27 February 2007

Getting Custerdy

At what point did we become too stupid to watch TV documentaries? Presumably about the same time we became unable to understand a news story unless it was related to a celebrity. Or when TV Execs started to create shows based upon a pun, rather than an idea: Life of Grime, Fat Men Can't Hunt.

And so was born the "docudrama": history as actors in costume raising their eyebrows cartoonishly. This week's crinoline-and-CGI concoction was the latest installment in the The Wild West (BBC2, Friday 23 February). In this case it was the much mythologised "last stand" of Custer, with Toby Stephens donning the floppy moustache, and the promise of startling new evidence that the most famous rout in American history so nearly went the other way. As a keen student of U.S. history, I was suckered in to watch, waiting to see the equivalent of the Titanic missing the iceberg.

This new evidence consisted of running through the familiar story of the Battle of Little Bighorn, while implying personal ambition amongst Custer's subordinates scuppered certain victory. This was history-as-football-manager, blaming defeat on the referee's eyesight - if only the river hadn't been banked by quicksand, if Custer's men hadn't dismounted, if Benteen had provided back-up in time. And if my cat could bark he'd be my dog.

To add weight to this rather flimsy reworking of the facts, we have to rely on dramatic set-pieces where Custer overrules Benteen, his second-in-command, and a grudge is born. But because there is no evidence other than innuendo, we have pantomime to fill in the gaps - instead of a new theory born of careful research and diligent fact-checking, we have a retelling of history based upon fictional dialogue, and motive proved by an actor's sneers.

The docudrama genre is to history programmes what Crimewatch is to current affairs. Crimewatch's fig leaf - that it helps to solve crime - doesn't hide the fact that almost all its viewers watch for vicarious pleasure. But at least it has a fig leaf; docudrama is the serpent in the tree of knowledge, tempting us with the false promise of Easy Answers and never having to think for ourselves.

1 comment:

PW said...

I remember when I was at school, I did a trendy O-level syllabus called Schools Council Project. Rather than teach you about proper history like Kings and Queens and suchlike, SCP took a thematic approach. The topics we covered included the American West (the Battle of the Little Bighorn featuring quite prominently, if I remember correctly), the history of medicine through the ages and the rise of communist China. It's proved a great grounding for me. Now, if ever a story comes up in the press about a sickly native American Marxist, I'm able to provide immediate context.