Secrets d’Histoire, a Recipe for Success

Two episodes from the twelfth season of French television show Secrets d’Histoire will be shown for the first time on TV5MONDE in December. Following on from Christopher Columbus, J. P. Morgan, Andrew Carnegie, and Lafayette, viewers can discover the mysterious lives of Egyptian queen Nefertiti and Jesus of Nazareth.

Presented by Stéphane Bern, the series paints a picture of historical figures and their eras using archive footage, reconstructions, and interviews filmed in the exceptional places that have made history. A winning formula that has drawn an international audience.

France-Amérique: How do you raise public awareness of history and the lives of people from ancient times or the dawn of our era (A.D.)?

Stéphane Bern: For a long time, history was taught through important dates, wars, and the progress of ideas. I try to explain history via the people who made it, and with whom we can all identify. You have to delve into the intimate details of their lives as if you knew them personally. I wanted history to be human, real, in flesh and blood, and to get the public’s attention with these people’s extraordinary stories. I am not a historian but rather a storyteller, which perhaps explains the show’s success. My role is to let the specialists do the talking. I am not trying to simplify history, I am trying to make it more popular and accessible to everyone all over the world. Through historical figures we can paint a picture of a period and its customs and values.

Your show has been consistently successful for more than ten years. What is the secret?

The ingredients for a good story have been around forever: love, power, and money. Give the people what they want! You have to approach things from more of a “celebrity” angle to appeal to wider audiences and to young people in particular. We also recount events from the sites on which they happened, especially when the destinations are exotic or exciting. I take viewers to extraordinary places they may not have visited otherwise. As it happens, the heritage sites we have featured in Secrets d’Histoire have had a 30% increase in visitor numbers. Last but not least, we try to be as authentic as possible. We have stopped using cinematic images that may confuse viewers or be anachronistic. Instead we rely on silent reconstructions to better embody the historical figures and back up the historians’ accounts.


Stéphane Bern à Jérusalem. © Laurent Menec/SEP

You have made an episode about the Egyptian queen Nefertiti. What do we learn about an era through such a figure?

Each episode looks at different societal themes such as medicine, aesthetics, and gastronomy. Nefertiti, whose name means “the beauty has come” is one of the most fascinating female figures of ancient times. In her episode, she is used to narrate the history of aesthetics. Around 1300 B.C., she was already a political leader alongside her husband Amenhotep IV. Together they helped their society evolve by creating a new religion in a first attempt at monotheism that would go on to change the world. Her life proves that, at the time, women could be equal to men. Through her story, viewers learn about the development of Egypt, religion, the role of women, and the cult of beauty.

One episode looks back over the life of Jesus for the second time in the show’s history. What inspired this decision?

We decided to update our first episode on Jesus following new archeological digs in Reims, Saint-Denis, and Jerusalem, focused on his tomb and his parents’ home in Galilee. Science has also made major progress. DNA and carbon testing now enable us to date objects more precisely, which means we have to review and update our historical theories. The challenge is to avoid presenting a catalogue of theological theories. We are looking to portray a historical profile of Jesus of Nazareth, staying as close as possible to facts and descriptions from historians and putting them up against faith-based accounts. For example, viewers will discover that while we may celebrate the symbolic birth of Jesus during the night of December 24, he was most likely born in the spring.

How do you avoid shortcuts and historical errors?

We are more criticized for being overly exhaustive than for taking too many shortcuts. The show aims to be thorough in substance and educational in form. The expert historians offer highly developed points of view, and we let them talk without editing their contributions. And we focus on renowned figures to increase audience numbers. People are more interested in Louis XIV than Clemenceau, and Jesus attracts more viewers than Monet.

=> The episode
Néfertiti, mystérieuse reine d’Egypte will be broadcast on TV5MONDE on Monday, December 10 at 8:30 pm EST, and Un homme nommé Jésus on Monday, December 24 at 8:30 pm EST.

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