Films more influential than school in inspiring interest in history – research

Film and television are more influential in inspiring interest in history than education, new research has found.

Visiting a historical site can also be instrumental in igniting interest in a particular historical era, according to the research from English Heritage.

Film, television and theatre was found to the be the most significant factor in driving curiosity about a particular era, with more than half (52%) of respondents naming it top, while education came second with 45% and a visit to a site came third (38%).

Almost seven in 10 (68%) respondents could identify a favourite historical era, with the World Wars named as the most popular (15%), followed by the Roman and Victorian eras (both 10%), with the Tudors coming in fourth place (9%).

Recent popular war films include Sir Sam Mendes’ Bafta-winning epic 1917, Sir Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk and Taika Waititi’s Oscar-winning Jojo Rabbit.

Sam Mendes filming 1917
Director Sam Mendes with actor George Mackay on the set of 1917 (Andrew Milligan/PA)

Other classics include Saving Private Ryan, starring Tom Hanks; The Great Escape, starring Steve McQueen and The Thin Red Line, starring Sean Penn.

On Monday it was announced British director Sir Steve McQueen’s new Second World War film Blitz will open the BFI London Film Festival later this year.

However, the huge success of the Netflix period romance Bridgerton has failed to ignite interest in the Georgian or Regency era, with just 3% of respondents listing it as a favourite time period.

Historian and screenwriter Alex von Tunzelmann said: “Recently there has been a lot of anxiety about the portrayal of history on film and TV, with fears that audiences will be tricked into believing fiction.

“What we can see from this fascinating survey, though, is that film and TV shows drive genuine interest in history and heritage.

“Many of those people who love British period dramas like Bridgerton, Peaky Blinders, The Crown or Call The Midwife will be inspired to visit some of the wonderful sites English Heritage have around the country, where they’ll be able to immerse themselves in the past and learn much more about what really happened.

Bridgerton season three
Bridgerton has proved to a popular period drama (Liam Daniel/Netflix)

“As a historian, I’m thrilled to see every generation rediscover and re-engage with history in its own way.”

Matt Thompson, curatorial director of English Heritage added: “We can see from this research just how much Brits love the past!

“The vast majority of people we spoke to knew exactly what their favourite era was.

“While people particularly plumped for the Romans, and Victorians, the 20th century was the go-to period for over a quarter in our poll.

“And what motivates those choices for most people is a film, a school trip or a visit to an historic site, underlining just how important great storytelling is.

“As a charity which offers great backdrops for films and TV, free school trips for everyone and over 400 sites to experience history where it happened, what’s clear to see is how just one visit can spark a love that can last a lifetime!”

:: YouGov surveyed 2056 adults online between June 19 and 20 2024.