I was watching ITV’s new crime drama Whitechapel earlier, and it did something that very little in the past couple of years has been able to do: it brought out my inner historian. Mostly, it made said historian slightly angry, because of the almost total lack of understanding of historical theory therein.
The idea, assuming that I grasped it, was to do the Numbers or Bones thing of an outside expert with a speciality that might conceivably help with crimes in an unorthodox way, thus giving the show something interesting to stand out in the sea of crime dramas. Fine. I’ve enjoyed both of the above shows. It’s the history part that’s at issue.
My problem isn’t with the academic they created as a character, because obviously that’s a function of creating an interesting character, even if he does live up to every stereotype of academics. Though I will come back to that in a minute. My problem comes when that character starts asserting that looking at past cases might be a way to solve current ones, trotting out all the old saws about learning lessons from the past.
No. Or at least, not the way they mean. First, let’s make the obvious point, which is that history can add nothing to the evidence in a case being investigated. That’s my biggest problem. Just because something happened in a case in the past, that means nothing when it comes to what is happening now. The facts could be entirely different.
You can draw broad lessons. History is good at illustrating lessons. Yet where do those lessons come from? Not from history. The full sweep of human history has encompassed so many things (everything that has ever been done, in fact, or at least everything recorded) that you can illustrate anything you wish. The lessons come from the historian. Which brings us back to the character. Now, it seems less helpful that we have a character who not only isn’t interesting enough to draw attention, but who doesn’t seem to be aware of the theoretical issues.
Which means that the history can never help us solve the crimes. Which in turn means that making a historian a central figure in a drama like this, rather than for example an occasionally turned to source of wisdom or a sounding board, able to put things into perspective, is a grave mistake.