Saturday, November 20, 2010

The best TV talking head ever?

The American Civil War - a film by Ken Burns is a masterclass in historical documentary making. It shows that a good script, extraordinary photographs and well chosen sound effects can easily ace corny dramatic reconstructions of officers writing their diaries and looking pensively out of the window.

But above all it has wonderful voices: Morgan Freeman as Frederick Douglass, Garrison Keillor as Walt Whitman and Sam Waterston as Abraham Lincoln. Providing the context, on camera, is Shelby Foote, probably America's best-known Civil War historian. His contributions must have delighted the producers because they are perfectly measured in length, packed with the ideal balance of dry fact and poignant anecdote and delivered, from beneath sad eyes, in a voice that sounds like it comes from the same time as the melancholy events it describes.

He died five years ago. A fan made this for remembrance.


  1. You should change your format to have a like button or something. As I just wanted to agree. Not sure why UK history programmes don't use this format more (aside from the lack of box brownies at the Battle of Naseby). The contrast between the dreadful colourised "WWII Armageddon" on Ch 4 and the likes of this or World at War is very stark.

  2. Ken Burns never fails to deliver the goods.

  3. Apart from when he does Jazz.....

  4. Shelby Foote was equally good in Ken Burns' fine Baseball documentary, which also avoided the corny reconstructions of recent British series.

  5. David, if you're looking for more of where that came from, you can do worse than pick up Foote's 'Civil War: A Narrative'. It's not for the faint-hearted, at three volumes and over 3000 pages, but every one of those pages has that voice flowing through them.

    It's the kind of book you find yourself with the itch to read again every five years or so.

  6. Is this the same Ken Burns of the incredibly irritating 'Ken Burns effect' in Apple Software: the default function in iPhoto that sacrifices composition for the sake of that old trick to keep the audience awake, perpetual zoom/camera movement? If not, as you were. If so, I apologise. I seem to have an agenda...

  7. Anonymous10:13 pm

    Yes it is his effect. He used it with the voice-overs panning across old images.

    I have good memories of these programmes being on in the background. My mother must have been watching them.