I recently discovered several television series that immerse modern people in historical situations. These programs differ in their genre, time period, and type of participants, however they are all appealing to the history lover. They explore a historical topic, offer comparisons to twenty-first century life and sensibilities, and encourage empathy with the participants and the people who shared similar experiences in former times. These programs attempt to “bring the past to life.”
The program in my sample that deals with the oldest time period is “Lords and Ladles.” The time span covered ranges from the 1600s to the early 1900s. This Irish series has three seasons of episodes; only the first is available in Canada, offered on Netflix. The premise of this cooking program is that three prominent Irish chefs visit a different historic house or castle in each episode, where they learn about the history of the area and recreate a historic menu, which is then served to the family associated with the historic property. Each chef takes on a different role, either as head chef, procurer of ingredients (many are wild animals or unusual products), or family liaison (exploring the history and sharing the feast).
This is a cheery program with lots of joking between the chefs and humorous voice-overs. The house and garden tours are fabulous and leave me wanting more. The procurement segment is perhaps least enjoyable overall, as the viewer is sometimes confronted with hunting and butchering scenes, and some of the animal parts used are not regarded as food by many today. However, the qualms of the chefs echo some of our own thoughts and stress the change in cultural norms over time. The cooking part of the program is not meant to teach recipes, but rather to educate the viewer about obsolete cooking techniques. I look forward to more episodes becoming available and, frankly, I would tune-in just to listen to their accents.
The historical series next in sequence, based on era covered, could not be more different. “Churchill’s Secret Agents: The New Recruits” is a Netflix Original Series filmed in Britain. In the course of five episodes, fourteen present-day recruits are put through their paces as they attempt to qualify as spies, under the same curriculum used in 1940s Britain. The reality-TV portion is interspersed with documentary information about the Special Operations Executive (SOE), a secret organization formed in Britain to conduct espionage, sabotage, and reconnaissance in areas of Europe occupied by Axis forces.
The mood of this series is sombre and intense. Its purpose is to explain the SOE’s covert functions and significant accomplishments and to show that people from all walks of life came together to fight against oppression. Profiles of several SOE agents and missions are detailed. The modern volunteer recruits dress and live as their 1940s counterparts would have. Several have to face personal demons in order to progress through the training. Some are descendants of SOE agents or Resistance members, and their experiences emphasize the harsh reality of war.
The series in my sample with the most recent represented timeframe is CBC’s, “Back in Time for Dinner.” This is another cooking show, but it places a Canadian family of five in a different decade each episode, starting in the 1940s. As I write, only four of the episodes have aired; they can be viewed free, online, anytime from the CBC website. In each episode, the family arrive home, in vintage clothing, to find their house has been transformed to reflect interior design of the decade. Gender roles and responsibilities, as well as instructions and recipes, are presented to them and within one week they progress through a decade, highlighting any culturally significant dates.
This is a fun, family-friendly series that uses food to illustrate changes in culture and attitudes through time. I particularly like the inclusion of female and teenage perspectives, as these are rarely recorded in historic documents. The Canadian focus of this program is great and allows discussion of relevant issues, such as immigration, First Nations perspectives, and Canadian identity. I look forward to witnessing some of the cultural fads from my own lifetime in upcoming episodes.
The participants in all three of these series were eager to experience the life of days gone by. Despite the light-hearted approach in the two cooking programs, even these series reveal some unpleasant aspects of past culture. The physically and emotionally challenging events shown in the spy program explicitly expose the dark side of life in previous times. All these series illustrate that however romantic it may seem to have lived in the past, in reality it was more arduous than we might imagine. In all, these three series help us understand that History is composed of individual life-stories of all kinds, and that the struggles of these long-dead people contributed in a variety of ways to our modern world. A greater understanding of how they faced difficulties may help us to overcome our own problems.
This article was originally printed in the BERGEN NEWS and is being reprinted with permission.