The History Channels


“Those who cannot remember the past, are condemned to repeat it”
– George Santayana

History, it seems, is not what it was.

15-20 years ago, when individually themed digital TV channels occupied our satellite dishes, shattering the tiny, tidy, orthodox world of terrestrial television forever, the History Channel was renowned and slightly derided as the home of endless documentaries about the sinking/raising of the Titanic and the rise/fall of the Third Reich.

A mix of the austere and the sensational, it was regarded as a refuge for both the nerdy historian and Hell’s Angels with a questionable obsession with Fascism.

Either way, it was the preserve of men. Only men watched shows about war, weapons, and Nazis. Whether women were too sensitive, or sensible, wasn’t sure.

But what it is like today ? I spent a week immersed in the History Channel and its rivals, Discovery History and the clunkily-named Yesterday, to see what I could learn – about history itself and what sort of men watch it today.

The first thing to report is that the History Channel has changed. It’s not called the History Channel, and it’s no longer about history. Apart from that ? Pretty much the same.

History has become another victim of Reality.
‘History’ has long been occupied by cheap American Reality TV shows.
Mega Movers is about, well, moving things. Big things. Mega things.
An episode of Ax Men promised: “Difficulties lead to disaster as Shelby lifts a log from private property.”

Then there were all the scavengers scouring the States.
Gradually it became clear that the History Channel had turned into one long, American, episode of Cash In The Attic.Duck Dynasty and Hoard Hunters were based around teams of people with metal detectors. In American Pickers, “the Pickers’ luck changes when they meet demolition expert Johnny and a neighbour who collects oil cans.”
Hold me back !
“Ron & Tyler find a rare rusty pump,” the narrator boomed in American Restoration. “If renovated can it make them a fortune ?”
I doubt it.
In another, Sammy Hagar challenged Rick “to turn an old fridge into a rum dispenser.”
Well he would.

Thankfully Yesterday and Discovery History have stepped into the History Channel’s place and still have a regular quota of drily fascinating programmes about subjects such as When Rome Ruled Egypt, The True Story of the Marie Celeste and General Custard’s Last Stand as well as the occasional old skool conspiracy film such as Myths of Pearl Harbour (the Americans started it) or Area 51.

Most of the material though is about World War II.
The history or wars of Asian, African, China, Russia or France rarely feature, as if they are not really history at all.

There were still plenty of shows with the educational intentions of the original channel – enough to make me quickly realise that even though I’d liked history enough to take it at ‘A’ level, my ignorance was shocking.
Napoleon’s Obsession: Quest For Egypt would certainly have been news to me, but as I didn’t even know much about Waterloo, potentially just sounded too confusing.

These were programmes analysing obscure battles, dissecting fresh/strange ‘revelations’ about the allies’ victory, and serving the (in)valuable purpose of keeping a record of what was sacrificed alive.

“This is the site of the largest mass murder in the history of the world,” said the narrator of The Nazis and the Final Solution, a repeat of the BBC’s 2005 six-part analysis of Auschwitz. “1.1million people died here – more than the total of British and American losses in the 2nd World War.”

Programmes like Battlefield and Secrets of World War II were full moving first-hand accounts, astonishing footage and photographs and enough information to enable the most casual viewer to pass an Open University degree.

But even Yesterday and Discovery History were targeting History’s new audience with some schizophrenic scheduling and juxtapositions that were unusual not to say uncomfortable.

Starting the day with a 6am screening of The Germans Are Coming seemed somewhat unnecessary – not to say alarmist.

With Hitler’s Bodyguard following at 8 o’clock, perhaps it was not surprising daily daytime schedules comprised almost entirely of repeats of such cosy fare as Coast, Time Team and Fred Dibnah’s Age of Steam. Trains With Pete Waterman would sit alongside a mid-afternoon documentary such as Nazi Hunters: Hunting Adolf Eichmann or Nuremburg: Nazis On Trial about whether Rudolf Hess faked amnesia.

Gradually I worked out what that target audience for these history channels are nowadays – not men anymore but the elderly, the people who have actually lived some history and are watching it again.

Here’s how my week living history with them went.

I seized an early opportunity to try and learn something and take in Discovery History’s 9am breakfast screening of Battlefield: Battle For Caen Part 1.
In the week ahead I would become a connoisseur of any show about a 3-month skirmish during the Battle of Normandy that was only “Part 1”, especially if its remit was “the early events of Operation Overlord” (note the word ‘early’).

The most striking thing about it was that considering it was nearly 70 years ago a) how much footage had actually been shot from the frontline and b) how much more evocative its ghostly black & white film was than today’s reportage.

In a way, its sheer simplicity brought home the incredible, chaotic violence of the strafing and gunfire the troops faced. These scenes were interspersed with incongruously cheerful ads for laser surgery and Thomas Cook holidays – though not to France or Germany.

Yesterday’s Saturday consisted of FIVE repeats of Lovejoy (in a row), two 1991 Catherine Cookson dramas, Keeping Up Appearances, and New Tricks before the sudden arrival of Hitler: The Rise of Evil.

Resisting the chance to just watch Lovejoy, I settled down for Discovery History’s 11am-4pm bonanza of Wartime Secrets With Harry Harris, a London taxi driver driving round Britain in his cab doggedly “uncovering the secrets, lies and untold stories of the second World War.”

The five consecutive episodes included ‘Outwitting Hitler’ about Eddie Chapman, a British safe blower trained by the Nazis before working for M15 as Agent Zig Zag.”

His missions included disguising British fighter bomber factories to fool the Germans into thinking they had been sabotaged.

In ‘Flirting With Hitler’, Harry wanted to know why in 1944 Luftwaffe airmen were buried with full Nazi honours in a churchyard in the East End, where Harry inevitably comes from.

He also examined 148 recently-discovered photos of a 1935 peace mission in which a delegation of World War I veterans laid wreaths to the German dead.
Harry’s outrage as he looked at the pictures of the British Legion’s vice chairman Mr. Featherstone-Godley meeting Hitler and shaking hands with Herman Hess was obvious and I have to say infectious.

“Was it a genuine attempt to keep the peace ? Or a sinister plot to use ex-British servicemen for Nazi propaganda ?” Harry demanded, sounding as if he already suspected the latter. “And why were Nazis invited to sail up the Thames – on a pleasure boat ?!”

A British Legion press officer showed Harry the very cupboard where the album – emblazoned with Nazi swastika with dagger – had been found.
“And the first page I opened it up to was…”
“Oh God…” said Harry, at the very sight of a photo of Hitler.

Mind you, it was pretty shocking, as was the story of “the German bomber shot down on 14th March 1944 at 11.15 at night in Gants Hill, crashing into an empty building behind me on Ilford Avenue.”
(No-one can question Harry’s attention to detail.)

He met Derek Bruce who looked after the graveyard in Eastbrook where the airmen were “buried with dignity, their coffins draped in Nazi flags.”
“How does that make you feel, seeing a swastika on a coffin ?” Harry asked– a leading question if ever there was one.

Five hours in Harry’s company may have felt like being trapped in the back of his cab in a bad traffic jam, but with stories like these, I could already feel myself turning into a history bore.


One of the more noble, important facets of the history channels is their role celebrating and commemorating individuals and their contributions for today’s generation and for posterity.

Some of the subjects of Heroes of World War II make you feel ashamed that you’ve gone this far in life knowing nothing about them – The Men Who Invented Radar for instance.

Admittedly, others, such as Secrets of World War II’s look at “how Norwegian freedom fighters succeeded in blowing up the Norsk Hydro electrochemical factory in 1943” I could probably carry on without knowing about.

92 year-old Scotsman Alistair Urquhart was afforded the title of World War Two’s Luckiest Man.

Every week, Alistair attends the tea dance in his local village hall.
“When I’m dancing, I’m in a different world,” he said, as we watched him perform a nifty Foxtrot. “I enjoy every dance.”
By the end, you realised why.

This was the sort of memoir to remind you what World War II actually entailed; how lucky and spoilt we are to have avoided anything like it; and make you feel even more shallow and worthless than you probably already do.
Conscripted at 19, while serving in Singapore, Urquhart was taken prisoner by the Japanese and put to work on the Burma Railway where he suffered cholera, torture, and a tropical ulcer.

He recalled how the doctor told him to go to the latrines and collect some maggots.
“He said ‘they will eat the rotten flesh until they come down to the good flesh.’ Even today I can sometimes feel them nibbling !”

The memory of this was one of the rare occasions to bring Alistair out in a smile.

He was put on a “hell ship’ bound for Japan, where prisoners endured dehydration and even cannibalism. He then survived being sunk by a US torpedo, spending 5 days floating on a raft, and the atom bomb, which hit Nagasaki when he was in a labour camp 10 miles away.

At this point, the title World War II’s Unluckiest Man would have seemed more appropriate.

The downside of their obsession for war is a kind of reverence for anyone who made such sacrifices.

Battlefield Mysteries was about Michael Wittmann “also known as the Black Baron.”

Any show that features the term “TANK ACE” is bound to be compelling but this went further, claiming “controversy has RAGED for 60 years as to which unit killed him”.

It was basically an exciting episode of Time Team, set in the Normandy
countryside, with an American historian poring over Wittmann’s remains (discovered as recently as 1982) and re-examining the reports of the British, Canadian and German tank crews at the time and mapping out their positions.

It was undoubtedly fascinating and painstaking (Canada’s Sherbrooke fusiliers got the credit) but some of the terminology was questionable.
Wittmann was described as “a fearless leader”, and a hero of the Third Reich after “his tally soared to an amazing 100 kills.”
He was “decorated by Hitler himself.”

It struck you that the narrator could have shown more discomfort when we were shown how at the La Cambe cemetery in Normandy, “Wittmann’s grave stands out because it’s surrounded by fresh flowers.”

Its conclusion “Wittman’s legend lives on” was surely questionable or would be without shows like this.


With serious history at a premium during the week, I rise early for the 8am screening of Battle of Caen Part 2.

This opens with the narrator summarising that “after 7 days they had got precisely nowhere” – making my viewing of Battle Of Caen Part 1 feel slightly less worthwhile.

Still by the end, if I ever go on Mastermind, my specialist subject will no longer be The Wire or The Clash but the Battle of Caen.

Facing Rome: Power & Glory (9am), and Secrets of the Pyramids (10am) reminded me of that feeling when you had double history at school.

It was hard to resist the appeal of another genre these channels love: Weapons Porn, and shows with names like Combat Countdown or Weapons of Fear.
Future Weapons had an ex-Navy SEAL and Ross Kemp lookalike, Richard “Mack” Machowicz having a go in an A-10C ground attack plane equipped with 6 smart bombs and a 7-barrel, 30mm gun that, he frothed, is “the most powerful cannon ever put on an aircraft.”

Colonel Kent Laughbaum explained: “The gun shakes the aircraft in a way the 20mm doesn’t,” with an unnerving enthusiasm reminiscent of Bill Kilgore, Robert Duvall’s character in Apocalypse Now.
“The smell of the gun actually joins you in the cockpit.”

I guess if you liked planes and war that would probably be even better than the smell of napalm in the morning.

Next, Mack moved on to guns.
“Here’s the bullet of the 556. It’s a good bullet doing a good job overseas,” he said, talking about bullets as if they were comrades. “During Vietnam war, the M16 came up against the AKA 47 and the debate over which is better has continued to this day.”

I’m sure you and your mates have had this very discussion.

The Grendell tactical assault rifle is a cross between the AKA-47 and M4, firing a giant 6.5mm round.

To demonstrate its effectiveness, Mack a car crash dummy, dressed in uniform, behind a car to re-enact an imaginary shoot out, before showing how the Grendell could take him out by shooting straight through the car.
“Essentially this guy is no longer a threat,” he said proudly, neatly over-looking the fact that he never was.

“The Grendell is a mythical beast that strikes terror into the hearts of its enemy,” he said with a fervour making Jeremy Clarkson sound subdued.

Amidst so many shows commemorating the horror of war, such celebrations of weaponry were incongruous, if not totally wrong.


Yesterday was offering another day watching repeats of Turn Back Time, Ballykissangel and All Creatures Great & Small before the midnight screening of Auschwitz: The Nazis and The Final Solution titled bluntly ‘Factories Of Death’ – which just didn’t strike me as something I – or anyone else – would want to watch before turning in for the night.

Of all the daytime Reality shows on the History Channel the only one that has any charm – and any history – is Pawn Stars, which has as many as 18 episodes on some Saturdays.

Pawn Stars is set in the “World Famous” 24-hour “Gold & Silver Pawn Shop in Las Vegas operated by a Vic Mackay lookalike Richard ‘Old Man’ Harrison.

Pawn Stars reminds me of Four Rooms with hopeful customers bringing in cool memorabilia like one of Elvis’ necklaces, a signed Babe Ruth glove, a and “two massive Laurel & Hardy costume heads.”

Well it’s modern history I suppose.

Customers also bought in some bizarre older artefacts: a piece of Apollo 11, a World War II submarine hatch, a signed copy of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, a gaming wheel from a Speakeasy, and a hand-crank corn-sheller from the 1900. Well you can’t win ‘em all.

A guy called Jeff had a signed print of Abraham Lincoln, although he undermined his negotiating position by saying “I thought Abe was bald.’
Besides being on every American dollar bill, Lincoln had a full head of hair on Jeff’s print.

“Did you ever hear of Joseph Cosey ?” Old Man Harrison asked Jeff, the kind of opening gambit that is never going to well.

For a moment, there was a suggestion that a forgery by Joseph Cosey could be even more valuable than a signed Lincoln but Jeff’s was a copy of a Cosey forgery of Abe’s signature.

A shaven-headed dude called Tom had two diaries from the Civil War that his great, great, great grandfather (a captain at Gettysburg) had kept – albeit virtually illegibly.

“They’ve been passed down to the males for generations,” explained Tom – an only child – who had thus decided to sell the family legacy “to get my car fixed.”

At least items like these gave you a cursory historical fact. Most of the soldiers in the Civil War were farmers – 90% of the Confederates vs. 74% for the Union. Maybe they should’ve settled it differently – with a Country Fayre and prizes for Biggest Marrow or Best Bullock.


One day a scheduler at Yesterday had a Eureka moment – mixing two of its staple genres: weapons and Nazis.

That said, you’d have to be, well, mad not to feel the lure of Hitler’s Mad Weapons – which, boomed the narrator with definite excitement, included some of “the most revolutionary and terrifying instruments of death,” most notably “the supergun” and “mega tank.”

Hitler, it turns out, was personally in charge of weapon development and obsessed with “wonder weapons.”

As the Germans turned east to face the Russians, they were out-numbered by three to one.
“Hitler wanted something that was massive, almost phallically powerful,” said Prof. Brian J. Ford.

The Krupp family was described as “one of Germany’s finest makers of weapons” although whether you would use the word ‘finest’ here is debatable, as was the Top Gear-esque guitar music rocking out over footage of Germans enjoying blowing up British tanks.

The Krupps’ K-5 gun could fire a shell 40 miles “but Hitler wanted something bigger.”

The Krupps’ Schwerer-Gustav became the biggest piece of artillery ever used in combat, weighing 1,350 tonnes with a barrel 30 metres long, and firing a shell weighing 10, 500 lbs.

Luckily the downside was, the supergun needed a crew of 2000 men, required 3 days to assemble and could only fire 14 rounds a day. Its specially laid railway tracks made it easy prey from the air.

Similarly, when Ferdinand Porsche (inventor of the Beetle car and notoriously efficient Tiger Tank) came up with the 190 tonne Mega Tank (complete with 9” thick armoured plating), Hitler wanted to add a bigger gun (150mm).

The tank ended up hopelessly slow and so heavy most bridges couldn’t take its weight so that, the programme claimed without explanation, “it had to be fitted with a snorkel.”

The World’s Weirdest Weapons was even more like an episode of Brass Eye.

The Americans were looking for unorthodox ways to respond to Pearl Harbour.
Pennsylvannian dentist & inventor Lykle Adams’ proposed to strap bombs containing tiny amounts of napalm to a million bats and drop them in crates by parachute over Japan.

Without any sense that this plan was bizarre, the narrator explained admiringly that Adams had deduced that bats were “easy to transport and handle” and could carry more than their own weight.

“Most importantly, in daylight, bats seek out dark crevices – perfect for getting incendiary bombs into cracks, and under the roofs of Japanese buildings, many of which made of flammable paper, wood and bamboo.”

Incredibly, early tests were encouraging and the Americans spent $2 million on them. This was mostly because Doctor Adams had a friend in high places.
We saw a letter received by a Colonel Donovan, recommending the idea.

“This man is not a nut,” it said, signed “FDR” – the American President.


On Thursday, I resolved to have a break from World War 2 and to escape the Nazis.

You’ll forgive me for not feeling up to that day’s episode of Auschwitz: Nazis and The Final Solution, which was sub-titled ‘Frenzied Killing.’
Other subjects are rare though, and mostly used as light relief from WW2; history juiced up or made modern.

I satisfied my daily fix for battle analysis with The Battle of the Alamo.
The True Story has a nifty format the BBC should steal – asking whether films such as Saving Private Ryan, Braveheart and Apollo 13 are historically accurate.

Unsolved History had an episode titled Who Killed Tutankhamen ? but anyone feeling ashamed as I did that they didn’t know the answer – or even have a list of suspects – will be pleased to know the answer wasn’t general knowledge even after all this time.

Luckily, “two US homicide detectives believe they’ve solved the mystery.”
Colombo, eat your heart out.

Their answer by the way was the Prime Minister. No, not that one. “Aye” – the next king.

They deduced he was killed by a blood clot following a blow to the back of the head, although King Tut didn’t die until several months later, making Aye either a pretty inept assassin or a very good one.

Ninja: Shadow Warriors sounded silly but be honest, what do you know about the Ninja apart from the fact they went round in black pyjamas like The Phantom Flan Flinger ? Like a lot of these shows, it promised “the untold history”, “astonishing secrets” and “a television first”, namely one of the last living Ninja masters.

The main revelation here was the claim that “not many Japanese would admit to having ninja ancestry.”

This was because “the Ninja have a mixed reputation as thieves and murderers.”
This, as it turned out, wasn’t that mixed.

Back in the 16th century, warlords would hire ninja for assassination, espionage, arson and infiltration in battle, i.e. “causing chaos in battle disguised in enemy uniforms.”

They worked in almost total secrecy, even from their own families and were regarded as the flip side of their noble employers.

“The Samurai didn’t want it to be known that they used Ninja,” said one historian. “Because it was considered dishonourable to have your enemy assassinated or have his castle burnt down.”

It still sounded pretty cool to me.


To be honest, I had seized on any alternative to avoid watching Auschwitz: The Nazis And The Final Solution, partly on the grounds, as you might, that I had seen enough programmes to know the full (appalling) truth already.

Not for nothing was Part One called Surprising Beginnings.

Auschwitz, for example, was originally built to hold Poland’s political prisoners, who were worked so hard by the Nazis that over half of the 23,000 Poles first sent there died within 20 months.

Of all the 6 episodes, Liberation & Revenge sounded as if it might not be that harrowing and could even have been faintly redemptive, positive. This also was rubbish.

Interviews included former members of the SS who took part in the atrocities (“we knew that the actions that had happened there did not comply with human rights”) and Soviet officers who first arrived at the camp.

The Nazis knew the Red Army were on their way, so only a few thousand prisoners remained with most removed, and made to march West.

But photos such as the huge piles of victims’ clothes indicated the horrors they found.

It somberly numbered the dead: 15, 000 Soviet prisoners of war, 21, 000 gypsies, 70, 000 political prisoners, hundreds of Jehovah’s witnesses and homosexuals, and one million Jews, at least 200,000 of them children.
What Auschwitz represented, the narrator said, was “a reminder of what human beings are capable of.”

You would think by now that the first commandant of Auschwitz, the Lieutenant Colonel who set it up in 1940, and remained in charge until November 1943, over-seeing the enforcement of the Nazis’ Final Solution policy, would be as well known as the men he took his orders from – Himmler and Adolf Eichmann.

Liberation & Revenge told the story of Rudolf Hoss, pronounced, appropriately, “Rudolf Hearse.”

The revenge part of the title came when Hoss was hanged on a specially constructed gallows at Auschwitz.

At the end of my week, I may not have turned into a history buff, but the importance of keeping history in our schools and our interest in it alive, and not allowing our obsession with celebrity and brainless Reality shows to usurp it, was obvious.

The over-riding lesson from these channels is, that like other aspects of history, World War II and the Nazis may have been erased from what was the History Channel. But they are still this country’s obsession.

As is probably only right.