The Godfather: Peter Corris on the History Channel
At the start of every week I run my eye along the offerings of Foxtel’s History Channel hoping to see a program that will interest me. Mostly, but not always, I find something.
Back when I first got pay TV (we were living in the country then, when it was called Austar), my eyesight was better than it became and I could watch many more channels. I could see films and favourite comedy shows quite clearly, and I was somewhat dismissive of the History Channel and called it ‘the Hitler Channel’ on account of its overload of programs to do with Der Fuhrer and the Third Reich.
That theme has persisted and there is still an emphasis on war, as if war equals history, which to a certain degree it does. The host of programs commemorating 1914 will be matched by those on 1918, no doubt.
Now, with my eyesight reduced, I find the History Channel has come to be more important to me because many of the programs have a running narrative, which helps me to grasp the significance of the increasingly misty images and follow what’s going on.
Some History Channel programs, I must admit, I find comic, particularly those, and there are many, devoted to archaeology, which tend to reveal the obvious or inflate the insignificant. One, watched by both Jean and myself in horrid fascination, had a title something like ‘Secrets of the Pharaoh’s Tomb’. It involved the penetration of a pyramid in search of some astonishing secret. Over several episodes the team, which included an attractive young woman, all tricked out in khaki shorts and shirts with epaulettes (see Woody Allen’s magnificent 1985 spoof The Purple Rose of Cairo), probed into the depths of an unplumbed pyramid. With appropriate music the moment for revelation of the final chamber came. It was small, perhaps the size of a microwave oven, and was completely empty!
Other humorous moments have abounded. For example, in a series called The American West, partly introduced by Robert Redford in a denim shirt, the attempt was made to combine Jesse James, Billy the Kid, Wyatt Earp, Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse into an interlocked drama, with a complete disregard for historical fact. It depended on reconstructed scenes, poorly acted, and an all-time low point for me came when, after exchanging information with a woman in a full-length Western period dress, a pistol-packing lawman said, ‘Have a nice day’.
But these absurdities apart, I ‘ve enjoyed many programs to do with events such as the American Civil War, the British in India, the Great Depression and notables such as Harry Houdini and Thomas Edison. A series on the Plantagenets made clear the indifference that dynasty displayed towards England for most of its reign – other than as a source of revenue for its continental adventures. An excellent account of the Crusades enlightened me as to the part the Mongols played in the demise of that deluded and noxious enterprise.
At its best, the History Channel can provide food for the enquiring mind that asks, Tell me something I didn’t know. I’ll thirst for that food till the day I die.