impersonating the way a long-dead politician spoke are mildly amusing.

The one area where I will agree, in part, with the newspaper though is the current series on the Seven Ages of Britain hosted by David Dimbleby. I don’t say that he is a bad presenter, as his recently repeated series on Russia was fantastic. Opps, google tells me that was his brother, Jonathan! OK, he is an average presenter then, but still not that bad.

My main gripe with the programme lays with the editor and production team.

What does a wide angle shot of David walking through a snow covered field tell us about art? Nothing!

What does a helicopter flying over a shoreline tell us about the Bayeux Tapestry? Nothing!

What does the a shot of the corridor in a train as David travels between locations tell us about medieval art? Nothing!

Finally, and most egregiously, what was so special about carrying a large book up a flight of stairs that it warranted as much screen time as was devoted to the actual contents of the book? And the less said about his handling of 900 year old books without wearing gloves the better!

This is a 30 minute show that has been padded out to a full hour with pointless landscape scenes – most of which seem to involve a helicopter – or panning shots over buildings which leave you slightly dizzy as the camera dances around the place.

I’m not sure if they filmed 30 minutes worth of footage per show and then realised they had an hour to fill and raided the stock-footage library, or if the producer has a friend who wanted to hire out a helicopter. Whichever it is – the programme, while better than most of the stuff that the BBC puts out, is a pale shadow of what it could have been.

In that regard, it is a pity that a serious news presenter rented out his head to front it.


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  1. Andrea says:

    “And the less said about his handling of 900 year old books without wearing gloves the better!” – glad I’m not the only one who winced at that.

  2. erika says:

    I completely disagree, I’m afraid.
    I find the series absolutely fascinating and given that so far each episode has been seen by 5.6 millions viewers, I don’t think I’m the only one to think that.

    Informative, full of little trivia I didn’t know, beautiful to watch and in HD it is really amazing.

    As far as the gloves issue is concerned, as a museum curator myself, I can tell you that when handling papers, old books and documents it is actually advise NOT TO WEAR any gloves, as they would make your hands more insensitive and you may actually end up tearing off the page.
    A good old hand wash is much more advisable.

  3. Jayne says:

    I’ll keep my eyes peeled for this series when it hits our shores in Oz, good or bad I’m intrigued 😉

  4. I really enjoyed the Dimbleby show, too. Maybe I’m getting old, but the ‘padding’ shots help pace things out a little for me. An establishing shot or landscape pan helps me ‘relax into’ the programme, rather than having to try and absorb a constant river of facts.

    Got to say, I think we’re in a mini golden age of documentary at the moment. Chemistry: A Volatile History and that geology show (How Earth Made Us?) have both been excellent. Even Horizon has upped its game a bit.

  5. Mike Holliday says:

    We have just seen the first Seven Ages of Britain. I was disappointed. I felt it was superficial and should have been done in greater depth and with greater conviction.
    Covering the Roman and Anglo Saxon (and with a slab of early Norman thrown in) period in less than 60 minutes did not do justice to the subject.
    It was superficial and the other disappointment is that it could have been so much better.
    Sadly it will probably also discourage other programmers from ploughing this very fertile field on the grounds that Mr Dimbleby and company have already done it.

    • IanVisits says:

      Well, apart from an entire series of programmes on The Normans that ran over the past few weeks on BBC4?

  6. Jane says:

    Have just watched in and must say that I found it wonderful. I loved the presentation and the “padding” shots helped set the scene. There were little bits of poignant trivia in it which I found fascinating. I too was very surprised when Mr Dimbleby handled manuscripts without gloves but was very interested to hear Erica’s explanation for this.

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