Refuge in the past

Television - Andrew Billen savours quality work by the new history men

History is the new rock'n'roll - and who would have thought it? Certainly not I, who, with customary infallibility, suggested in this column that Simon Schama's History of Britain would never make it from the classroom into the nation's hearts. Instead, Schama's programmes, doled out in little batches, have become must-see television. Channel 4 replied with David Starkey, whose recent series on Henry VIII's wives further damaged the disappointing ratings for ITV's Bob and Rose (a drama for which, you may recall, I predicted untold glory). His previous documentaries on Elizabeth I are now being repeated yet again on Channel 4 in a prime-time Sunday slot. His shows are not only popular but, as I am sure executives will have noted, they are cheap - once you have paid whatever it costs to keep Dr Starkey in good humour, that is.

There was nothing low-budget, however, about Plague, Fire, War and Treason, the successor to the Henry show (Channel 4, Mondays, 9pm). The first episode, The Great Plague, looked as spectacular as the depiction of diseased, mucky medieval life that opened Monty Python and the Holy Grail, except the plague being examined arrived 300 years after the Black Death. The director, Justin Hardy, and the producer, John Toba, chose the microcosmic approach and concentrated on just one street in London in 1665. It would not be true to say that Cock and Key Alley between Fleet Street and the Thames contained all human life, but half of what it did contain - 36 men, women and children - was carried off by the bubonic bacterium.

Thanks to actors, make-up artists and computers, over roughly 90 minutes, we reached intimate terms with these people who lived on the fringes of the economy, one level above what one of the show's talking-head academics called "the scum". By the end, you would be inhuman not to grieve for the Pennys, a family of undertakers. The head of the household died at the height of the epidemic, just as it was killing 4,000 nightly. His body, robbed of the dignities provided by his profession, was carried away in a cart and thrown into a common pit. Only his widow survived. When it was all over, after 68,000 Londoners had died, her son's shovels and basket were returned to her.

As befits social history, there was an outraged, Marxist feel to this account. Most of the city's clergy and doctors were among the 200,000 of London's population of 300,000 who fled the city. The Lord Mayor stayed, but built himself a classy glass cage, from which he did business free from any physical human contact. In a safely relocated session in Oxford, the House of Lords passed two self-serving measures: no peer's house was to be boarded up and no plague hospital should be built near people "of quality". Even the quack cures were segregated between rich and poor: ground unicorn's horn for the former, arsenic amulets for the latter. But this was a society whose social divisions extended to dogs. The poorest curls had a bounty on their heads in the belief that the plague was carried on their mangy coats. Had they lived, they would have got rid of some of the real culprits, the rats.

Most of this detail - and never has the devil been more in the detail - was recorded by the local taxman and public health official, the church warden Henry Dorset. His paperwork could easily have been the foundation for a history book; it is heartening that many more will have seen this programme. The Great Plague took an unashamedly sensationalist approach: buboes were lanced in gory close-up, rats scuttled, corpses filled the screen. If Starkey provides the escapism of castles and courts, here horror-film thrills were on offer. The programme was in love with its own grossness, a glee that betrayed itself in the occasional misjudgement, such as the footage of modern-day London. When the rich fled, they did so in stretch limos. Very clever.

A promising subdivision of the new rock'n'roll may be art history. David Hockney: secret knowledge was presented from a digitised Hollywood set of the artist's own design, which telescoped Bruges, Ghent and Florence into a single locale representing western art. From it, Hockney argued that the photographic verisimilitude of western art since 1420 was not the result of a sudden, exponential leap in artistic ability, but the use of early cameras projecting images on to the artist's canvas. I always did think that Arnolfini Portrait too good to be true for 1434. Now, it seems, it really would have been, had Van Eyck not been using a mirror as a lens. Digital technology heralded the return of this tradition, Hockney argued: the hand is back inside the camera.

This was a typically challenging yet groovy Omnibus which, under the editorship of Basil Comley, has been poorly rewarded by being shoved on to BBC2. The South Bank Show remains on ITV1 and is currently heartily celebrating its 25th season. Yet I doubt if, in a quarter of a century's genuflection at contemporary art, Lord Bragg has presented a programme either the intellectual equal of or as flashily enjoyable as Hockney's iconoclastic history lesson. ITV has tried everything else. Perhaps, in these troubled times, it, too, should seek refuge in the past.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the London Evening Standard

Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.

This article first appeared in the 22 October 2001 issue of the New Statesman, A plan for the world