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History with a twist

David McNab, creative director for Wide-Eyed Entertainment on bringing an interesting twist to history programming.

For factual TV producers, history surely offers more creative possibilities than any other genre.

There are many ways to tell a story from the past – from reality or “living” history through to Ridley Scott epics, on a micro budget or the classic presenter-led mutton chop whisker-illustrated lecture. There’s certainly no shortage of material, but you quickly learn that as far as commissioners are concerned, most of these gems are solely for the intrepid Wiki-explorers. The reason is the history paradox; viewers may be thirsty for knowledge, but they really only want stories that they kind of already know – told in a new way.

History Channel’s 102 Minutes That Changed America told the story of a major event through the voices of those caught in its midst; not by recalling the events, but through recordings as they happened. The show’s creators took the bold decision not to use narration so, as the drama unfolds in real time, there is no voice of God to tell you what you should be thinking – just gripping reality lived through real people as hell unfolds around them. The result is a brave, insightful, innovative and gripping television event. It was a rare event indeed.

Getting even these gold standard stories on television is far from easy. Viewer magnets or not, there is an added hurdle for even the most bankable story – it’s called ‘the twist’. We have all seen perfectly good ideas bent this way and that by commissioners desperate to find a unique channel-defining angle. Eventually the perfectly honed idea snaps from ‘twist’ fatigue. The commissioners of 102 Minutes mercifully avoided the twist trap.

However, at Wide-Eyed, we think there is good reason to be optimistic; over the past year there has been a tangible shift in the broadcasting landscape. Broadcasters who joined the rush to polarise their channel in the hope of finding a distinctive niche, found the polar extremes pretty barren. Migrating back to more temperate climes, the competition is fiercer – but there are healthy audiences to prey upon. In the battle to win eyeballs, ‘the twist’ is being replaced by ‘entertainment’ as the weapon of choice. 

Wide-Eyed has always tried to find entertaining ways of refreshing staple genres and have recently found broadcasters increasingly at home to the e-factor. In The Egyptian Job, for example, we took a different but equally entertaining approach by giving an old staple of history a thoroughly modern overhaul. Giving Ancient Egypt the Guy Ritchie treatment has transformed the genre in ways we hadn’t anticipated.  

Once you commit to the concept of a historic heist-romp set in the late Middle Kingdom, you find it gives you permission to explore all kinds of aspects of Egyptian life in ways that wouldn’t work within the classic “pomp of the Pharaoh” docu-drama. It’s liberating; issues like immigration, crime, sex and greed find a new backdrop – Ancient Egypt comes to life, becoming fresh and relevant. 

We now have other shows and series in production that similarly harness unique visual styles to fresh entertaining approaches. We like to think we’ve found our niche – making history with an entertaining ‘twist’.