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Historians are at war over ‘old-fashioned’ flagship series

TELEVISION historian Neil Oliver has been likened to a “pygmy on a giant’s territory” by a leading academic as the bitter row over the BBC’s flagship A History of Scotland series intensifies.

Jenny Wormald, honorary fellow in Scottish History at Edinburgh University, has joined the debate about the authenticity and quality of the series while revealing she left her role as advisor to the programme after just two meetings.

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She also condemned recent comments by Mr Oliver, who launched a personal attack on the eminent historian Professor Tom Devine after the academic was critical of the series.

The distinguished historian questioned the “scant” handling of subjects such as the Enlightenment and also referred to Mr Oliver as “hapless” and having a “sad lack of authority”.

Ms Wormald writes in a letter in today’s Herald: “Professor Devine’s critique was directed mainly towards the series, not the presenter.

“Perhaps he might have been wiser to scale down his comments on Oliver, but these were little compared to Oliver’s extraordinary outburst in response, in its level of personal abuse and its lurid attack on the ‘narrow range’ of a historian famed for having done more than anyone to bring Scottish history – the Scottish history worth hearing and thinking about – so far out of the confines of Oliver’s contemptuously dismissive ‘classroom’.”

She contrasted the series with Diarmaid MacCulloch’s “outstanding” History of Christianity and the recent Tudor series by David Starkey, whom she described as a “highly gifted historian”.

Ms Wormald continued: “Oliver’s role is presenter, not historian; none of the BBC’s version of Scottish history was written by him. He therefore risked making himself a pygmy who fought a giant on the giant’s territory.

“Actually I enjoyed being interviewed by Neil Oliver in the past. I wish he had been given better material. And I regret that he used abuse as a way of trying to fight as equal to equal.”

Ms Wormald, who taught at the Glasgow University and then at St Hilda’s College, Oxford, for 20 years, said she had been involved in the series in its early stages.

“I was delighted to be asked to be one of the advisory panel when this series was planned – the ‘Godparents’. Unlike Professor Allan Macinnes, who managed one meeting, I stuck it out for two, before deciding that this was a godchild which I emphatically did not want.”

She described the History of Scotland series as a “massive opportunity, sadly missed”.

“Take a country of stunning beauty with wonderful historic sites, and the interest of the Scots in their past, and how could a televised History of Scotland not succeed? No wonder BBC Scotland can pride itself on its viewing figures. That entirely begs a crucial question: if the series will attract viewers, why should the viewers not be given something infinitely better than the dismally old-fashioned history served up?”

Figures from the network screening of the first episode of the second series on Tuesday night show that 1.9 million viewers tuned in to the programme across the UK. The BBC said that 192,000 of the viewers were in Scotland, where the programme has already been screened.

Ms Wormald, whose area of expertise is late medieval and early modern Scotland, queried why there was no programme on Reformation while airtime was given to well-known events and figures of the past, such as Mary Queen of Scots, whom she described as a “tedious woman”.

Professor Devine, head of History, Classics and Archaeology, writes in today’s Letters Page that he was not involved in a spat with the television presenter.

“I was commissioned to write a review of the BBC project by a Sunday newspaper. Before it was published the newspaper asked for comment by the presenter. Ignoring the analytical content of the review, his response degenerated into puerile abuse, namecalling and personal insult. At the very least a nerve had been well and truly touched.

“The result was that the original review was overlooked.

It was by no means an entirely negative assessment and the criticisms made were of the structure, orientation, substance, balance and accuracy of the series.

“It gives me no pleasure to say that my main conclusion in the review , which was that the series was a missed opportunity, has been confirmed as the individual programmes have been transmitted.”

A BBC Scotland spokesman said: “Almost two million people tuned in to watch the first episode of the new series across the UK last night and the viewer feedback we have had for for the first series of A History of Scotland has been exceptionally strong.”

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