This article first appeared on Reaction.


Washington, History

If there’s one thing that American TV channels do very well, it is making TV series about their presidents. I’ve written in previous columns about PBS America’s latest documentaries on Clinton, Bush and Reagan. The History Channel has now entered the fray with a three-part mini-series about America’s founding father, and its first president, George Washington.

Watching it at the weekend made me realise how little I knew about him. I’d always imagined him to be one of these heroic figures who led a perfect life, every bit of which was full of accomplishment. Not so. Although he became a military commander in the British Army at the age of 22, he was central to several military failures. His success came from the great good fortune of being in the right place, at the right time.

He is portrayed as being a reluctant servant who would quite happily have retired to his farm and lived a quiet life, but he also knew his duty. He came to realise the faith people put in him to deliver, both in his military career and latterly in politics.

It wasn’t just Washington who delivered American independence, but the series leaves you wondering whether it would have happened quite so quickly without him.

This is a drama documentary, a genre which I usually find quite irritating; re-created conversations leave me wondering about their accuracy. I would quite happily watch a documentary series on Washington, or even a full biographical drama, but I’m left asking what do we gain by watching a mix of the two? It gives the impression of a version of history which has been dumbed down to a level which is not really history at all – it is “histertainment”. There, for the second week running I’ve coined a new word.

Until recently, few Americans have wanted to hear a bad word about the father of their nation. This is presumably why Washington’s ownership of slaves was rather glossed over in this series. It was the one part where I genuinely wondered if we were being told the full story. While it is true to say we shouldn’t judge the actions of someone in 1786 by today’s moral standards, we need know the whole truth to be able to judge the man in the round. But that is a minor carp.

I long for the day when UK TV channels emulate their American competitors and commission documentaries about the 55 Prime Minister who have served the country over the last three hundred years. I’m editing a book about them (The Prime Ministers: Three Hundred Years of History), out in November, but it has proved impossible to tempt any UK TV channel to mark the 300th anniversary of the office of PM in 1721 by looking at how the prime ministership has developed, or the personalities of the 55 politicians who have reached this exalted position. If public service broadcasting meant anything, surely that’s just the sort of thing the BBC should be doing.

Biteback Chats Books podcast, Biteback Publishing

I left the world of publishing more than two years ago, when I stood down as Managing Director of Biteback Publishing. Since then, I have stayed in touch with the company, but have resisted trying to be a back-seat driver. I well remember the challenges of competing with the big publishers in terms of marketing reach. The world of podcasting is a godsend to independent publishers. They cost little to make, and done well, can sell quite a few books.

Biteback’s podcast series of author interviews are hosted by an anonymous woman, who never introduces herself. This is odd, but she interviews well, allowing her guest author to have their say, but also picking up on opportunities for further quizzing. The latest edition is with the social commentator Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, talking about her new book Ladies who punch – a book of fifty essays on prominent women who have made a difference. Yasmin is much more reflective in this sort of interview than in her usual appearances in the media where she is invariably robust and controversial. She talks movingly of her life in Uganda before moving to Britain in 1972, and the struggles she encountered getting a foothold as a journalist and media commentator. Contrary to her reputation as being a somewhat angry woman, she is actually one of the kindest and most thoughtful people you’ll ever meet; this comes across in this rather charming podcast.