The Victorians vs. The Victorian Slum: How the narrative structure of a documentary effects our perception of the past.

Anastasia Giles recently completed her MA in History at Royal Holloway, University of London. For her thesis she investigated women’s interactions with the past in 19th century Britain. She also has a BFA in Film Studies from Ryerson University in Toronto, Canada. In her future career research she plans to explore historical representation in visual culture. You can find her on twitter @StaziaG and blogging on

The emergence of historical television as a form of popular culture has forced historians to confront a brave new world of history as visual entertainment. As the theorist Robert Rosenstone has written, the historical profession cannot be expected to resist ‘the delicious thought of a potentially large audience for the fruits of one’s research, analysis, and writing.’ Because of this, televisual history has the ability to effect a greater number of people’s perception of the past. Within this genre of historical television the Victorian era has become one of the most popular subjects; the plethora of recent programming, both fictional and factual, that has been produced can attest to this. For the purposes of this post I will compare two documentary television series that have appeared on the BBC, and consider how their differing narrative structures could effect the audiences understanding of the Victorian era. The two documentaries that I will look at are: The Victorians (2009), and The Victorian Slum (2016).

These two documentaries represent very different methods of presenting factual information. Firstly, The Victorians is a traditional documentary series in which an historian (or expert) presents the findings of his or her research. In this case the expert is Jeremy Paxman who is both writer and presenter of the program. The second style, exemplified by The Victorian Slum, is what will be referred to as ‘recreation’. This burgeoning area of documentary history is based around the idea of simulated time travel. In a recreation style documentary, ‘ordinary’ citizens are removed from modern life and are sent ‘back in time’ to live the way people in the past did. In productions such as this the living subjects wear the clothes, eat the food and are expected to perform the social roles of the time they are enacting. Through their observed experiences and their candid confessions, we are supposedly given a glimpse into the life of another age. It is important to note that the subjects of this type of documentary are not experts or historians, this makes their experience of the simulated past easier for an audience to identify with.

The Victorians is presented as four thematic episodes, which focus on city life, home life, progress/empire and ideology. Using the paintings of the Victorian era as primary source material, Paxman presents a television series that, in essence, takes the form of popular historical writing. The dissemination of the information from auteur to audience is based almost solely on Paxman’s presentation of the narrative. There are small digressions from this formula in the presence of on-site interviews with other ‘experts’, but on the whole, the passage of information is entirely controlled by Paxman’s narration. It is as close as one can come, in television, to the traditional style of written historiography, and it seeks to give the viewer a general picture of Victorian life.

Representing the other side of the spectrum is The Victorian Slum. In five different episodes, four families ‘relive’ life in a reconstructed Victorian slum tenement. Each episode is intended to be the retelling of a different decade in the nineteenth century. Starting in the 1860s, the families are required to live as Victorians of the lower working class. In order to add an element of human interest and perhaps to increase perceived authenticity, the families live in roughly the same circumstances as their Victorian ancestors. For example, three generations of the Potter family are forced to live in one room, befitting their familial status as unskilled workers, whereas the Howarths live in a slightly more luxurious two room suite (to accommodate four people), since their ancestors were tailors, and therefore skilled workers of marginally more affluence.

This encourages the audience to identify with the subject by forcing them to consider what their own circumstances would have been in the Victorian era.

the potters

A rude awakening: The Potter’s contemplate their new home in the slum.

The historical information in The Victorian Slum reaches the audience in a more convoluted way than in The Victorians, as the audience must listen to the testimony of multiple voices. For the most part, the viewer is fed information through the reactions of the subjects to their surroundings, and also through observational clips of them enacting their contrived daily lives. These recreations are then supplemented by the presenter Michael Mosley’s narration of the historical facts that have informed the recreation. This hybrid style is employed by documentaries such as The Victorian Slum in an attempt to counteract any audience doubts about the authenticity of the narrative being presented to them. Without the support of this primary evidence the subjects reactions to their experiences could not be taken as evidence of what actual Victorian slum dwellers would have experienced, as their opinions are coloured by their existence in the modern world. Through their engagement with this imagined representation of the past, the subjects in the ‘slum’ create a performance of Victorian life for the audience that is presented to the

viewer as authentic historical experience. The factuality of the program is held together by reference to primary source material and the occasional appearance by historians who insert specialized knowledge in order to divert the viewer away from their ‘desire for the imaginary.’



Recreation juxtaposed alongside primary evidence.

In contrast to this multitude of narrators, in The Victorians there is but one voice to which we are supposed to listen. Jeremy Paxman is presented to the viewer at the outset as the narrator. His is the first voice we hear and the first human image we see.

His opening monologue is authoritative and decisive and he claims the program’s argument as his own. In the third minute of the first episode, Paxman (speaking directly to camera) claims that,

Victorian ‘paintings aren’t fashionable, and they don’t generally change hands for millions of pounds in auction rooms, but to me, they’re a goldmine. They show us like nothing else what it was like to live in those incredible times. (italics mine)

His assertion early on that he sees something in the nineteenth century that others do not is a tactic to establish the uniqueness of his authorship which subtly presents the viewer with an incentive for watching. In claiming the narrative, Paxman underlines his position as a scholar presenting a work of research, a representation which furthers the audience’s trust in what they are being told, and enhances the authority of Paxman’s voice.


Claiming the Narrative: Paxman presents his argument.

It would be impossible to compare two productions of this sort without considering the subliminal ethical messages that they involve. Certainly in television, the overtly ethical/ideological voice of the author is imperative to the watch-ability of the product created. After all, the goal of television is to reach a mass audience, and individuality is no bad thing when one is seeking to entertain. In The Victorians, Paxman’s intonation and phraseology take full advantage of the aurality of the medium to imbibe his statements of historical fact with opinions that could not be so easily conveyed in a written sentence. For example, in the third episode, Having It All, Paxman’s voice-over explains a Victorian painting by Abraham Solomon: ‘This picture caused outrage with its frank portrait of a young couple talking to each other in an altogether much too familiar fashion. How shocking!’vii The mocking tone with which this statement is pronounced is enhanced when juxtaposed over an image of the painting in question, which to a modern audience is not shocking at all. In this way, Paxman’s uses rhetorical skill to layer a modern ideology over a Victorian moral sensibility. Presenting to the audience a view of the Victorian age that has been evaluated by a contemporary outlook on the world and in some ways encourages the viewer to see the Victorian’s as antiquated and very different from ourselves.

Abraham Solomon

To shock or not to shock? This painting challenged Victorian notions of morality.

The Victorian Slum has an even more overtly ethical/political voice. This is due to the specificity of the subject matter. Whereas The Victorians aims to give an overview of an era, The Victorian Slum focuses on the life of the poverty-stricken dwellers of East London, fitting it into the ‘history from below’ category of historiography, which aims to give a voice to those who are not adequately represented in surviving primary source material. The introductory voice-over to each episode of The Slum proclaims this ethos; Michael Mosley introduces the show by stating:

One hundred and fifty years ago, Victorian Britain became the world’s first industrial superpower. And as the country thrived, London, the beating heart of Empire, became the world’s richest city. But just as it is now, Victorian London was a city divided by extremes of wealth and want. This is the story of one poor community living in London’s East End.

In setting up the period as a time of wealth and affluence, and then immediately stating that this is not what we are about to see, the show is introduced as a lost history. The viewer is made aware that they are about to see an unfamiliar view of the Victorian period. This statement reveals the ethical voice of the production company, which has purposely sought to make a historical television series about a group whose story has been previously neglected. This ethos is reinforced throughout the program as we watch the subjects endure hardships that we in the modern day are unused to, and their emotional response to their experience creates empathy in the audience that further adds to the ‘horror’ of their perception of the situation on display.

Grandfather Graham

Grandfather Graham undertakes hard manual labour to support his family in the slum.

The two documentaries examined here have illustrated different techniques of representation in historical television. The first can be considered the safe option. Mimicking, as it does, the already tried and tested method of historical analysis in written historiography, the narrative style of The Victorians is assured to be successful in achieving its aim of educating the viewer about the nineteenth century while also maintaining its authenticity as a piece of historical representation. It presents the viewer with a largely unbiased picture of the age by giving a broad overview of different aspects of Victorian life. However, it fails to generate the same empathy as The Victorian Slum.

While in some respects The Victorian Slum draws the viewer closer to the subject matter, it presents us with a number of difficulties in considering its effectiveness as a true representation of Victorian life. Certainly it is watchable and its presentation of history is likely to engage with a wider audience, in part due to its ‘reality-esque’ style, and in its employment of ‘ordinary’ people as subjects with whom an audience at home can identify. The difficulty of this kind of narrative structure lies, ironically, in its universal comprehensibility. A documentary in this style cannot consist solely of its reconstructed elements, as they could mistakenly be taken for historical truth, which, in essence, they are not. Therefore, The Victorian Slum relies heavily on the occasional dip into the traditional style, in order to maintain its authenticity as a work of non-fiction, whose truth-value can be trusted by the audience. Therefore, it must be concluded that while the recreation style is arguably more evocative and memorable, it treads a fine line between historical fact and fiction and programs like The Victorian Slum can only be considered a true representation of the era if they employ some elements of a more traditional non-fiction narrative.


Robert A. Rosenstone, Visions of the Past: The Challenge of Film to Our Idea of History (London: Harvard University Press, 1995), 20

The Victorian Slum, The 1860s (BBC2, 2016) min 10:19,

Hayden White, The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation (London: John Hopkins University Press, 1987), 4

The Victorian Slum, The 1860s (BBC2, 2016) min 51:27,

The Victorians, Painting the Town (BBC4, 2009)

The Victorians, Painting the Town (BBC4, 2009) min 3:05,

The Victorians, Having It All (BBC4, 2009),

The Victorians, Having It All (BBC4, 2009) min 12:41,

The Victorian Slum, The 1860s (BBC2, 2016) accessed online 1 February, 2017,

The Victorian Slum, The 1860s (BBC2, 2016) min 34:20, accessed online 1 February, 2017,

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