The flaws that blight the swaggering history boys of the BBC

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Hugh Bonneville and the cast of W1A gather to audition new TV historians. Parental details required.

Dr John Robertson takes issue with several TV ‘historians’

Dan Snow, David Dimbleby, Neil Oliver, Andrew Marr and Diarmaid MacCulloch: They have all made ‘history’ series in the last few years for the BBC, of course.

Dr John Robertson
Dr John Robertson

I’ve complained about some of them because of blatant errors and misleading distortions. The BBC has, of course, reprimanded most of them, sacked one and burned the others. Well, actually no,  instead they have defended them all unreservedly and given them contracts.

Before I go on to deal individually with them you might find it fun to guess how many history degrees they have between them? Well it’s…two, just the two. Dan Snow has an MA in Modern History (Oxford). David Dimbleby has a Third in PPE (Oxford).  Neil Oliver has a 2.1 in Archaeology (Glasgow). Andrew Marr has a First in English (Cambridge), and Diarmaid MacCulloch  has a BA History (Oxford) and a PhD on Tudor History.

None have taught the subject or studied it at a postgraduate level other than Diarmaid and, in his case, in quite a narrow field with divinity students.

Dan Snow

Dan does have an MA in Modern History and is the son of retired BBC presenter Peter Snow. Dan has co-presented a series of popular takes on British battles and glorious English struggles such as that against the Spanish Armada. Unkind critics have suggested that, without his dad, he might be teaching in some forsaken private school and struggling to find spare time for his sailing.

Dan Snow: His Dad was on the telly and his father in law owns half of Scotland. Just about.
Dan Snow: His Dad was on the telly and his father in law owns half of Scotland. Just about.

My only written complaint was against his BBC series ‘How the Celts Saved Britain’. It’s a profoundly flawed series much criticised for its stunning over-simplification of complex ideas. My comment was that the narrative seemed to suggest that the destruction of Christian, Romano-Celtic ‘Civilised’ Britain had been due largely to the attacks of Picts and Pagan Irish. How these raids, with no follow-up settlement, could have destroyed Christian Roman Britain in the well-populated and affluent midlands, south and south-east, was not made clear.

That the fundamental destruction of Christian Roman-Celtic Britain was actually at the hands of Pagan, Germanic invaders such as the proto-English, Angles and Saxons, was an idea saved until very late in the episode, and slipped in quietly.

By this time, the unfamiliar viewer had the clear notion that the Picts and the Pagan Irish were to blame. Dan didn’t reply personally, but BBC Complaints re-assured me that they had used my licence fee wisely to appoint reliable consultants to ensure the accuracy of the series. Best of all, on accuracy, was their suggestion that Hibernia meant the Land of Winter. Hibernia, hibernation, geddit? Obvious, innit? See this, admittedly challenging, read:

‘The name Hibernia was taken from Greek geographical accounts. During his exploration of northwest Europe (c. 320 BC),Pytheas of Massilia called the island Iérnē (written Ἰέρνη). In his book Geographia (c. 150 AD),Claudius Ptolemaeus (“Ptolemy”) called the island Iouerníā (written Ἰουερνία, where “ου”-oustands for w). Ιουέρνια Iouerníā was a Greek rendering of the Q-Celtic name *Īweriū from which eventually arose the Irish names Ériu and Éire. The original meaning of the name is thought to be “abundant land”.’

It took me five minutes to find, copy and paste the above extract from Wikipedia, suggesting almost the opposite of a land of winter.

David Dimbleby:

David, privately educated, third-class honours degree in Politics, Philosophy and Economics (PPE), member of the Bullingdon Club; son of BBC correspondent Richard; presents Question Time and has presented several BBC history series – competitively tendered for, I hope.

David Dimbleby: part of a dynasty
David Dimbleby: part of a dynasty

While getting only third-class honours must have been a bit of a disappointment, David was, admittedly, more successful in getting membership of the all-male, socially exclusive student dining and drinking society, the Bullingdon Club. Its members were well-known for their marvellous generosity in paying cash, without hesitation, for any damage they might have done in smashing chairs and tables or in removing (debagging) the trousers of waiters or anyone else deserving it. Most moving was their kindness in tipping (throwing coins at) waitresses or ‘fillies’ as they lovingly and respectfully called them.

I haven’t complained about any of the above but I did complain about ‘Seven Ages of Britain’ produced by Jonty Claypole, which Dimbleby ‘wrote and presented’ for the BBC in 2010.

I did not like it at all, on numerous grounds, but mainly for its inaccuracies. I can’t find a copy of my complaint and I refuse to watch it again. You’ll need to make do with Seven Ages of Britain: Let me learn from an expert, not a newsreader’ from Daily Telegraph writer Harry de Quetteville, whose exquisite words ‘not a newsreader’ were written, I imagine, with the greatest of sneers on his face. Poor Harry, had he been debagged? This theme comes up again with the next case.

Neil Oliver:

Oliver, until then, mostly known as a ‘Coast’ presenter, hit the headlines in 2008, when Professor Tom Devine questioned whether he was the right person to present a new history series. Devine said:

‘“I don’t have any problem with Neil Oliver himself.” His problem, he says, is having an archaeologist-turned-journalist presenting the BBC series A History of Scotland, rather than an historian.’

Neil Oliver, archaeologist
Neil Oliver, archaeologist

Oliver responded with quite a low-brow attack on Devine’s physical appearance. The series was also criticised as being Anglo-centric. Perhaps Devine’s support for Independence was another factor? Here’s Oliver on that particular issue:

‘When people talk about the concept of breaking up the union it immediately makes me uncomfortable beyond the politics, beyond the nationalism, it just makes me feel physically uncomfortable.’

Oliver has been very outspoken on Scottish Independence and is commonly treated as some kind of authority. The above quote from the Scotsman on 10th September 2012, suggests that his political views have little of reason or values behind them but are, merely gut-reactions derived perhaps from personal experience.

In the Herald on the 27th September 2015, He further clarifies his anxiety about independence, with the astonishing claim: ‘I think any uncertainty for any reason is a cancerous presence.’

Is this a wee bit OTT, do you think? Oliver’s current Wikipedia page is quite sparse with no mention of actual qualifications and classifications. Modesty prevails I suppose. He studied archaeology then journalism but mostly presents on early history. I suppose if you can’t find an historian, find an archaeologist. That’s better than, say, using a journalist like Dimbleby or Marr?

In the Independent, on 13th November 2008, he said: As a qualified archaeologist, it was more the digging and the burrowing that I liked rather than the academic side with its dusty documents.’ So that’s good too, isn’t it? We don’t want any smart-alecs on TV bragging about reading books, do we?

I haven’t actually written to BBC Complaints about Oliver’s history series because I can’t watch them. He makes me ‘physically uncomfortable.’ If such irrational factors are alright for him as a basis for insulting supporters of Scottish Independence, then it must be alright for me as a basis for choosing TV programmes to watch, don’t you think?

Andrew Marr:

Andrew has a First in English so, presumably, a very good grasp of what words might be taken to mean, so when he said these words on his show (16th March 2014) to Alex Salmond regarding Scotland’s membership of the EU post-Independence, it caused quite a stushie.

“I think it will be quite hard to get back in, I have to say.” 

Andrew Marr
Andrew Marr

That Marr should have felt able to speak with such confidence, given his lack of evidence, was remarkable. My own wee contribution to the stushie is still at

http://theconversation.com/andrew-marr-gives-more-than-a-glimpse-of-anti-independence-bias-at-the-bbc-24496

I didn’t complain directly about this because so many others had done so, within hours of the broadcast. What I did complain about was his 2009, BBC ‘History’ series ‘The Making of Britain.’

For someone with leftist views, at least as a younger man, this was a very mainstream, establishment-friendly, royalty-friendly, product. My complaint was about its trade union amnesia. The trades unions got no credit at all for anything good in Modern Britain. You’ll know, of course, that virtually everything working-class people got – decent housing, inside toilets, running water, schools, free health-care, pensions, paid holidays, weekends off and so on – had been the result primarily of decades of struggle by organised labour, including their creation of the Labour Party as means of achieving power in a pseudo-democratic system.

Sir Diarmaid McCulloch

The Reverend Sir Diarmaid McCulloch, Professor of the History of the Church at Oxford University and expert on the Reformation, recently told New Humanist magazine that the Church had rejected him because he was gay. Luckily, the Queen gave him a knighthood to cheer him up. Quite unconnected with that, of course, I commented unfavourably on his shockingly titled, BBC series opener ‘How God Made the English – 1 – A Chosen People?’ where he had opened with the outrageous phrase:

‘It was soon known as the Battle of Britain but even though that was its name, it wasn’t fought over the whole of the British Isles. It was the skies over England…that saw most of the action.’ 

I reminded him of his blatant untruth in saying that. I reminded him of the utter destruction of the Scottish town of Clydebank by the Luftwaffe, of the role of non-English pilots in the aforesaid battle and many other facts undermining his case. He actually replied personally and quite indignantly that no matter what evidence I presented, he was still correct and was sticking to his guns, so to speak.

Diarmid MacCulloch: English, apparently
Diarmid MacCulloch: English, apparently

He even went on in the series to tell us that Agincourt and other earlier victories had been glorious English and not British victories. Who said they were? Leaving aside his apparent ignorance of the key role of Welsh archers in this particular victory, that a member of a faculty of theology and briefly ordained in the Church of England, should think that England’s bloody, rapacious, brutal, piratical invasions of France were glorious, was astounding to me.

Was it OK for them to burn Jeanne d’Arc? She was a Catholic. I couldn’t, of course, draw attention to his not-very-English sounding name (I’m not a racist!) and ask if he thought Oliver Cromwell’s troops scalping the Irish had been a glorious English achievement too? What about the rape of Berwick by Edward 1st? Overall this was the kind of triumphalist, exceptionalist, volkish, sub-racist, mythologising which most real English historians would have sneered at had it come from, say America or Scotland. Indeed, it smacked just a bit of  ‘blood and soil.’ It’s surprising, really, that he so misjudges England’s martial history when he has a PhD in Tudor History. I feel sure he knows that the psychopathic Tudors were originally a glorious Welsh family!

It all left me wondering, is there an English equivalent to the Scots: ‘Wha’s like us? Damn few and they’re aw deid?’ Would that be ‘Whoose laik uz? Demm fyue end thay err ohl daid?’

My proposal that BBC Scotland should commission a new series ‘How God made the Scots – A chosen people?’ got me seven days in Barlinnie for racist abuse of the BBC Scotland staff. Well, not really, but I bet they would have liked that. Jackie Bird, grinning, unavoidably, from ear to ear: ‘Professor Robertson, who falsely accused the BBC of bias in 2014, has been arrested for a racially motivated crime!’

Conclusions:

You probably don’t need me to make conclusions for you, so I’ll say only this:

Five boys

Four privately-educated upper-middle-class boys

Four Oxbridge graduates

Two members of the odious Bullingdon Club, 

Two History degrees

two sons of established BBC presenters

What chance is there that these sons of privilege could ever understand what history has mean for most of their viewers, their parents or their grandparents, for women, for the Irish, the Scots or the Welsh, or for the many ethnic and religious minorities?

Saddest of all for me, is that the only formerly working-class Scot in this group, Neil Oliver, looks so comfortable, in the worldview of that BBC elite. I suppose dressing like a ghillie helps him blend in and puts the toffs at their ease? Seriously though, when he looks back at the honest passion for self-determination in more than a million of us who managed to unlearn the Unionist propaganda of our history teachers and of our media and still vote Yes, he saw a cancer.