Recently, Mary Beard gave a lecture which some of my friends attended. The report I received from them was rapturous – she was controversial and authoritative. Actually, she was more than that. She was right.
Recently, Professor Beard was attacked by AA Gill. It is part of the same story- that people can be judged today more for whether they conform than whether they have something important to say.
The two issues Professor Beard specifically raised in the Listener talk were the abuse she suffered when her presentation in “CIVILIZATIONS” was cut when it was broadcast in the US, and the second was to make a firm stand against re-enactments or recreations in History documentaries. These are all over the internet, and particularly noticeable on PBS.
It would, however, be wrong to suppose that America is only to blame.
I was once engaged by a UK company to play the part of Socrates for one such history documentary, so I know from the other side how silly and absurd such recreations can be. More than that, we were filming not in a genuinely Attic setting but in the 19th Century Zappeion, a bit of the modern Greek parliament complex built specifically to celebrate the first modern Olympic games in 1869. It looked pretty and it might have been appropriate in a hollywood “swords and sandals” epic, but it is not “history” and nor does it actually tell the viewer anything useful. The reason is simple- because it dodges the issue of interpretation. All art is interpretative but because live-action film feels like ‘reality”, that is exactly how the viewer accepts it. The viewer is plunged into a magic realm and is the passive recipient of the director’s agendum. The viewer is a willing party to deceit.
Fine in a film like “Gladiator”, but not fine in a serious documentary about history. We need to know what is real and what is recreated.
This is frankly where my own work slots in: 2d animation can never masquerade as reality, but it can offer something more than “live-action recreation” to the documentary medium. If supported by the proper research, it can provide an insight into the way history has already interpreted events, much as quoting a specific writer as an authority can do. This is most beautifully illustrated by Richard Williams’ animated sequences in the CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE.
Here, Williams shows us exactly how British newspapers peddled propaganda and half-truths to a gullible public, showing the glory of the empire in contrast to the gore and disaster that unfolded on the battlefield itself. The greatest moment is the Victory sequence which is brought to a sudden close by a canon firing. There was no victory- just a squalid collapse of authority and a chain of misunderstanding.
Williams’ animation tells us something valuable in its own right. And because we can never pretend what we are watching is anything other than a drawing, we cannot be bewitched into thinking that this is “reality”. But it might very well be a way to access Truth.
Because we often associate animation with Disney, we can get confused, but because 2d animation remains ostentatiously artificial, we can be sure we never forget that we are watching an interpretation. The Disney technique means we can do almost anything with animation that we could do with live-action. More maybe! Though it takes time.
Of course, I nurse a desire to bring the stories of Greek mythology to life through the red/ black figure images on greek vases- who would not immediately see the potential in this! But even more interesting would be to animate Flaxman’s illustrations for the Iliad and Odyssey which informed the way we have understood classical texts since the early 19th Century. His work led to the development of the blue and white jasperware that even today is in most of our houses. This is not about recreating or re-enacting events but about making a conscious decision to give us an insight into the way we now view these stories.
I am terribly proud of the work we did in the two Lucy Worsley programmes, the second of which is due to air in January- we used the device of turning the pages of a book, and of capturing images from framed pictures to comment, introduce and develop the ideas that were being presented.
When we forget that we are examining what people have said and recorded in the past, we simply enter a world of make-believe. It might be entertaining but it is not history.
4 thoughts on “Why Mary Beard is right”
I agree that animation can be a really useful way to recreate historical scenes accurately. I also believe that formats such as graphic novels can be another great platform to use to teach history.
cannot agree with you more! Think of the great work of Joe Sacco, but he is simply continuing the great tradition set up in Ancient greek pottery, on egyptian temples and in mediaeval churches where words and pictures work together to develop a message.
Mary Beard is right, but you also work with Lucy Worsley who does lots of recreation dressing up as Historical figures. I notice she is doing something on American History next. God knows what she will do when she dresses up as a southern belle!
In fact, Mary Beard addresses this issue and makes an exception for Lucy W. I can also add that her producers are not in favour of re-enactment at all. Many of the re-enactments seem to be coming from the games industry (SEGA?) and certainly it is possible to glimpse what looks like Rome Total war behind some of the B-list actors. Battle scenes certainly do not work in live action but even simple, often out of focus re-creations suffer from this “uncanny” mix of reality and fiction. We need to be honest about our sources and that is why illustration ought to win every time. I regret the loss of the great magazines of my childhood- Look and Lean and World of Wonder. I caught up with one of their illustrators a few years’ ago- Roger Payne. Just stunning work. But like me, he needs time-we must re-think the production schedule